How Dak-less Cowboys can still win NFC East

When Dak Prescott suffered his gruesome ankle injury in the Dallas Cowboys’ victory over the New York Giants on Sunday, you could feel the sadness in the air at AT&T Stadium, even through television and device screens.

It was evident in the tears that streamed down Prescott’s face and the wounded looks from his teammates. Even the Giants were dismayed.

Dak is a guy who does just about everything right and is well-liked throughout the league. He’s also in the middle of a contract season, and in the moment, it was hard not to wonder how the injury would affect Prescott’s inevitable payday.

Will the Cowboys offer him another lucrative long-term deal after this? 

Will they franchise-tag him again? 

We know football is a business, but would the Cowboys be that cold?

It's Andy Dalton's offense now as the Cowboys look to recover from a slow start and a devastating injury to QB Dak Prescott. (Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports)

In the days since the ankle fracture and dislocation, it has become clear that Prescott is still on track to get the money he deserves, either from the Cowboys or from someone else. Yet, we must also acknowledge that how the Cowboys (2-3) finish the season will likely play a role in that decision.

As such, the first and only item in this week’s “Things I Noticed” column is the state of the Cowboys’ offense after the first five games of the season, specifically the four schematic elements I’ve noticed them execute this season that we’ll see more of without their most valuable offensive player.

To be clear, the latter is exactly what Prescott is. Prior to the season, I predicted Dak to win MVP and the Cowboys to capture the NFC East. They had a chance to go to the Super Bowl, if everything broke right.

With Andy Dalton at the helm, they still have a chance to win the division — heck, they even sit in first place right now — but those Super Bowl dreams got a little murkier. The 32-year-old Dalton, while a more-than-competent backup, does not have Prescott’s ceiling.

That doesn’t mean Dalton won’t fit this offense. Especially if the first thing I expect to come to fruition actually does, which is …

Run the ball a ton

In the video atop this page, you’ll notice the highlights have one thing in common: Dallas’ O-line is surging forward, running the heck out of the ball. Some of these are zone plays, some of them are power plays. Either Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard (a change-of-pace guy who they need to work in more) is running hard and churning out yards. 

Will the Cowboys feed Ezekiel Elliott? (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Dallas has been insanely pass-happy this season, rushing only 33.8 percent of the time, which is the second-lowest percentage in the league. That can’t continue because Dalton hasn’t shown he can sling it in recent years like Prescott can. 

A commitment to the ground game would also be a nice way of protecting Brandon Knight and Terrence Steele, Dallas’ young and unproven tackles. If the Cowboys accomplish this, it will allow them to … 

Use play-action and bootlegs into oblivion

This can work, folks. The Los Angeles Rams, Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and other teams that are using the Mike Shanahan system can attest.

The beautiful thing about an offense built around zone runs, play-action and bootlegs is that it’s simple but effective. Defenses know the run is coming, but they can’t always stop it; and when they stop it, they still have to honor it.

Dalton’s passer rating has consistently been higher on play-action than his rating on traditional drop-back plays. He got a crash course in the Shanahan system last season under Sean McVay disciple Zac Taylor in Cincinnati, so it makes sense to start emphasizing these types of plays, especially considering the Cowboys have already used a bunch of similar concepts this season, as shown in the video below:

And if the Cowboys ramp up these types of plays, there’s one man they need to start feeding the ball to even more.

It's time to let CeeDee eat

CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys’ first-round rookie receiver, has been very good, leading the Cowboys in yards with 433 and ranking second in receptions with 29. He has done most of his best work out of the slot, and as you can see in the video below, his combination of toughness over the middle, contested ball ability, run-after-catch juice and vertical ability make him someone who defenses will have to start prioritizing in their game plans soon:

The reason I’m excited about this is Dalton should be able to get Lamb the football since the wideout is so adept at working the middle of the defense. And with Lamb doing his thing — hopefully these two can develop a quick rapport — that should allow them to execute the final step necessary to keep defenses honest in a Dak-less world, which is ...

Mixing in some deep shots

Dalton’s final statline Sunday was solid: 9-of-11 for 111 passing yards. His biggest completion came on a 38-yard bucket throw to Michael Gallup, who is emerging as one of the NFL’s best vertical receivers, as evidenced by the highlight reel of Prescott-to-Gallup deep shots from the first quarter of the season below:

It helps that Lamb and Amari Cooper can also stretch defenses vertically. If that keeps up, and Dallas pairs a recommitment to the run game with increased use of play-action, I see them navigating the next several months just fine. 

Of course, the success of Dallas’ season also rests with its defense, which currently ranks 24th in DVOA. That group needs an identity, too, and it’s on defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to find one. 

Yet, in a soft NFC East, one where the division champ might need to go only 7-9 or 8-8 to make the playoffs, there’s a scenario where the Cowboys can do it, even if the defense doesn’t get much better the rest of the way. 

For that to happen, the Cowboys’ offense, which currently ranks 12th in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, needs to stay in that general vicinity without Prescott. The only way that happens is if most, if not all, of the four aforementioned keys come to fruition.

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