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3 & Out: Without Dak, What Are Expectations?

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FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics after one of the most painful victories in Cowboys history:

  • Rest-of-Season Outlook
  • A Drive to Remember
  • Best Free Agent Signing Since…?

I Know…
expectations shouldn't plummet with Dak Prescott sidelined.

Adjusted? Sure. You don't lose your franchise quarterback for the rest of the year -- along with your starting right tackle, left tackle, tight end and two defensive tackles to season-ending surgery, too -- without some major challenges for a championship run.

Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones seemed to acknowledge as much Tuesday … with a catch.

"Well, I'm immediately moving into how unique this year is with my thinking. Yes, obviously, this does impact expectations and it could impact the reality of how and what we do," Jones told Shan and RJ on 105.3 The Fan.

"On the other hand, this is a different year, and if you've ever had one that you could approach in an unorthodox way, this is it. And certainly in the big scheme of things, to lose players as important in this position as Dak, then we've got to basically adjust."

Jerry is right: this is a unique year on so many levels. The division is a toss-up right now and could remain that way all season with all four teams currently below .500.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also created unprecedented circumstances with limited/no fans at games. Points are up across the league. Teams with veteran quarterbacks and offensive continuity are having success week to week, particularly on the road with crowd noise not a detriment to pre-snap communication.

Here's the thing: The Cowboys still have that advantage, to some degree, with Andy Dalton at quarterback. He fits that criteria: 10 years in the league, 133 career starts, five playoff appearances.

The impact of Prescott's injury cannot be minimized. He's the captain. His leadership and work ethic set a standard in the locker room. He also was on an early-season pace to break the league's single-season record for passing yards. The Cowboys rank first in total offense (488.0) and third in scoring average (32.6) after five games. They're going to miss him terribly. The good news: there's a good chance he's back on the field by early May next year, per Jones.

More encouraging news: Dalton's quarter-and-a-half against the Giants (9-of-11, 111 yards and the winning 72-yard field goal drive in 53 seconds) showed why the club is confident they'll still be able to function at a pretty high level offensively.

"Andy Dalton is a player that can get the job done in the NFL," Jones said.

So, expectations?

Who knows, to be honest. We do know this: as of Wednesday, Oct. 14, the Cowboys are in first place. If Dalton can keep the offense humming behind a banged-up offensive line, if the defense and special teams can get a little healthier and make incremental improvement, the division title can stay within reach. That seems like a pretty realistic goal to me, despite everything this team has already been through.

I Think…
my favorite Cowboys drive of the year had very little to do with the passing game.

Prescott, and now Dalton, have made so many highlight-reel plays these first five weeks. But the Cowboys' first touchdown drive against the Giants last Sunday was a breath of fresh air.

Ahhh, balance.

The offense went 75 yards in 14 plays and scored on a 1-yard Ezekiel Elliott run. Ten plays were designed runs by Elliott, Tony Pollard and Prescott.

The Cowboys have been so pass-heavy this season because they've had to be. They've given up too many points and put the defense in bad spots with turnovers. Two drives earlier, a Prescott interception got returned for a touchdown by New York.

Down 17-3 in the second quarter, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore didn't worry about the score. He saw the Giants playing their safeties deep to protect themselves against the passing game. So he got Elliott and the run game established. He took 6:59 off the clock. He gave the Dallas defense a break.

"I thought that was a series that needed to happen at that time in the game," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I thought Kellen showed great patience there sticking to the run and so forth."

With Dalton at quarterback, the offense won't lose its aggressiveness. As Moore said Monday, "If people give us opportunities downfield, we're going for it."

But leaning on Elliott remains a critical part of their identity. It can only help Dalton settle in. And it can only help a compromised defense. On average, the Cowboys' first five opponents have the ball for seven more minutes a game. That's far too much.

I Have No Idea…
if Jerry Jones has ever been more relieved about a $3 million investment.

That's the reported value of Dalton's one-year deal with the Cowboys. With Prescott hurt and the Cowboys clinging to a half-game division lead with 11 games left, Dalton has a chance to be one of the Cowboys' best free-agent signings of the past 10 years. Maybe longer.

So far, Aldon Smith has been the most productive addition to the roster. He's tied for seventh in the league in sacks (4.0) after five years off. That's remarkable.

For better or worse, Dalton could turn out to be the most significant newcomer. The ball will be in his hands at least 60 times a game the rest of the way here. As Jones said Tuesday, "he is a starting quarterback."

Indeed, there's a clear distinction between a backup stepping in and a starter behind a starter. That's how Dallas entered the year with Dalton behind Prescott.

Give the front office credit for spending a little extra at the position and having a little foresight, knowing one freak play/an injury to Prescott could shake a season's foundation. That's exactly what has happened. Having the most proven backup in the league could end up saving the season.

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The Cowboys are back at AT&T Stadium next Monday night, October 19th , to take on the Arizona Cardinals. A limited number of tickets starting at $89 are on sale now. Get yours now before they sell out!

Details on all of the health and safety procedures you can expect at AT&T Stadium this season can be viewed at www.DallasCowboys.com/safestadium.

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