Optimism is the order of the day for the Dallas Cowboys. After the team had a surprisingly good 4-1 stretch in his absence, Dak Prescott is back in practice and getting ready to lead the squad into action against the Detroit Lions. While they won four games with Cooper Rush handling the quarterback duties, no one can deny that the offense was, at best, limited. Now QB1 is ready to solve the problems and save the day.
Or is that really what will happen? Our David Howman and Tom Ryle have different views of things. (You may now show us your shocked face.)
David: The Cowboys deserve credit for finding a way to win without Dak Prescott. But let’s be very clear: They won in spite of Cooper Rush, not because of him. Rush deserves respect for keeping things afloat, but the reality is that this offense is 21st in passing DVOA, 29th in EPA per dropback, and 29th in offensive drive success rate, which measures how often a series of downs results in either a first down or touchdown.
Each of those metrics are all-time lows for the Cowboys in the Prescott era, even when you include that 2020 season. Simply put, Prescott makes this offense drastically better than they have been. The one positive for this offense is they seem to have figured out how to run the ball efficiently. Now they can pair that with a passing attack that actually threatens defenses, which is why Prescott makes this offense - and this team - so dangerous, even if he isn’t throwing it 40 times a game.
Tom: Let me start with my pinned tweet.
Remember, a football team is 11 men on the field at a time, and includes offense, defense, and STs. One player, no matter how good, doesn't win by himself.— Tom Ryle, progressive guy (@TomRyleBTB) October 14, 2020
This is very important for Prescott’s return, because we need to be very leery about the idea that he just steps on the field and is the dominant quarterback he is when at his best. His performance in the season opener was dismal. He completed less than 50% of his passes and threw an interception, and had a passer rating of just 47.2 before he was injured. The rust was evident in that game, and having to sit out the past five weeks hardly is a formula for knocking that off.
It is entirely reasonable to think he needs to start slow without having to be the difference maker. As you noted, the ground game showed very encouraging signs in the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Ezekiel Elliott looked as good as he has all season, and Tony Pollard has shown that he is a threat to break one at any time. The offensive line has been surprisingly good despite the way they have had to overcome the loss of Tyron Smith. That will help take the pressure off Prescott in a couple of ways. And this is the best defense they have had in years. That also will be a big help.
Prescott will probably have some games later this season where he carries the team. But it is not likely to happen before the bye. The other players will help carry him instead as he gets back into form. That is not at all a bad thing. It takes all of them.
David: I just can’t put too much stock into that Week 1 performance. Like you mentioned, Prescott hadn’t played in the preseason, and it was also his first game with several new faces on offense after the front office cast off several good players in the offseason. More than that, Prescott was playing against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense that is downright elite. Right now, they’re one of just three defenses that are in the top 10 in both run and pass defense DVOA, and overall they’re fourth in total defensive efficiency.
Prescott only has two games remaining this season against defenses that are currently in the top 10 in defensive DVOA; the rest are all in the bottom half of the league right now. The Lions, which are next up on the schedule, are dead last in DVOA by a sizable margin. The table has been well set for Prescott to get back to his dominant ways.
You make a good point, though, about this Cowboys team being well rounded. That’s true, and their biggest weakness by far has been quarterback. I don’t think we’ll be seeing Prescott having to lead fourth quarter comebacks week in and week out like he did earlier in his career, but his presence elevates this team considerably. It takes a whole team, definitely, but very few teams can win consistently without good quarterback play. And in a season where quarterback play is down across the board, Prescott is in a position to elevate this team from “nobody’s underdogs” to legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Tom: Let me be clear, I completely agree that the team is far better with Prescott behind center. I am just not expecting him to come out and throw for over 300 yards and multiple touchdowns in the first outing. The point is he doesn’t have to, because there are the other parts of the team we have mentioned to share the load.
Mike McCarthy made a comment on Wednesday that Prescott has to work on timing, which seems to indicate that is the biggest thing to get down. With just a week of full practices, the first of which was more a walkthrough, that is not going to be easy. I fully expect some evidence of that to show up during the Detroit game. Hopefully it will just lead to some incompletions and not interceptions. The Lions have a bad defense, so Dallas definitely doesn’t want to make them look good.
If it was me, Prescott would focus on the short, quick passes at the start of the game to work on that timing and rhythm. Use the running game to keep them ahead of the sticks and let him have some second and short downs to use. After a few reps, it would be a good idea to take a shot or two downfield on those second downs, so the team is not in a bad situation if they miss.
As has been mentioned hereabouts, this may be the perfect game for Prescott’s return. What the team needs from him is something over 200 yards passing without turnovers. This is also a great matchup for the running game, so let them do the heavy lifting. The following game against the Chicago Bears should be a good opportunity for the quarterback to continue to get back to top form without having to be there quite yet. After the bye, we should see a fully activated killer Dak. That is fine, because we don’t really need that quite yet.