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Dak Prescott has to play great, not good, in order for the Cowboys to make a deep playoff run

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It’s all on the shoulders of the Cowboys young franchise quarterback.

Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The 2014 season was a great year. The Dallas Cowboys made the playoffs after missing post-season action the previous four seasons. It was the first time that we were finally seeing changes from the Jason Garrett era finally translate into playoff success. And these four guys had a lot to do with it.

Tony Romo never played in as many games as Troy Aikman or Danny White, but it didn’t stop him from being the Cowboys’ all time leader in passing yards (34,183) and touchdown passes (248, and it’s not even close). Despite being labeled as mistake-prone, he’s thrown interceptions at a lower rate than any quarterback in Cowboys history who has played in at least 50 games.

Then there is Jason Witten, who is the teams all time leader in receptions (1,152) and receiving yards (12,448). His catch total ranks fourth all time in NFL history.

Despite Cowboys legends like Michael Irvin and Drew Pearson, it is Dez Bryant who is the franchise’s all time leader in touchdown catches (73).

And let’s not forget DeMarco Murray, who eclipsed Emmitt Smith in 2014 to become the team’s single-season rushing leader with 1,845 yards.

But just as we got a moment to appreciate their greatness, they’re gone. All of them. Romo, Witten, and Murray have all retired as if they were dominoes all lined up next to each other. And Bryant was released this offseason.

In the blink of an eye, it’s a new era in Big D.

With the team’s biggest stars from 2014 gone forever, what does this mean for the Cowboys going forward? Can the current team find success, and if so - what is it going to take? Recently, I tweeted a question to David Helman to the Mothership’s Ask The Boys segment:

And here is Helman’s reply:

I think there’s only one great answer for it. The answer would be - Dak Prescott.

If the Cowboys do what you say and make a run through the East and a deep playoff run, it’s because Dak Prescott played like a great quarterback. Not just good, but great. We saw him do it in 2016. He made the Pro Bowl. I think he needs to build even on that. And honestly, I think he’s capable of doing it, especially with this offensive line and this running game. But if the Cowboys are going to exceed expectations, we’re talking 11, 12, 13, 14 wins...if they’re going to do that, he’s got to play great. Not just good, not just pretty good, great. And I think that would be the main component, I think it’s the main story line for this entire season to be 100% honest with you.”

Not many would argue that Prescott is the single most influential component in the success of the Cowboys. After all, he’s the quarterback. But for Prescott to be great, what needs to happen?

Great protection

With three All-Pro offensive linemen on the team, nobody wants to hear a sob story about the unit being in disarray last season. But when you look closely, there were lot of moving parts that were out of whack. La’el Collins started his first year at right tackle. The left guard position was filled by Chaz Green at first, and then Jonathan Cooper a few games into the season. And Tyron Smith got hurt, causing Green to be called on again to help out and again - he could not.

Despite some struggles, the Cowboys were still one of the top rushing teams in the league. They finished second in the league in rushing with an average of 136 yards per game. While the running game was fine, the passing game was not. Prescott’s numbers dropped as he had fewer completions, fewer yards, fewer touchdowns... basically, fewer everything. Well, except interceptions which more than tripled, going from four to 13. The once poised and accurate Prescott was now running for his life as the offense spun it’s wheels.

The Cowboys took a great step in rectifying the depth along the offensive line. They shored up the swing tackle position by investing in free agent Cameron Fleming. They had the talented Connor Williams fall into their lap in the second round of the draft. Just like that, the Cowboys offensive line looks stronger than it’s been in years. With time on his side, Prescott should be afforded the luxury of sitting back in the pocket and going through his progressions.

A hungry Zeke

Having a strong offensive line is a quarterback’s best friend, but give him an elite running back and you might as well let him eat his cake too. Last year was a very difficult season for Ezekiel Elliott. After taking down the rushing crown his rookie season, he entered each week last year with the uncertainty of whether or not he was even going to play. With suspensions, appeals, and all kinds of legal jargon that gave everyone a headache - Elliott faced week-by-week decisions of whether he could play on Sunday. It was mentally exhausting for him. Eventually, a hard decision was made and Elliott started serving his suspension, missing six of the team’s final eight games.

All that is behind him now. Elliott is good to go and the team will rely heavily on him this upcoming season. With an expected 20+ carries a game and a full slate of action on the horizon, Zeke could be in for a big season.

The success of Elliott is the gift that keeps on giving as defenses will now have to be mindful of the danger 21 brings. This will alleviate a lot of pressure from Dak. The Cowboys can keep pounding the run until they lull the defense to sleep and then Dak can hit them with a big pass play. Prescott was essentially unstoppable on play-action passes in 2016.

The right type of targets

The Cowboys lost Tyron Smith and Sean Lee at different points last season due to injury. They also completely remodeled their secondary with a bunch of inexperience youngsters. And not only that, but the team was without Zeke for six games during his suspension. Despite all that, the Cowboys still won nine games. All those reasons overshadowed another troubling element this team experienced last season - the inability to get their receivers open.

When the Cowboys released Bryant, it was genuinely a head-scratching moment for me. How could the team think they’d be better off without him? But when I took a close look at the Cowboys passing attack, it started becoming more evident. Bryant was not creating space between himself and his defenders. Defenses started playing underneath on Cole Beasley and taking their chances with Dez one-on-one. When the offense couldn’t capitalize on those opportunities, it made them question whether or not their star receiver was still a star. They ultimately ruled that he was not.

The team now has surrounded Prescott with players who are technically proficient at running routes. Free agent Allen Hurns does a great job escaping his defenders and churns out big plays when he gets in space. Rookie Michael Gallup is a physical receiver who is sharp out of his breaks, creating separation. And then there’s the speedy pass catching “running back” Tavon Austin who can be dangerous in space. We are still unclear how the receiving group is going to shape out, but there should be a lot of different options for Dak.

All these things collectively puts Prescott right in his element. Good protection, a strong running game, and a slew of viable targets for Dak to spread the ball around. Like Helman stated, we saw him do it in 2016 and with all the pieces in place - he could be at it again this season.