At some point, the Dallas Cowboys may have to experience life without Ezekiel Elliott. They needed a legal Hail Mary for him to play Sunday, the Cowboys’ 28-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, and the case — whether the NFL’s six-game suspension for domestic abuse allegations can be enforced — will continue to wind through courts. In the latest update, as Mark Maske writes, the NFL and NFLPA have shown no willingness to discuss a settlement.
If the Cowboys must play without Elliott, they have shown they can survive without him. Already, even with Elliott on the field, their offense has changed. Elliott may be the engine of Dallas’s offense, perhaps the best running back in the NFL. But as Dak Prescott showed again Sunday, the Cowboys are now Prescott’s team. If Elliott can’t play, Prescott can lead the Cowboys without him.
Prescott has improved from his rookie season to this season. The most fundamental difference is how he fits into the Cowboys’ offense. For most of last season, he succeeded in not getting in the way — in handing off to Elliott, limiting turnovers and making the trains ran on time. This season, he is primarily responsible for the Cowboys’ success.
On Sunday, Prescott completed 21 of 33 passes for 249 yards, throwing two touchdowns, running for another and committing no turnovers. In the second half, the Cowboys encountered a potential debacle. Dallas’s offense left the field in the second quarter with a 14-3 lead. The Cowboys yielded a preposterous 57-yard touchdown from Tyreek Hill on the first half’s final play, then surrendered a touchdown drive out of the locker room. Dallas’s offense led by 11 when they left the field, and when they returned, they trailed, 17-14.
At a precarious moment, Prescott took the game over. He led a 12-play, 5:37 drive in which he ran for two first downs, passed for another and picked up a fourth with a pass interference call. Elliott finished the drive with a touchdown, but Prescott kept it alive with both his arm and his legs. After a defensive stop, Prescott led another marathon drive, a 13-play march in which he completed 5 of 6 passes for 60 yards, finishing with a touchdown pass to Cole Beasley.
The performance continued an excellent sophomore season. Prescott has thrown 16 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. Prescott’s biggest improvement may be how he’s using his running ability. The Cowboys have expanded their playbook to include more run-pass options and more plays off the read-option. Prescott has responded by rushing for 7.5 yards per carry, up from 4.3 last season.
Prescott’s running ability may make things more palatable for the Cowboys should Elliott serve his six-game suspension. The best way to make life easier for a running back is to be paired with a running quarterback — Prescott can occupy the attention of the defense, or serve as a de facto blocker, just by the threat of him keeping the ball. Alfred Morris, Elliott’s backup, thrived in Washington playing with Robert Griffin III. Prescott is still more of a passer than a runner, but the threat helps the entirety of the Dallas running game.
For the Cowboys, now 5-3 and in the thick of the NFC playoff picture, to do damage in January, they will need Elliott. But Prescott is good enough to get the Cowboys there even without Elliott, if he needs to.
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