Entering August, no one expected Alabama freshman Jalen Hurts or Dallas Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott to play significant roles in their teams’ seasons. Both were supposed to sit on the bench and learn from more experienced teammates.
Maybe they eventually would become the starter down the road; maybe they wouldn’t. Either way, there wasn’t much pressure on either the 4-star prospect or the fourth-round draft pick.
Then, chaos. Prescott was forced onto the field after Tony Romo and Kellen Moore suffered serious preseason injuries. Hurts moved past Cooper Bateman on the depth chart and then stole the starting job from Blake Barnett midway through an opening-week win against USC.
By the end of October, the young players had thrown themselves into the NFL MVP and Heisman Trophy conversations, respectively.
Prescott and the Cowboys won 13 games to earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Hurts and the Crimson Tide won 13 games to earn the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff. Within a span of six days, both seasons ended in heartbreaking fashion against superstar quarterbacks — Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson — who led game-winning drives while Prescott and Hurts watched, helpless.
2016 will be a large part of both players’ legacies. But which quarterback’s accomplishments were more impressive?
Let’s break it down:
The case for Jalen Hurts
There never has been a better season from a true-freshman quarterback. Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and UCLA’s Drew Rosen put up comparable numbers, but without nearly as much at stake. Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway won a national title but only produced 27.5 percent of the Sooners’ total offense (Hurts produced 54.4 percent). No true freshman ever has come close to Hurts’ 35 total touchdowns.
It was a rare year, with Hurts rightfully earning some Heisman talk around midseason. He’s arguably the best quarterback Nick Saban has ever coached (depending on how you feel about AJ McCarron, Greg McElroy and these other guys) and figures to destroy the ‘Bama record book by the time he’s done in Tuscaloosa.
He put up 447 total yards and 5 touchdowns against Mississippi State and crossed the 100-yard mark on the ground in three other contests. He averaged 14.9 yards per pass attempt while pouring in 4 total touchdowns at Arkansas. He gashed LSU for a game-winning score and put the Crimson Tide ahead of Clemson late in the biggest game of the season.
And the young star — he turned 18 in August — accomplished all of that a year before most players his age will put on a college uniform for the first time.
The case against Jalen Hurts
Hurts would not have accomplished nearly as much without the help of Alabama’s 5-star running backs, All-SEC offensive linemen and one of the country’s best receiving corps (not to mention a defense that seemed to score every week). He also became a — sometimes ugly — liability in the passing game as the season progressed.
Hurts’ efficiency in the national title loss (13 of 31 for 131 yards) was horrible and served as fitting punctuation for a trend that began vs. Tennessee in mid-October. His final CFP line: a 44.4 completion percentage and 4.2 yards per pass attempt. And passing wasn’t the only issue. Before his fourth-quarter touchdown rush vs. Clemson, Hurts had only 88 yards on 28 carries in the two postseason games.
As electric as he was for most of the regular season, Hurts couldn’t find his rhythm when it mattered most, and the Tide’s disappointing offensive production in the national title game cost Alabama its 17th championship.
The case for Dak Prescott
In less than two months, Prescott went from holding a clipboard to outdueling Rodgers at Lambeau Field. He eventually led the Cowboys to 11 consecutive wins and avoided being intercepted in the streak’s final five contests.
Prescott did most of it as a traditional pocket passer, too; in a 35-30 win in November at Pittsburgh, he completed 22 of 32 passes for 319 yards and 2 touchdowns without registering a single rush. The following week, he torched Baltimore (27 of 36 for 301 yards and 3 touchdowns) while running the ball 4 times.
Overall, he found the end zone 6 times on the ground, but most of his brilliance came through the air, where he somehow averaged 8 yards per attempt while tossing 5 interceptions on 497 throws (playoffs included).
Prescott’s postseason performance against Rodgers and Green Bay (24 of 38 for 302 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 pick) was proof that he will tear apart defenses for many seasons to come.
The case against Dak Prescott
Unlike Hurts’ accomplishments, we’ve seen this before. Prescott’s season was excellent, but it was arguably less impressive than Carolina’s Cam Newton (2011), Washington’s Robert Griffin III (2012) and Seattle’s Russell Wilson (2012).
Like Prescott, the latter two also made the playoffs, and Wilson put up 445 total yards and 3 touchdowns in a 2-point loss at Atlanta in the divisional round. One could argue that Prescott is simply part of a recent trend of green quarterbacks who excel early, and cite Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton and the top two picks last season — Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota — as examples.
All the names listed above had less talent to work with, too. Prescott got plenty of help from MVP candidate running back Ezekiel Elliott — a fellow rookie — his world-class offensive line and Pro Bowl receiver Dez Bryant, among others. Dallas’ rookie passer performed admirably, but he did not lead the star-studded Cowboys to a 13-3 record by himself.
This decision comes down to a simple factor: consistency. As great as Hurts was his first season, he tailed off dramatically and is not a shoo-in to keep his job throughout 2017 if he continues to struggle (especially with a certain Hawaiian sensation headed to Tuscaloosa).
Prescott hit the rookie wall for one game: a loss to the Giants in which he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and tossed a pair of interceptions. The following week, he completed an insane 32 of 36 throws against the Buccaneers and followed that with a near-perfect day against Detroit: 15 of 20 for 212 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Given all the similarities mentioned in the introduction, both quarterbacks deserve praise for coming out of nowhere and leading their teams to elite status.
But Prescott deserves a little more love for what he accomplished in 2016.