It is really unnerving for Dallas Cowboys fans. After an incredibly impressive start to his NFL career, Dak Prescott has seemingly fallen off a cliff. In the first 25 games of his career, he only had a few really bad games, including the 42-17 loss to the Denver Broncos in the second game of this season. But in the last three games, he has looked lost and skittish. His numbers are abysmal. His passer rating has plunged, with consecutive numbers of 82.1 against the Atlanta Falcons, a career low of 30.4 against the Philadelphia Eagles. and only 60.6 in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Los Angeles Chargers. He has failed to reach 180 yards passing in any game during that span, thrown no touchdowns, been intercepted five times, and suffered 14 sacks in addition to a ton of hits. The questions are now being asked: Is he broken? Was he really not as good as it seemed he was up until this recent stretch of ineptitude? Can he recover?
The answers to those questions is crucial for the future of the Cowboys. When they made the decision to retain Prescott in the starting job over Tony Romo once the latter was healthy, they committed to Prescott as the quarterback for the next decade or more. Stumbling into a franchise QB at the end of the fourth round of the 2016 draft was seen as a major coup for Dallas. But now the concern is that it may have been fool’s gold, and the star of the future may be flaming out after less than two seasons.
Not everyone is concerned that this is something he cannot come back from. One of the points raised is that he is just in his second year, as the quarterback of the most scrutinized team in the NFL. The expectations are always far too high for the QB of the Cowboys. Prescott still has a lot to learn about playing the position, and he is now suffering from that lack of experience. Being in the job with only 28 games under his belt may have finally caught up to him.
And this season has been a hellish one for Dallas. The loss of Ezekiel Elliott to suspension was a clear start to the issues, and it is evident that the staff failed to come up with a viable plan to survive in his absence. The Cowboys’ entire offensive scheme is dependent on a dominant running game, and Alfred Morris and Rod Smith are just not able to provide that. Opponents are no longer forced to account for the potential of a breakaway play every time the ball is handed off. Instead they can focus on stopping the pass without worrying about the ground attack beating them. On obvious passing downs they are able to just pin their ears back and come at Prescott. He has not handled that well, but very few quarterbacks could do much when they have defenders smashing into them play after play.
Things were compounded by the loss of Tyron Smith. Now, though Smith came back for the Chargers game, Zack Martin incurred a head injury, and his status for the upcoming Washington game is uncertain. Add in that La’el Collins is not playing consistently well, and neither Chaz Green nor Jonathan Cooper has been the player at left guard that Ron Leary was, and the once dominant Dallas offensive line has become rather pedestrian, and at times rather less than that. The falloff at left guard has even had a domino effect on center Travis Frederick, who seems to get beaten more than we are used to. He may be trying to do too much to help out the man to his left, and if the Cowboys have to go with Joe Looney in place of Martin, things could just get worse in the middle.
The failure to have an even remotely serviceable plan to get through the Elliott suspension that they knew all along was coming, in light of the hard-nosed approach taken by Roger Goodell, is also to blame. Prescott has not performed well under duress, admittedly, but it is puzzling to see the way the offensive game plan has floundered. This is the same staff that got so much out of Prescott in his rookie year. They clearly designed the entire scheme to revolve around Elliott, but the abject failure to come up with anything that works without him is alarming.
At this point, the entire Dallas team looks like it is shaken to the core. The myriad off-field issues and controversies, largely centered around Jerry Jones and his anger with Goodell over a perceived breach of trust, have not helped at all. As the leader of the offense, and to a large degree the entire team, changing that falls on Prescott. First, he has to regain his own confidence and start playing more like the QB we saw in the first season and a half with the Cowboys. That is not going to be easy, but in the past, Prescott has shown an admirable amount of mental toughness, both in his football career and his tragedy-marred personal life (his mother passed away while he was in college).
Now he has to call on that resilience and help his team more. His teammates and coaches have to help, but he is still going to have to get a lot done himself. And even if he doesn’t before the end of the season, he will have the offseason and camp in 2018 to work on fixing his game.
If he fails, Dallas could be in for a long few years. But it is too early to write him off. However, there is no doubt that getting the ship righted in the next game or two would go a long way towards making us all feel better.