Cowboys’ Dak Prescott is proof that problems exist in INT tracking

While Prescott leads the league with 14 picks thrown, the statistic lacks critical context. Several weren’t on turnover-worthy plays.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) throws an interception pass during overtime of...

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) throws an interception pass during overtime of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022, in Jacksonville, Fla.(Phelan M. Ebenhack / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

FRISCO — Peyton Hendershot spoke without a space bar between his words and sentences, the Cowboys rookie rattling off his recollection of an interception that occurred last week against the Tennessee Titans. How it happened. How he composed himself afterward. How he has since put it behind him.

All along, there was one constant.

The tight end claimed ownership.

“That is nothing but me [not] watching the ball all the way to my hands and tucking the ball,” Hendershot said. “I think another thing was me just trying to get up the field and make a play on the ball.”

Hendershot accepted responsibility for his drop that led to a pick, just as wide receiver Noah Brown did following a similar and more consequential turnover two games earlier in an overtime loss. But of course, they cannot be actually responsible.

That is not how interceptions work.

Statistically, all interceptions are tied to one player alone, and that is the quarterback. Dak Prescott has thrown a career-high and league-high 14 this season in 11 games played. While several were clearly his fault, this is arguably less a season in which Prescott has an interception problem and more a year that highlights the problem with how interceptions are tracked.

The statistic can lack critical context.

Like when a receiver did not run his route as designed. Or when an offensive lineman allowed a quick pressure that resulted in a quarterback’s arm being hit, impacting his accuracy. Or when an intended receiver dropped a pass and a defender plucked the ball from the air.

These can happen to quarterbacks. All have happened to Prescott in 2022.

While a quarterback’s interception total ignores such variables, the statistic is widely equivocated with his ball security. The decades-old application of raw interception totals can lazily overlook a play’s mechanism.

“It’s funny you say it’s kind of a lazy stat,” quarterback Cooper Rush said. “When you think about it, you have all these deep analytics, all these different things. And it’s, ‘Oh, their team got it? It’s on him.’ That’s part of playing quarterback. We always joke around that someday there will be an unearned interception just like an unearned run in baseball. Pitchers get breaks that way.

“But yeah, they all happen different ways, whether it’s tipped balls or bad throws or bad decisions or dropped balls. Sometimes, the DB does make a play. They’ve kind of all happened. It’s one of those years, I guess. But the production we’re having is overcoming them, and our defense is overcoming them. That just shows how good we can be.”

This is the Dark Age still for how interceptions are recorded.

One day, perhaps, interceptions can be split into three categories on a quarterback’s stat page: the indiscriminate interception total that exists today, the earned interceptions in which the quarterback carried a reasonable amount of responsibility for an interception that occurred, and the number of passes that should have been intercepted but weren’t because of a defender drop.

As responsibility goes in the second column, quarterbacks would receive a mulligan for interceptions in certain game situations. A Hail Mary ball into end-zone traffic with 3 seconds left is not a bad decision; it is a player giving his team a chance.

Alas, that day is not today. Interceptions are a quarterback-only statistic.

“It goes in their stat column, which is crazy,” wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said. “Sometimes you wish you could put it on yours when you make a mistake.”

Pro Football Focus is a highly ambitious football analytics organization that grades every player involved on every down throughout the NFL season. PFF does more than grades, though, building advanced data and game-film design to support all 32 NFL clubs.

If anyone is to steer change here, it could be the Cincinnati-based company.

George Chahrouri, GM consumer at PFF, agreed that interceptions are antiquated.

“That’s kind of the reason that PFF exists, almost,” Chahrouri said in a phone interview Thursday. “One of the examples that we use whenever we’re introducing what we do to people is that the box score lies to you. …When people use touchdown-to-interception ratio, I laugh at them because it’s such a ridiculous thing in 2023 to use to talk about how well a quarterback has actually played.

“I think Dak is a good example of this. I wouldn’t say he is having his best season necessarily, but if you look at the turnover-worthy plays that he has accounted for, it puts him nowhere near the league lead in terms of where he would stand.”

Prescott has 14 interceptions, tied with Derek Carr and Kirk Cousins for most in the NFL.

According to PFF, only seven of Prescott’s occurred on turnover-worthy plays. Half of them weren’t in a league where PFF says 66% of interceptions thrown in 2022, including Prescott’s, have been turnover-worthy. To be clear, that leaves several poor decisions Prescott has made that are fair game for criticism. He is not infallible. In the same breath, if an honest conversation is to be had, he needed 11 games to become tied with Joe Burrow and Davis Mills for the NFL lead in interceptions on passes deemed not turnover worthy. Burrow and Mills have 207 and and 84 more attempts than him, respectively.

Prescott has been unlucky.

Bad luck can change.

“When it turns,” Prescott said, “trouble’s to come.”

Twitter: @GehlkenNFL


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