What is it about Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks lately? No matter what they do on the field, there is always a ready group of naysayers to criticize and dispute their worth. Tony Romo fought this his entire career, where so many observers never got past that fumbled field goal attempt and let that color their perceptions all the way to his apparent exit from the game. And instead of that just going away, it seems to have instead been transferred to his successor Dak Prescott. Call those who voice so much skepticism about him the “Dak doubters”. They put forth the arguments that he is due a sophomore slump. When he was an unheralded rookie forced into the starting job, the theory goes, no one had any idea what they were facing. Now they have a year’s worth of video to break down, and they are going to be ready for him.
Well, the Cowboys have not exactly sat on their hands with Dak. While he has been going through the normal development NFL players have in their first real offseason with the team, Dallas has also taken some steps to reshape their offense to better suit Prescott. Last season he had to step into a team that had been built specifically to fit Tony Romo. Now, he is going to take to the field with a more Dak-friendly squad.
It is not a radical change. The basics are still in place. The team will continue to emphasize running the ball, and if they can successfully manage the replacement of Doug Free at right tackle, then everything will continue to be founded on that star-studded offensive line. But there have been three things that have come out of the offseason that specifically help Prescott.
The plan is for Ezekiel Elliott to be more involved in the passing game.
Scott Linehan is a creative and very effective offensive coordinator, but he has a couple of tendencies that work against him. One is that he hangs onto ideas that appear counterproductive. Last year, the Cowboys kept pulling Elliott on third down to insert change-of-pace running back Lance Dunbar. It changed the pace, all right. It made it easier on the defense. Elliott was observably better as a pass protector, and if you are going to throw an outlet pass to the running back, wouldn’t you want one who was the best available with the ball in his hands? It’s not like the team didn’t have clear evidence of how Elliott could handle the receiving role.
But, oddly, we didn’t see much of that in subsequent games, which is another strange thing the Cowboys do. They find something that works to perfection, and then they just stick it back in the playbook and seemingly forget about it.
However, all indications are that Elliott is going to be more heavily involved in the passing game. Jerry Jones has said so. And this is the kind of thing where Jones’ pronouncements often are a reflection of the thinking inside the Star. The fact that there is no change-of-pace back on the roster also supports the idea. There are certainly indications that Prescott is best in the shorter passing game, so getting your All Pro running back more involved makes all the sense in the world.
The Cowboys are working hard to get Rico Gathers ready to play this year.
We heard a lot last year about how Gathers was nearly unstoppable in the red zone late last season in practice when working with Romo. Now, with James Hanna and Geoff Swaim still recovering from injuries, Gathers is going to get a lot of work as the TE2. This will allow him to build that invaluable chemistry with Prescott. Along with Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Terrance Williams, he will give the Cowboys a group of deadly red zone weapons, as well as being another target for converting key third downs. His size and athleticism makes him a great option in that five to ten yard range where Prescott is most proficient, and he also has shown some real flashes of being very good once he has the ball in his hands.
Rico Gathers' highlight catch from last night. Michael Irvin: "This dude here, he looks like Zeus." pic.twitter.com/9ctC49nwZH— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 2, 2016
Dallas drafted him more weapons.
It is not insignificant that the Cowboys used their only two draft picks on offense to take receivers in Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown. Both demonstrated great ability to catch the ball in college.
Each has a very different role. Switzer was a puzzling choice to some draft analysts, since he is so similar to Cole Beasley. However, there are two ways he can be an asset. First, he is insurance for Beasley, who emerged last year as Prescott’s safety blanket receiver. Witten had that role for Romo, but while Prescott had no problem finding Witten on the field, Beasley was the real go-to guy when he had to get a completion. Switzer looks to be a great backup in the slot, and may actually be better in some areas, such as catching the ball further downfield. He also looks to be more dangerous with the ball in hands than Beasley.
The other way he can be used is by putting him on the field with Beasley. He should create a huge nightmare for defenses. And he is also a possible replacement for Lucky Whitehead in the jet sweep, as well as a return man. Those sweeps were not used extensively, but were often very effective both when run and as a decoy. Switzer may also give the team the kinds of plays that Dunbar was supposed to. We don’t know how well the Cowboys will work him into the offense, but there is a lot of potential there.
Brown is going to be in a fight for a roster spot as another traditional outside receiver, but if he fights his way onto the 53, he is just another great target for back shoulder throws and contested catches. The fact that the Cowboys took him is evidence enough of how they were trying to make Prescott’s life easier.
And beyond the personnel adjustments and acquisitions, there is the simple fact that this year the playbook is also going to be structured around Prescott’s skill set. He will have a much wider array of plays to work with at the start of the season instead of the team having to add things on as the year and his own comfort level progressed.
Other teams may have a season of video to study with Prescott, but they may notice one thing. His game expanded throughout the year. With his work ethic and proven learning ability, he is likely to be a better player this year in many ways than he was in 2016. And now, there are new targets in the mix for him. The rest of the league may be getting ready for Dak. But the Cowboys have been busy getting ready for the rest of the league as well. Doubt Dak all you want. Just know that it may be at your peril.