It's a good thing there's a roof on top of AT&T Stadium, because the sky is falling in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys have dropped out of the playoff race in dramatic fashion since Ezekiel Elliott finally began serving his six-game suspension in November. After Elliott's final game, a 28-17 victory over the Chiefs, the Cowboys sat at 5-3 with a 49.9 percent chance of making the postseason, per the ESPN Football Power Index.
Three consecutive losses later, and the Cowboys are essentially playing out the string. FPI assigns them a mere 1.5 percent shot of making the playoffs. The New York Times pegs them closer to 3 percent, but the Times' projection still thinks they'll miss the playoffs 25 percent of the time even if they win out. (FPI also thinks Dallas' chances of winning out are a mere 0.8 percent.)
The offense has rightfully taken the brunt of the criticism, having produced a total of 22 points over 12 Zeke-less quarters. And as the world revolves around the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, second-year signal-caller Dak Prescott has come under fire. His numbers have been ugly: He has thrown more interceptions (five) in three games without Elliott than he did during the entirety of a stunning 2016 campaign (four). Prescott is falling just as division rival Carson Wentz is emerging as the arguable favorite in the MVP race. Prescott has put up back-to-back stinkers on national television. Nobody is happy right now.
It's not hyperbolic to say that the Cowboys went from having the best offense in football during the first half of the season to its worst over the past three weeks. From Weeks 1 through 9, Dallas averaged 2.58 points per possession, which was the best rate in football. Since Week 10, with Elliott out, the Cowboys have averaged 0.71 points per drive. As you might suspect, that's the worst scoring rate any team has posted over the past three weeks. Dallas has gone from the top five to dead last in the past three weeks in touchdown percentage, turnover percentage and scoring percentage on a per-possession basis.
If you wanted to make the case that Prescott was always dependent upon his star running back and couldn't do anything by himself on offense, you've gotten your evidence over the past three weeks. Who is really at fault, though, for the precipitous offensive decline? And can the Cowboys, who play Washington on Thursday (8:25 p.m. ET on NBC), fix it quickly enough to save their season? Let's run through the candidates and break down what has gone wrong with the Dallas offense.
The running game
The most obvious place for the Cowboys to feel Elliott's absence should be on the ground, right? Dallas is replacing its 2016 first-round pick with the duo of Alfred Morris and Rod Smith, neither of whom are expected to be game-changing backs.
Through his eight-game season, Elliott averaged 97.9 rushing yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry, and turned 23.6 percent of his rushing attempts into first downs. Over the past three games, the duo of Morris and Smith averaged 82 rushing yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry while turning 22.8 percent of their runs into first downs.
Those numbers really aren't much different. Elliott averaged more yards per game, but that's because he was racking up carries with a lead in the second half, an advantage the post-Zeke Cowboys haven't enjoyed. Elliott averaged just under 24 carries per game through the first eight games of the season, while Morris and Smith are at an even 19 carries per contest over the past three games.
While there's a suspicion that teams were loading up the box against Zeke and making it easy for Prescott to find receivers, that doesn't appear to be borne out by tape-driven data. Only 17.9 percent of Dallas' runs through Week 9 came against a box with eight defenders or more, with the Cowboys averaging 4.2 yards per carry against the loaded boxes. In the past three games, the Cowboys have seen loaded boxes on 13.2 percent of their runs and generated 7 yards per rush. The difference between the two amounts to one additional run versus a loaded box per game.
And I was wondering whether the Cowboys were getting in an offensive hole without having Elliott on first downs, but the running game hasn't been much different there. Dallas averaged an even 5 yards per rushing attempt on first down through Week 9, which was third best in the league. Since Week 10, Jason Garrett's team has averaged 4.8 yards per first-down rushing attempt, which only drops it to sixth. The running game itself just hasn't been all that much different with Elliott sidelined.
As for the passing game, well, that's another story altogether. Prescott was averaging 7.2 yards per dropback on first downs through Week 9, which was a respectable 14th in the league. Over the past three weeks, the Dallas passing game is averaging ... 2.8 yards per pass play on first downs. That's horrifically bad. Denver is the only other team below 4 yards per play on first-down pass attempts, and even it is at 3.3 yards per pass play. Prescott has turned the ball over three times on first downs and has taken as many sacks as he has generated first downs, with four of each. The rest of the league has 343 first downs against 58 sacks over that time frame.
In watching all of those pass plays, Prescott is certainly struggling. He's also not the only one.
The offensive line
Tyron Smith's case for an MVP award, contract extension and immediate spot in Dallas' Ring of Honor was made by Chaz Green's start at left tackle in Week 10. Green allowed six sacks by my count, five alone to Falcons end Adrian Clayborn. Green gave way to Byron Bell, who didn't single-handedly blow up the game plan against the Eagles but did look like an overmatched swing tackle. Smith came back for the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Chargers, but a rare holding penalty on the All-Pro left tackle wiped off the board a Prescott rushing touchdown in the third quarter. And during that game, the Cowboys lost fellow superstar lineman Zack Martin to a concussion after 20 snaps.
The Cowboys don't have as effective or reliable of an offensive line as they had a year ago, which was to be expected after Ron Leary left for the Broncos and Doug Free retired. The hope was that the three holdover stars -- Smith, Martin and center Travis Frederick -- would be so good that the transition of La'el Collins to right tackle and the insertion of former Cardinals first-round disappointment Jonathan Cooper at left guard would go smoothly.
Cooper has held his own at guard, but Collins still looks inconsistent in pass protection. Smith hasn't been up to his usual standards (although he has still been excellent) while playing through a back problem before suffering a groin injury that kept him out in Weeks 10 and 11. He already has eight penalties in nine games, two more than his 13-game total of a year ago.
I'm sure the Cowboys would have been better on offense with a healthy Smith in the lineup, but Prescott did just fine with him on the sideline last season. In 2016, Prescott actually posted better numbers with Smith on the bench, producing a 103.7 passer rating with his star left tackle on the field and a 111.5 mark with Smith unavailable. That hasn't held up in 2017: Prescott has posted a 94.3 rating with Smith on the field and just a 57.1 passing mark with Smith out.
This is overall still an effective offensive line, but there's no question that the line has struggled to make life easier for Prescott over the past few weeks. There are also moments where it feels like the offensive linemen and the players around them aren't on the same page. Take this screenshot of a screen pass against the Falcons from the moment when Rod Smith brings the ball in:
Screenshots don't always tell the story when it comes to plays, but this should be a huge gain. The Cowboys have three blockers on this screen against three Falcons defenders, with a wide receiver downfield on a cornerback. The two Falcons capable of making this play are the unblocked defensive lineman, who shouldn't be able to catch Smith from behind, and the safety in the hashmarks, who is 20 yards away from the play. At the very least, this is a first down in the making.
In reality, it went for 2 yards. Martin is engaged with cornerback Brian Poole, which should be an easy mismatch for the offense, but he drives Poole to the sideline and Smith isn't able to get back inside of the block and into the alley. He stretches the play so far horizontally that the trailing defenders catch up and Poole is able to dive around Martin to make an ankle tackle. Cooper also isn't able to reach Deion Jones, who finishes the play. Maybe Smith thought Martin was going to drive Poole upfield and wanted to run around the block. It seems likely Martin was trying to clear a lane behind his block for Smith. Under any circumstance, the Cowboys called the right play and didn't get anything out of it.
Driven by the disastrous Green spot start, Prescott has been pressured at a far higher rate in the past three games. Opponents are pressuring Dallas on 35.8 percent of Prescott dropbacks in the past three weeks, the fourth-highest rate in football and up significantly on the 26.7 percent rate from the first half of the season.
The bigger difference, though, is what Prescott has done against those pressures. In the first half of the season, Prescott's Total QBR (which includes scrambles) when pressured was 69.3, the best in football. Over the past three weeks, his QBR under pressure is ... 3.5. On 38 plays, Prescott has taken 14 sacks, thrown three interceptions, and generated just eight first downs, two of which have come on scrambles. Some of that is Prescott's fault, and Green might never play for the Cowboys again, but there's a third party that deserves criticism.
It seems natural to hope that Dallas' receiving corps would help pick up some of the slack in Elliott's absence, but that simply hasn't been the case. If anything, the Cowboys' receivers are actively making things more difficult in the Dallas passing game.
Take those five interceptions Prescott has thrown, a number that is uncharacteristic for a player who had eight picks in the first season-and-a-half of his career. All three of the interceptions Prescott threw in the critical prime-time loss to the Eagles had at least some blame to be placed on his wide receivers. A slant went off Terrance Williams' hands for one pick. Dez Bryant never turned around to challenge for a third-and-17 prayer; Prescott never should have made the throw, but a challenge from Bryant likely results in an incomplete pass as opposed to a pick. Then, late in the blowout, Prescott scrambled in the red zone on fourth-and-10 and found Brice Butler, who turned and ran away from his spot just as Prescott released the ball for an easy Malcolm Jenkins pick.
Dallas' receivers just aren't creating separation downfield, which is limiting Prescott to sticks and slants for short completions. Prescott had the league's third-best passer rating during the first half of the year on deep passes, which the NFL defines as throws traveling 16 or more yards in the air. He threw deep 39 times and produced 489 passing yards and four touchdowns without a pick. Over the past three weeks, however, Prescott has posted a 21.1 passer rating on those throws, second worst in the NFL ahead of only Blake Bortles. He's 5-of-16 for 125 yards with two picks on deep passes.
Maybe it's too much to ask out of Williams. Cole Beasley was having his worst season as a pro even before the Zeke departure, with a 60.9 percent catch rate that is downright untenable for a slot receiver. Butler flashed earlier this season as a downfield threat but hasn't ever seen his role expand, as he has run just 35 routes in three weeks. Jason Witten is a future Hall of Famer and still a useful underneath target, but the 35-year-old is only stretching the field in Geico commercials at this point of his career.
The guy who needs to be making a difference right now is Bryant, and he simply hasn't been playing like the receiver who terrorized opposing teams downfield in the past. It was true even during the first half of the campaign. Dak's numbers were impressive, but on those 16-plus-yard throws, Bryant caught 5 of 21 targets for 108 yards and generated just 9 yards after catch. And without Elliott in the lineup, Prescott has gone 0-for-8 with a pick on the deep throws to his No. 1 target.
In all, Bryant is just 5-for-29 on deep targets this season, giving him the lowest receiving percentage (17.2 percent) on those throws among players with 10 targets or more. The league average on those throws is 41.1 percent. With the same quarterback last season, Dez caught 40.5 percent of Prescott's deep target attempts. From 2014-16, mixing in Tony Romo and a cast of characters, Bryant caught 39.4 percent of deep balls.
When we look specifically at Bryant going down the sidelines outside the numbers, the stats get even worse. Those bombs were a source of relatively safe touchdowns for the Cowboys from 2014-16; Bryant caught 29 of the 71 deep passes thrown in his direction, producing 12 touchdowns with just one pick. He has caught just three of the 19 deep passes thrown down either sideline this season.
As is, Bryant's function in this offense at times seems to exclusively be catching slants, with Prescott relying on Dez to put his body on the line to catch passes the other team knows to be coming. The Cowboys have to diversify Bryant's route tree and get more out of him as a downfield threat, because nobody else on this team is being put in a position to threaten teams with big plays.
I think it's unfair to pin the struggles of the offense entirely on Prescott's shoulders, as you can infer from the preceding sections, but it's also fair to say that Dak is playing the worst football of his career.
While he didn't deserve much blame for two of the three interceptions in the Eagles game, I'd fault Prescott far more for his two picks against the Chargers. One was a terrible decision to throw the ball late and against his body in the red zone long after Beasley's pivot route had come to a halt. Desmond King picked off Prescott and took the throw 90 yards to the house for an exclamation point.
On the next drive, Prescott looked to be fooled by a trap coverage from the Chargers. While fans were filing out of the stadium, Prescott thought he was facing a lone deep safety on the left side of the field and threw a deep out, which is designed to stretch Cover 2 with a flat/out route combination. Whether by design or by reading Prescott's eyes in a blowout, underneath corner Casey Hayward came off of his man's flat route and broke on Prescott's pass for what ended up as an easy pick. It's the same concept that generates a couple of annual interceptions for Aqib Talib in Denver.
Prescott is still capable of getting fooled into making mistakes. While he didn't throw an interception against the Falcons, it was only by sheer luck. Atlanta fooled him with a robber inside the red zone, as Ricardo Allen read an attempt to hit Bryant on a post route out of a run-pass option and broke on the ball, only for Deion Jones to tip the pass away at the line of scrimmage. Allen likely would have run a 90-yard pick-six back the other way if he had caught the ball.
As this ugly stretch of football has gone on, it looks more and more like Dak is pressing to make big plays. He's either unloading the ball almost immediately or holding onto the football for too long while looking indecisive. The offense feels like a ragged slog in contrast to the unstoppable rhythm we see from the Cowboys at their best. It doesn't even feel as effective as the preseason offense Dak ran as part of his breakout campaign in 2016.
It's impossible to avoid the conclusion that Prescott misses Elliott. His numbers have fallen off both in 2016 and 2017 with Elliott on the sideline as opposed to those moments when the Ohio State product is on the field. Prescott's passer rating dropped from 112.7 with Zeke on the field in 2016 to 92.6 without him, although his Total QBR only fell by five points. This season, Prescott has run up a 97.0 rating with Zeke on the field and a 70.7 mark with Elliott sitting. The with-and-without-Zeke split over the last two years paints Prescott as a different quarterback without his star halfback:
If you're tempted to use that information as proof that Prescott is a creation of Elliott's undeniable talent, that would be silly. It's difficult to imagine any quarterback playing better while missing one of the biggest weapons in football. The non-Elliott version of Prescott is also pretty useful; his 68.3 Total QBR would rank fifth in the league over the past two seasons, while the 81.4 mark he posted with Zeke would be the top mark among quarterbacks who have suited up in both seasons.
Likewise, if you're calling for Prescott to be benched or treated as a stopgap quarterback after three games, you're clueless. Every quarterback goes through rough three-game stretches early in their careers. As ESPN's Mike Sando pointed out, quarterbacks like Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger struggled in starts 25-27 as developing pros, just as Prescott has. Furthermore, during this exact three-week stretch last season, Wentz was on a three-game losing streak with a 63.5 passer rating and twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdown passes (three).
With that being said, if Prescott continues to play this poorly over the remainder of Elliott's suspension, it'll rightfully be a cause for concern (although not benching) as Dallas heads into 2018. I'm skeptical Prescott will actually be that bad, if only from sheer regression to the mean. The chances are extremely slim that any passing attack, let alone one with Prescott and Bryant, will continue to average 2.8 yards per play on first downs. The Cowboys are not going to turn the ball over on 25 percent of their possessions. They won't continue to lose nearly 78 percent of their offensive fumbles either.
While it's tempting to ascribe Prescott's decline as a direct correlation to the absence of Elliott, there are other quarterbacks and offenses dealing with similar struggles without losing a superstar. Take Alex Smith, who posted the league's best passer rating on deep throws through the end of Week 9. Over the three subsequent weeks, his passer rating on 16-plus-yard passes has ranked 29th in the NFL.
Likewise, the Cowboys had the league's fourth-best third-down conversion rate with Zeke, a success story that has fallen to 16th without him and his chunks of yardage on first down in the lineup over the past three games. Meanwhile, the Eagles have added talent in Jay Ajayi (while admittedly losing Jason Peters), but with much of their core intact, their third-down conversion rate has fallen from second to ... 15th. Randomness can overwhelm small samples pretty quickly in football.
The coaching staff
Let's finish up with Garrett and his staff, which hasn't been able to unlock the offense without Elliott. There are a few things they might consider trying to make life easier on their young quarterback:
Encourage Dak to be more decisive and get the ball out quicker. Those 5-yard completions on first down aren't what anybody dreams of as part of a dominant offense, but they're positive plays and might do something to get Prescott in rhythm.
At the same time, take designed shots downfield to Bryant and Butler. Suggestion No. 2 is admittedly at odds with Suggestion No. 1, but the Cowboys should be selectively aggressive about trying to create big plays downfield. Bryant simply can't be this bad on deep throws after years of torching defensive backs. Butler needs a bigger role, even if it comes at Beasley's expense and eliminates a possible safe throw. If the Cowboys can make a big play or two downfield, it's going to scare teams into playing two-deep coverage, which should open up the running game even further.
More play-action. The Cowboys enjoyed plenty of success with play-action earlier this season. Prescott went 40-of-67 for 497 yards with six touchdowns and no picks on play-action through Week 9, he has since gone 6-of-12 for 35 yards and a pick. Dallas needs to return to play-action regardless of the effectiveness of its running game, because linebackers will honor the play-fakes either way. This doesn't have to be a seven-step drop -- the RPOs the Cowboys run should be enough to open up throwing lanes between the levels of defense.
Bring back Sean Lee. Admittedly, the coaches have no control over the hamstrings of their ace defender, who will miss another game Thursday after going down in the first quarter of the loss to Atlanta. As much as the Cowboys might miss Elliott, the numbers say Lee has an even stronger power over the Dallas defense. The Cowboys this season have allowed 3.5 yards per carry with Lee in the lineup and 5.8 yards per rush with Lee sidelined. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown eight touchdowns against five picks with Lee on the field but 13 touchdowns without an interception when Lee sits. Their passer rating leaps from a respectable 89.3 to an unreal 116.4. The Cowboys desperately miss their superstar linebacker.
In the long run, Prescott should be fine. Elliott is going to be on this team for years to come, and some of the elements that have caused the Cowboys to struggle on offense aren't sustainable. As much as it might hurt to hear for Cowboys fans, though, their chances of competing in 2017 just aren't there anymore. Every quarterback has a bad stretch of play as they mature. Prescott's just happened to cost the Cowboys any realistic shot at the playoffs.