As the final Sunday without NFL football rapidly approaches, the sentiment that the Dallas Cowboys are more dependent than ever on Dak Prescott to carry them remains true. While this may be a good enough starting point for the Cowboys to repeat as division champions given their QB advantage paired with Dan Quinn’s defense, the team’s offseason decisions could still hold this team back from achieving much more.
Wide receiver started as the biggest position of need after the Amari Cooper trade, but just as this young group was proving itself through the preseason, the Cowboys lost left tackle Tyron Smith. The Smith injury compounded a lack of depth the Cowboys still have along the line, with little time to address a concerning supporting cast that Prescott will have to overcome in a primetime season opener.
The Cowboys remedy for all of this is their belief that not only Prescott will have one of his best seasons as a pro, but their offense is built to find success on the ground again. Ezekiel Elliott is in a pivotal year for his contract as the starting running back, with Tony Pollard expected to carry a bigger role behind him. The Cowboys also kept Rico Dowdle as RB3 and snuck Malik Davis onto the practice squad, stocking up at a position they’ve always committed numbers to.
How well the Cowboys are actually prepared to run the ball will be determined by many other factors though. First-round pick Tyler Smith is assured to be a starter, and has been as advertised at left guard in the run game so far. If he can apply this to playing left tackle, the Cowboys will have Connor McGovern at left guard, who started six games over Connor Williams last season.
In three of these games started by McGovern, the Cowboys failed to rush for 100 yards, losing all but one of the seven games they didn’t eclipse 100 yards on the ground. Whether it’s not being able to count on as many turnovers, or the fact they stole a game like Dallas did at Minnesota last year with 78 rushing yards and Cooper Rush starting for Prescott, the signs of regression are staring the Cowboys in the face.
If swing tackle Josh Ball remains in play for the left tackle spot, his best snaps this preseason were in the run game, but his struggles in pass protection make it hard for the Cowboys to play Ball in protection of their franchise quarterback. The skill position players the Cowboys are counting on to make up for the musical chairs along the line are also unproven, but they’ll need the speed from players like KaVontae Turpin and Jalen Tolbert to stretch the field.
One of the most glaring issues with a Cowboys offense that stalled late in the season a year ago was their inability to run against soft boxes. Defenses dared the Cowboys to hand the football to a back that was once considered the best in the NFL, committed numbers to covering the trio of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup, and watched the Cowboys offense falter.
These spread formations to draw light boxes are still the Cowboys best grouping, as they opted for more receiving threats than run blockers at tight end. Jeremy Sprinkle was cut in place of Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot, who both made plays with Will Grier and Rush throwing them the ball in the preseason.
Some passing plays can be an extension of the run game depending on the QB throwing it, and the Cowboys confidence in Prescott on rollout throws to tight ends or backs falls firmly in this category. It will take Kellen Moore showing a level of creativity that he hasn’t consistently found in his tenure as the Cowboys offensive coordinator, but with enough misdirection and use of Prescott’s legs, this could be an efficient offense.
If this is what the front office meant by getting back to being a running football team, the Cowboys certainly have the defense to complement a ball control offense. Their track record would suggest the Cowboys still line up and try to run the ball downhill with Elliott though, and might not even have Tyler Smith on the inside to lead the way.
The Cowboys have made plenty of moves to be scrutinized with every loss this season, and it’s called into question just how much they’re even trying this season. Their commitment to both Mike McCarthy and Moore as the offense tries to find itself will be a hot topic for the 2022 Cowboys. For a team that should be using the peak of Prescott’s career to contend, not fall back on a run game that hasn’t carried them in some time, the margin for error is razor thin as Dallas looks to win the division in consecutive seasons for the first time in 27 seasons.