Hope Springs Eternal: Sizing Up the Cowboys Coming Off Their Bye Week
The first six games of the Cowboys 2016 season have gone better than anyone possibly could've hoped. Despite Tony Romo not taking a snap after injuring his back during his first preseason game and Dez Bryant having failed to make much of an impact thanks to a knee fracture suffered during the team's week three win against the Bears, the Cowboys are sitting at 5-1. They're tied for the best record in the NFC and face a less than intimidating final 10 games as they head toward the playoffs. They sit, thanks in large part to rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, as maybe the best team in the NFC, too, in as good position as anyone to take the conference's slot in Super Bowl LI in February. Of course, these are the Cowboys, the same team that hasn't made it past the divisional round of the playoffs since 1995. Things, many things, could still go wrong, because these are still the Jerry Jones-owned Cowboys, but optimism is tempting.
Here are the tea leaves to read as the Cowboys come off their bye week and take on the Eagles in the biggest game of their young season Sunday night.
The quarterback situation. — Prescott has been a revelation. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, the Mississippi State product has only done everything the team has asked of him as he's replaced Romo over the season's first six games. He's made critical throws leading a fourth-quarter comeback against the Redskins in week two, beat the Packers in Green Bay in week six and avoided, almost entirely, making mistakes, throwing just one interception in 182 passing attempts. He appears to be, at worst, the second best QB taken in the 2016 draft, despite seeing seven signal callers picked ahead of him in April.
The guy Prescott replaced isn't so bad either. Romo participated in practice Thursday for the first time since fracturing his back in August. He hasn't suffered any setbacks on his way back from the injury, and wasn't placed on injured reserve after the injury — which would've sidelined him for eight weeks — because the Cowboys believed he could return for Sunday night's game. If Prescott had even been average, Romo would be starting against the Eagles, but it's hard to see — or bet on — Romo getting back on the field.
Still, there's a chance that the Cowboys' offense could be even better with Romo. If Prescott has been deficient in any area so far in 2016, it's been in getting the ball downfield. Prescott ranks just 21st among NFL quarterbacks in air yards — a number you get when you subtract yards after the catch from a QB's passing total — while Romo ranked 12th in the same stat category in 2014, his last full season. Elliott's emergence running the football means that there are going to be opportunities for the Cowboys' quarterback to stretch the field, especially with Bryant expected to return against the Eagles. Romo might be more capable of taking advantage than Prescott, but the Cowboys won't take the reins away from the rookie now.
Elliott's workload. — In six games, Elliott, the fourth pick in the draft, has rushed for 703 yards, setting himself up to challenge Eric Dickerson's 33-year-old rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards. He's looked explosive almost every time he's touched the ball, but he's touched the ball a lot. Two weeks ago in Green Bay, Elliott got 30 touches against one of the league's best rush defenses. He won the battle, racking up 174 total yards, but it's yet to be seen how he'll stand up to what figures to remain a punishing workload in his first year out of Ohio State.
If he's healthy, he'll be good, but he needs to stay healthy in order to keep Prescott, or Romo, from having to win games by himself and to help out the Cowboys' mediocre defense.
Bryant's return. — Bryant, always a game-breaking talent, hasn't shown it since the 2014 season. Thanks to a 2015 lost to a broken foot and subsequent ankle injury and this year's knee fracture, Bryant's last highlight remains his infamous non-catch during the 2014 playoffs against the Packers. If Bryant's back, like really back, against the Eagles, he adds a dimension to the Cowboys' offense that's been missing. Thanks to Prescott's near perfect decision making, the Cowboys have survived without the home run so far this year, it would be good for everyone involved if they didn't have to do so.
Keeping the defense off the field. — While the Cowboys defense has been much better in 2016, it remains imperative that the team hide its weaker unit when possible. The way it's done that so far is the same as it did during the Cowboys 12-4 2014 season — keeping the defense off the field. So far this year, the Cowboys are leading the NFL in time of possession, averaging more than 33 minutes a game with the ball. Keeping the ball means that the defense isn't exposed and that, when they are, they are fresher. Any NFL defense is capable of playing competently if it's only on the field for 25 minutes, and if Elliott keeps running and grinding clock as he's done so far, that's all the Cowboys defense will have to do.
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