The Dallas Cowboys received the news late Monday night that they are most likely going to be without Ezekiel Elliott for the next six games. It’s not for sure that will happen, Elliott and the NFLPA will likely appeal and hope to get an emergency stay allowing him to continue to play. Barring that, he will be absent for the upcoming crucial six-week suspension. That will mean Dak Prescott is in for a challenge, and an opportunity, to show his resolve and skill.
It will be impossible for the Cowboys to replace Ezekiel Elliott with one person, he is simply too skilled for that to occur. The Cowboys have three backs (Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, Darren McFadden) that they will mix-and-match to give them the best combination, but it may take a game or so for that right mix to gel. Even then, it’s unlikely they can produce what Zeke would do on his own.
This is where Dak Prescott has to take up the slack. He’ll have to elevate the passing game to a higher level, and he might have to become more of a player in the Cowboys rushing attack. If he can do those two things, the Cowboys could weather the storm and remain playoff contenders.
To date, Dak is averaging just over 224 passing yards per game. For an NFL quarterback, that’s a low number (23rd overall), but the Cowboys don’t ask Dak to throw the ball much when their running game is working. He is currently 21st overall in attempts per game. That number might have to go up. The Cowboys will want to continue their ground-and-pound, ball-control offense, but without Zeke, there will be times and games when that isn’t working. Even with the better play of the offensive line, you can’t expect it to work like it did with Zeke.
Dak will have to show that he can carry drives with his arm on occasion. The Cowboys will still have a decent rushing attack because their offensive line is so talented and their reserve backs are quality players, but Dak is going to throw the ball more. With more throws, he still has to keep his interception rate down. That is one of the remarkable aspects of Dak’s game, his ability to not turn the ball over, he’ll need that to navigate the rough waters.
One issue facing Dak right away is the concussion of Cole Beasley. He might not be able to play this week, or for who knows how long. Beasley is a quarterback’s best friend when the running game is struggling. He’s a master of catching short-yardage passes that basically function as runs. Obviously the connection between Dak and Beasley hasn’t been as strong this year as last year, but they need to rekindle that quickly. And if Beasley can’t go, Ryan Switzer will get a chance to prove his worth. Slot receivers are a blessing for a struggling run game, Dak needs to utilize his (along with Jason Witten, of course).
The other way Dak can help himself and the team is to run the ball more. Yes, that’s not really what you want your quarterback to do, but a few more carries a game should be okay, and it will keep the defense unbalanced. They will have to start accounting for the possibility of Dak running, and that might open up some other things. Dak currently averages about 3.3 runs per game, but those runs average over 7.3 yards per attempt. Some of those are not designed runs but scrambles. The Cowboys need to allow Dak to keep the ball more on read-option plays with the running back, and they may want to slide in a quarterback draw every now and then. Anything to keep the defense honest and staying at home, opening up gaps for the running backs elsewhere.
Compared to last season, Prescott’s QBR and passer rating are down slightly. In 2016 he was at 78.8 QBR and 104.9 passer rating. This year his QBR is 75.7 and his passer rating is 96.6. His completion percentage is also down - 67.8% to 62.8%.
If Dallas is going to come out of the other side of this six-game stretch when Elliott is suspended, the key is going to be Dak Prescott elevating his game. Of course he’ll need help, but he is going to be the focal point. Some may look at it as a challenge, my best guess is that Dak will look at it as an opportunity.