Outside of an interception in the red zone, Pryor seemed to have a strong preseason performance against the Dallas Cowboys completing six passes for 88 yards on 10 attempts and adding 31 yards on the ground.
While Pryor has no doubt improved his knowledge of the offense and opposing defenses, he’s still struggling with his footwork and decision-making. It’s these struggles that will limit Pryor and keep him from earning the starting job.
Pryor is a dangerous player when he can use his legs, and the Raiders would be wise to figure out how to get him involved, but he’ll continue to be inconsistent as a passer unless he can sort out his remaining issues. Entering year three of his career, it’s worth evaluating if Pryor is capable of improving his footwork and decision-making enough to be a starter in the NFL.
Some of Pryor’s supporters will undoubtedly ignore the evidence presented, but the tape doesn’t lie. There is a reason Flynn is the starter. The Raiders also have every incentive to make Pryor into a starter because his arm strength isn’t limiting like it is with Flynn, and he adds a running threat.
The lazy analysis of Pryor’s interception in the end zone against the Cowboys was that it was a bad decision because he threw across his body. This is typically true because few quarterbacks have the arm strength to throw across their body; passes don’t get to the intended target and are often intercepted. In this case, there were actually two things about the play that were far more concerning.
The first cause for concern was that Pryor could have easily run with the ball (blue arrow). A first down wasn’t guaranteed, but given his size and ability, it was certainly possible. The Raiders have been stressing to Pryor not to be afraid to use his legs, but he failed to do so on multiple occasions. The three times Pryor did use his legs were all on design runs.
Even more concerning than Pryor’s decision to throw was his decision on who to target with his pass; he targeted rookie wide receiver Brice Butler, who was being covered by two defenders. Where to throw the football is often more important than the ability to throw it, which is why a game manager like Flynn is favored over the more physically talented Pryor.
Tight end David Ausberry wasn’t covered, but it would have been nearly impossible for Pryor to loft a pass over two defenders and Butler to get it to him. Ausberry wasn’t a legitimate option for Pryor on the play unless he broke toward Pryor instead of trailing to the back of the end zone.
Pretend for a second Pryor didn’t have the great ability to run; the best decision on the play would have been to loft a high pass to the corner of the end zone for wide receiver Juron Criner. Not only was Criner open, but also, an overthrow would have only resulted in an incomplete pass and a field-goal attempt.
Notice that the defensive back closest to Criner also planted to come forward on the play, which would have given Pryor even more margin for error on his throw. The defensive back had to respect Pryor’s legs, and he failed to take advantage.
The throw was intercepted very close (see the red circle) to where Butler was when Pryor started his throwing motion. It’s possible that Pryor was reading his receiver's body language, expecting Butler to plant and come forward while the defender ran past, but he failed to recognize that rookie safety J.J. Wilcox was reading his eyes the entire time.
Pryor not only made a bad decision to throw the ball and a bad decision to target Butler, but he also stared him down. If Pryor is going to become a starter, he has to make smarter decisions and learn to manipulate safeties with his eyes.
The interception wasn’t the only throw where Pryor made a poor decision. One 2nd-and-8 from the Cowboys’ 21-yard line, Pryor bootlegged to his right off play action out of the Pistol and threw an incomplete for Butler.
Pryor almost got away with the pass, but it was broken up by the safety. Pryor locked onto Butler and threw across his body on a play similar to the interception. A better decision would have been to run the ball to pick up enough yards to make it a more manageable third down or to flip it to tight end Mychal Rivera to do the same.
If you are looking for a good reason why Pryor has been an inconsistent passer, there are a range of possible reasons. Understanding the offense and opposing defenses are usually big reasons, but by most accounts, this is where Pryor has come a long way since the end of last season.
Most young quarterbacks struggle learning the offense and reading NFL defenses somewhat. If it was that easy, plenty of talented throwers would probably be successful NFL quarterbacks, and we know that’s not the case.
The two other possible reasons for inconsistent passing: footwork and throwing mechanics. Pryor has a good throwing motion and arm, so his problem differs from a guy like Tim Tebow.
It’s Pryor’s footwork that seems to be a problem for him. In practice, Pryor’s footwork looks better than it did last year, but old habits die hard, and he still struggled in this area against the Cowboys at times. In fact, Pryor rarely was asked to set his feet and throw from the pocket against the Cowboys, which helped hide his deficiency.
On this play, Pryor was actually able to complete the pass to Andre Holmes for a first down. Some would argue that Pryor got the job done, but bad footwork is still bad footwork, and it’s likely to lead to inaccurate passes in the future.
Instead of planting and driving the throw to Holmes at the end of his drop, Pryor shuffled his back foot to his right and threw with very little weight shift. The pressure was coming in his face, but he still had enough room to step into the pass.
Pryor never fully set his feet on the throw and was totally reliant on his arm to do the work. He was able to get away with the pass because he has a good arm, and the pass didn’t travel very far.
In the future, if Pryor doesn’t learn how to move his feet in the pocket, reset and drive his throws, he’s going to have trouble consistently being accurate. Consistency has been Pryor’s problem, and while he looked good in his first preseason performance of 2013, he has yet to consistently show the footwork required for him to take the next step.
A lot of people also forget that Pryor showed flashes during the preseason last year. In four preseason games in 2012, Pryor completed 59.4 percent of his passes, averaged 8.6 yards per carry and threw an interception compared to 60 percent passing, 10.3 yards per carry and one interception against the Cowboys in 2013.
At the end of the first half, Pryor was forced to throw the ball away and was lucky he didn’t get called for intentional grounding. The Raiders had 13 seconds left in the half a timeout, which meant he had time to throw the ball into the middle of the field if no one got open in the end zone.
Pryor threw it away, which is a better decision than forcing a pass into the end zone. However, Pryor failed to climb the pocket to escape the edge rush or dump it over the line for his running back.
Had Pryor taken off up the middle, he’d have been able to pick up positive yards himself on the ground or dump the pass to his running back to set up a shorter field goal. If either the running back or Pryor could have gotten out of bounds, it’s possible the Raiders could have taken another shot at the end zone before the half.
The Raiders also had to burn a timeout just before he threw the interception because Pryor didn’t get the offense to the line of scrimmage in time. These are the types of problems that will make it very difficult for a quarterback to be successful in the NFL.
Pryor is now the ideal backup who could start a few games and have moderate success, which is a drastic improvement from where he was last year. While Pryor has come a long way since the end of last year and the Raiders are finally installing plays like the read-option that play to his strengths, he’s still not quite where he needs to be to challenge Flynn.
Pryor’s progression, thus far, means he could continue to improve, and no one should be clamoring for him to change positions. The evidence suggests Pryor still has a long way to go, but he’s finally on the right path.
At this point, an argument could be made that the Raiders would be better served with Pryor the inconsistent passer as the starter as long as he could consistently use his legs.
Unfortunately, the anticipation that defenses will be able to stop the read-option in 2013, Pryor’s poor decision-making skills and consistent play from Flynn make that argument a non-starter unless something changes—which is very possible.