FRISCO, Texas — The shock of Dak Prescott’s gruesome ankle injury will not go away anytime soon, but on Monday the Dallas Cowboys started preparing for life without their starting quarterback.
Replacing Prescott, who leads the NFL with 1,856 passing yards despite missing the last quarter-plus of Sunday’s 37-34 win against the New York Giants with a compound fracture and dislocated right ankle, will be difficult, but the Cowboys believe they have pieces in place to continue to have a successful offense.
It just might be done differently.
“We’re going to have to make some adjustments moving forward,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said in the immediate aftermath Sunday.
On Monday, McCarthy talked about the need to “recalibrate.”
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“Anytime you have a change, it’s no different than the offensive tackle position, you look at the center position. There’s always a process of things you may do more of, you may not do as much. It’s no different at the quarterback position,” McCarthy said. “We all recognize that it’s heightened at that position. We’re fortunate to have Andy (Dalton) here. His experience speaks for itself.”
McCarthy noted his experience of having to play without his starting quarterback with the Green Bay Packers when he did not have an experienced quarterback like Dalton.
In 2013, Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone and missed seven games. Seneca Wallace, now a coaching intern on McCarthy’s staff, and Scott Tolzien, an offensive staff assistant for the Cowboys, went 0-2-1 before Matt Flynn went 2-2 to keep Green Bay’s playoff hopes alive, including a win against the Cowboys before Rodgers’ return.
In 2017, Brett Hundley went 3-6 in Rodgers’ absence from a broken collarbone and the Packers went 7-9.
“It depends on who’s playing after you lose the starter,” McCarthy said. “There’s moments there in the past where we did some good things with our backups, but there were moments where we did not. So I think the first step is you have to make sure everybody in the room is ready.”
So what can the Prescott-less Cowboys do now?
Ezekiel Elliott finished Sunday with 19 carries for 91 yards and two touchdowns. AP Photo/Ron Jenkins
Before losing Prescott, the Cowboys might have been inching that way anyway. Trailing 17-3 in the second quarter against New York, the Cowboys went on a 14-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 6 minutes and 59 seconds. The Cowboys ran the ball 10 times with Ezekiel Elliott getting nine carries for 37 yards, including his 1-yard touchdown.
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After a Prescott interception was returned for a touchdown and the defense showed an inability to slow down the Giants’ offense, it was as if the Cowboys went back to a formula that worked in 2014 with Tony Romo and in 2016 with Prescott as a rookie.
Controlling the game’s tempo puts a premium on maximizing possessions, but it also protects the quarterback and a defense that has allowed scores on 31 of 60 possessions (19 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) through five games.
“Obviously, we’re throwing it more than anyone the first few weeks and we got that down,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “But there’s a time and place where you got to pound the ball, got 21 (Elliott) in the backfield, still need to build, and I think it was a really good drive, run, run, get into some play-action, get those things working together because obviously there’s going to be times we’re going to need that. We’re still going to throw it. We’re not going to get away from it, but when you got a guy in the backfield like that, a drive like that, I think, was huge.”
Elliott finished Sunday with 19 carries for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Through five games, he has accounted for 22% of the Cowboys’ scrimmage yards, ranking 28th in the NFL. Since 2016, his rookie season, he has accounted for 29% of the Cowboys’ scrimmage yards, which is the third-highest percentage in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
His lowest percentage (24) came in 2017 when he missed six games because of a suspension.
Matthew Berry projects Andy Dalton as the No. 1 waiver pick because he is a very good NFL quarterback who is stepping into a fantasy-friendly offense.
The Cowboys do not have to go into a shell in the passing game, but Prescott was at the top of his game.
He was averaging 8.4 yards per attempt, which is the best of his career. The Cowboys had 26 pass plays of at least 20 yards in five games with Prescott. Wide receivers Michael Gallup, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb have proved difficult for defenses to slow down.
Cooper is averaging a career-low 10.9 yards per catch, but he has two 100-yard games. Lamb has two 100-yard games. Gallup is averaging 20.5 yards per catch and has one 100-yard game. The Cowboys’ fourth receiver, Cedrick Wilson, also has a 100-yard game.
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Dalton has averaged 7.1 yards per attempt in his career. He reached 8.4 yards just once in his time with the Cincinnati Bengals, but he found Gallup for 19 and 38 yards on the decisive drive of the Giants game.
“We still need to play the same way,” Moore said. “We still need to attack people, be aggressive. If people give us opportunities downfield, we’re going for it. … You can’t settle on one particular avenue. We’ve got to be able to attack people in different ways.”
To get the ball downfield, the Cowboys have to be mindful of their pass protection. Tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins are out for the season and have been replaced by undrafted rookies Brandon Knight (2019) and Terence Steele (2020). They have a rookie starting at center in Tyler Biadasz.
While Dalton can move, he is not as elusive as Prescott and the Cowboys lose a lot of the run-pass option. Dalton’s experience will help him get rid of the ball faster, but if the Cowboys are going to take shots down the field, they will have to use more play-action and max protection.
Since 2011, Dalton has completed 63% of his passes on play-action with a 2.04 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Since 2016, Prescott has completed 68% of those throws with a 3.5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
“Dak’s been running the show for a while here and had such a command of the protection game plan,” Moore said, “but obviously with Andy’s experience, I think it’s going to be a real seamless opportunity there.”