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The challenges for Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ coaches

Every NFL team has challenges, some are different and some are universal. The play and health of the QB is universal.

NFL: AUG 20 Preseason - Cowboys at Chargers
It’s a new relationship.
Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There are many reasons to feel good about the Dallas Cowboys in 2023. The offseason appears to have been very successful as far as adding talent to the team. Several issues were addressed through a couple of well-executed trades and the draft. While real practices are still a few weeks away, this looks like as strong a roster as the team has had this century.

On paper. The caveat that must be included is that things can change quickly. Still, it is hard to find any area of real concern. What’s better, the depth is generally good to give the team ready answers for injuries and someone just not having the season the staff expected.

No team is perfect, of course. For all, there is one place that is always fragile, if you will. It is an annual concern not only in Dallas, but in almost every franchise across the league.

The quarterback.

This is something that can derail things for the majority of teams. Any franchise that has a clear-cut starter depends on them for success, particularly getting to and winning in the playoffs. There are two ways things can go awry.

First, the quarterback just does not perform to the expectations of the staff. In some cases, teams do not have someone who is truly capable of leading their team to a championship. That is not a problem with Dak Prescott.

Lots of people like to create tiers to discuss NFL players. At this point, the top QB tier is Patrick Mahomes. Just him. He does things on the field that few other QBs can do, and does them consistently rather than as occasional outstanding plays. A bit frightening for the rest of the league is that he is 27 and should be at his peak for years to come. But the two-time Super Bowl Champion, MVP, and league MVP simply is playing at a level no one else is.

Behind him there is a group of players that can still get their team to the promised land if they get the right help, and it may be a dozen or more depending on the situation. Prescott is in that group. He is demonstrably better than some QBs that have gone that far by getting a ton of help from their team. Dallas fell short last season, perhaps because the help was not quite right.

His receiving corps just was not that good outside of CeeDee Lamb. Michael Gallup just did not seem right after returning from injury, and the Cowboys struggled to find an effective third wide receiver last year. Noah Brown was forced into that role, and he and Gallup combined did not contribute 1,000 yards receiving, putting way too much on Lamb. Dalton Schultz was the second leading receiver, partly as Prescott’s safety blanket, but his 577 yards was not enough, and he seemed to be having some trouble bringing the ball in at times.

This year looks better, thanks to the Brandin Cooks trade. The team now has a solid one-two punch. Gallup is believed to be more fully recovered to add a third to the mix. They need at least one more, but there are some good options to develop in camp. Further, while untested, the tight end room looks intriguing, or maybe even promising.

There was also a problem that is part receiver and part coaching. As you are probably well aware, Prescott led the league in interceptions, and it seemed like most of his throws were into tight windows. While Lamb is excellent in most aspects, he is not a speed merchant and sometimes does not get separation. But that latter is also driven by play design, and last year that was a bit suspect. Now Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer are tasked with fixing that. The speed of Cooks should be a good boost as well. More crucially, McCarthy has to keep Prescott out of third and long situations. The link between those and higher risk passes is pretty direct.

Passing targets was not the only issue in 2022, however. The running game just did not function the way the coaches wanted, especially on early downs. Ezekiel Elliott, hampered by lingering injuries, was not the dominating rusher of old. Now Tony Pollard has the top spot in the backfield. He should be an upgrade. While the backup jobs look wide open, don’t expect that to be a major concern. There is convincing historical proof that you don’t need standout talent to have an effective ground game. What is most important is that there not be failed runs. There were far too many of those last year, particularly on first downs. This is definitely something that will require both the ball carriers and the play-caller to get right.

It looks like the weapons side of this equation is fine, or at least there is good reason to think it will be. What the team needs from Prescott is good execution. There have been times he has been inconsistent, and the interceptions from last fall certainly raise concerns. He is a very intelligent, skilled player and will be working hard on that. With some help from the coaches to not put him into situations where he has to make risky throws to extend drives, he certainly has the capacity to fix that.

There is, of course, the other thing. The bigger thing. The one that is out of anyone’s control.

Prescott has to stay healthy for his team to reach its goals. Some scoff at that idea, pointing to how Cooper Rush led the team to a 4-1 record last year when Prescott was out. Videos of the team under him make it clear that he was operating a much more limited offense, because he is just more limited than QB1. Rush is tremendously valuable, and has obviously shown he can keep things from cratering if needed for a few games. The team still does not want to have him behind center for the majority of games, and certainly not to make a playoff run.

Injuries are arguably the most impactful single thing in football, or really any sport. They take dominant players off the field, possibly dooming a promising situation. By extension, injury to the quarterback is the worst of all. Not only does it force the team to use a (usually) inferior QB, it will lead to an abbreviated playbook and limited options. Even if the backup is remarkably talented, and has absorbed the scheme and plays completely, he is just not experienced. Oh, he may be a peripatetic veteran whose brain is full of football knowledge and might be able to call plays better than the coaches, but he has not had the reps in practice. That matters. He is not going to fit as well with the starters, at least for a while. That absolutely applies to the Cowboys. They need a healthy Prescott.

But there is nothing they can do about that. Some protection can be afforded him by not trying to turn him into a running quarterback, but there are times they need his legs. He needs good protection from his offensive line, which unfortunately may be a whole other can of worms this year. Still, freak accidents occur.

The team can, and has done a lot about the first issue by putting a better offensive roster together. The second, though, they just have to roll the dice each week and hope they don’t come up snake eyes. But if Prescott is healthy and playing his A game, Dallas can go toe to toe with any team in the league.

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