Without Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott needs to slow the whispers

FRISCO, Texas -- If you listen hard enough, you can start to hear the whispers.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott needs Ezekiel Elliott. Without the star running back, Prescott isn't the same quarterback. He can't make things happen when defenses are designed to stop him, not Elliott. Prescott can't be mentioned with the better quarterbacks in the NFL. He's a game manager.

The two-game sample size offers up the evidence to those who want to believe Prescott is more that kind of quarterback than the one who won 13 games, threw 24 touchdown passes to four interceptions, and ran for six more scores as a rookie in 2016.

In the losses to the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles without Elliott, the Cowboys have had 22 possessions with Prescott and scored only one touchdown. That drive was only 21 yards long after a takeaway against the Falcons.

Excluding the season finale when the coaches held out Elliott against the Eagles, the Cowboys scored at least 24 points in 12 of 15 games. They scored at least 28 points in the last six games Elliott played this season.

In the two games without Elliott, Prescott completed 38 of 61 passes for 321 yards without a touchdown and three interceptions. He was sacked 12 times. He has lost two fumbles in the past two games, too.

Prescott is aware of the whispers but pays them no mind. In the Atlanta game, the Cowboys could not protect him. And against the Eagles?

"I simply didn't play well in the Philly game," Prescott said.

Have the defenses done different things without Elliott on the field.

"Can't say they have," Prescott said.

Prescott said there have been a couple of plays that have changed the shape of the past two games. Against Philadelphia, he could not shake the image of seeing Cole Beasley running free underneath on an all-out blitz by the Eagles that led him to throwing a jump ball in the end zone to Dez Bryant that fell incomplete.

If he finds Beasley, he knows the Cowboys get a first down and he says he thinks Beasley might have scored. Instead the Cowboys settled for Mike Nugent's third field goal of the first half.

"Me personally, I've just got to take some passes underneath and let guys run with the ball in their hands," Prescott said. "The game goes back to two or three plays and you can always say, 'If we would've done this or that on that play it would've been a different game.' For me it's just getting the ball out sometimes and trust a short route is going to get as much as a deep ball down the field."

Without question, Elliott's absence has hurt the Cowboys' offense, not just Prescott, but the absence of left tackle Tyron Smith, who has sat out the past two games because of a groin strain, has impacted Prescott more. The 12 sacks in the past two games are the most he has been sacked in a two-game span in his career. He had a three-game run last year in which he was sacked three times each game. In the first eight games of the season, he was never sacked more than twice in a game.

Smith is expected to play Thursday against the Los Angeles Chargers.

"The last couple of weeks, as much as anything else, we have been compromised a little in our protection," coach Jason Garrett said. "We haven't been able to protect as well as we typically have. ... We have to get better there. We have to do a better job protecting the quarterback and giving Dak a chance, and I think that will help everything. I think we will be able to simply be more efficient. Complete more balls, make more big plays."

As good as things were for Prescott as a rookie, there were questions last December. He had two subpar games against the Minnesota Vikings, a 17-15 win, and the New York Giants, a 10-7 loss.

The Cowboys had 28 possessions in the two games and produced three touchdowns and a field goal. Prescott's touchdown pass to Bryant beat the Vikings after the Cowboys recovered a fumbled punt at the Minnesota 8. Prescott completed 12 of 18 passes for 39 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times and lost one of his two fumbles.

Against the Giants, the Cowboys had nine possessions end in a punt, two in an interception and one on a fumble. He completed only 17 of 37 passes for 165 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown to Terrance Williams. He had the first two-interception game of his career.

He had Elliott for both of those games.

He won't see Elliott again this year until Dec. 24 against the Seattle Seahawks.

A year ago, he answered the December questions by completing 32 of 36 passes for 279 yards in a win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He needs similar answers now, starting Thursday against the Chargers.