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Cowboys lesson learned: The reports of Dak’s decline were greatly exaggerated

He may have struggled for a few games, but Dak Prescott looked very good in the win over the Giants.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In November, the Dallas Cowboys endured a three-game stretch of staggering ineptitude. There were many things going on, including the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, injuries to players like Tyron Smith and Sean Lee, and what seemed like an across the board struggle by all the players on the roster. But of all the issues that surfaced before Dallas strung together back-to-back wins against a couple of division rivals, the one that sent a real chill down the spines of their fans was the fear that Dak Prescott had lost his confidence and ability to operate the offense.

For good reason, too. With the emergence of Prescott during his rookie season, the Cowboys committed to him as the franchise quarterback for both now and the future. If he had mysteriously lost his skills and talent, the team was pretty much stuck, and would be forced to dive into the search for another QB that they were trying to avoid.

But the past two games should reassure everyone, particularly the 30-10 victory in New York. (Well, New Jersey, technically, but given all the games the Cowboys have played in Irving and Arlington over the years, we really shouldn’t be too picky about such things.) Prescott had a career day, racking up 332 yards on 20 of 30 passing, with three touchdowns and a 137.1 passer rating. His numbers should have been higher, as Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and others had obvious drops during the game. Despite that, Prescott not only played well the entire game, he actually got better as things progressed.

Despite the absence of Elliott in the next to last game of his suspension, Prescott was able to run the offense that has been designed for him: Run-first, control the ball and the clock, and don’t try to do too much with your arm, particularly when it puts the ball at risk. That is just what he had against the Giants. Dallas still managed 122 yards rushing, which kept the NY defense honest, and most of the passing yards came on long runs after the catch.

That last fact will still cause some consternation among many observers. Prescott’s longest pass in the air against the Giants was the 20-yard TD throw to Jason Witten. The three longer passes on the day all included 40+ yards after the catch - an element that had also been lacking during that three-game slump. But just like Prescott is asked to do certain things in the offense, his receivers are, as well. Taking a short throw and turning it into a big play is part of their job description. That is just what Bryant, Beasley, and Rod Smith (doing a very credible Zeke imitation) did on their long pass plays. Those three catch-and-runs accounted for 185 of the 332 total yards through the air - or well more than half.

But here’s something that is largely overlooked by many: This is the way almost all NFL passing offenses are supposed to work. Go back and look at almost any NFL game, and most of the long pass plays don’t travel more than 10 or 15 yards through the air, if that much. Highlights tend to focus on scoring plays, so we actually are exposed to a disproportionate number of long throws into the end zone. But the real damage is done by receivers who get the ball just a few yards past the line of scrimmage, and then evade and outrace the defenders to turn it into a long gain.

What is also informative about the long plays in the game were the down and distance involved. The Bryant 50-yard TD to tie the game late in the first half came on second and six, which means that the Cowboys were on schedule (keeping the down and distance reasonable). And the pass was completed just beyond the mark to make, so the drive would have extended even if Bryant had not broken free.

Beasley’s 54-yard play, which set up the touchdown to put Dallas in the lead for good, was on third and two, again on schedule, and again completed past the sticks. And Rod Smith’s 81-yard back breaker was on third and three, and also would have kept the drive alive even if he had been stopped as soon as he caught the ball.

Those are great examples of how important managing down and distance is for the Cowboys, and most teams. If you don’t have to make throws that go twenty or more yards in the air, you don’t want to have to try. In general, the longer the pass, the bigger the chance of it not being caught. Or even worse, intercepted. What the offense wants to do most of the time is just what we saw: Make short throws that keep those chains moving, and if you keep at it, some of them will break away for big gains.

That is what Prescott did so well last year. It is what he seemed to lose for those really bad games. And, at least since about the end of the first quarter against Washington, it appears that it is back.

It goes a lot deeper than stats, too. The announcers were frankly gushing about how Prescott saw the opportunity to connect with Smith on his long TD, and exploited it before the Giants could correct their defense. And he continues to make plays with his legs and size. There was one play in the third quarter, before the offensive explosion that would win the game, when he literally had a defender wrapped around him, but he managed to break loose and get the ball on a short pass to Alfred Morris, who managed to get a first down.

If Prescott was suffering from a loss of confidence, his performance in New York should have that quite adequately shored up. He will need to keep playing well as the Cowboys try to finish the season on a five-game winning streak.

Will that be enough to make the playoffs? Given the results around the league, it is still a long-shot. But how Prescott plays means so much more than what happens this year. He is hopefully going to be the quarterback of this team for a decade or more. If the front office can keep a good roster around him, and the coaches can do well (neither are a given, of course), there will be more chances to make a run for Dallas. The more games Prescott can put on the field like he has the past seven quarters, the better the chances are the Cowboys will be able to put it all together - hopefully, soon.

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