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Phillips: Plenty To Like About Dak's Debut, But Entire Team Must Finish Games

FRISCO, Texas – Last Sunday we learned something new about Dak Prescott: like the rest of us, he's not perfect.

That's OK. His near-flawless 137.8 preseason passer rating isn't necessary when the games count. He just needs to be good, and last Sunday he was good enough to beat the New York Giants.

Except the Cowboys didn't. They dropped their seventh game by less than a touchdown dating back to 2015, and now they're 1-12 without Tony Romo since 2015. Loss 1 of 2016 shouldn't fall on their rookie quarterback, though.

"For them to walk out there with Eli Manning and us not have Tony Romo was a setback," Jerry Jones said Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan. "On the other hand, we are all excited about what Dak can bring."

They should be. Forty-two days ago the 23-year-old fourth-round pick was running the third-team offense in training camp. Last Sunday, he drove the starting offense in position for a game-winning field goal try until Terrance Williams' time management mishap caused the clock to run out.

That's just it. Last Sunday also reinforced a truth overlooked by the Cowboys' subpar passing game a year ago: the backup quarterback isn't the only common denominator in the 1-12 Romo-less record since last September.

Dak needs more help until Romo returns at some point this season.

He played well enough to win the game even though he posted an ordinary passer rating (69.4) and even though Dez Bryant only was targeted in five of his 45 pass attempts, a number that must increase in the games ahead.

Prescott's upside does produce a different optimism this year compared to last year when Romo was hurt. Logic says he'll only get better with experience – more comfortable with the receivers, more comfortable getting the offense into the right play at the line of scrimmage.

But this isn't all about Prescott. Last year the Cowboys played 12 games that were within one score in the fourth quarter. They lost nine of them.

Like last year, the Cowboys have to be better in a lot of different areas when it's crunch time, or these excruciatingly close losses will continue.

They can't have holding penalties on consecutive fourth-quarter drives that put Prescott and the offense in first-and-20 and eventually third-and-looooong. Not many successful plays you can draw up in those situations.

They can't let the Giants force them to burn all their timeouts by running the ball seven straight times for 40 yards in the final three minutes.

They can't continue to struggle running the ball late in the game, when you'd expect to wear down the opposing defense. Prescott faced third-and-at-least-9 eight times, including five times in the fourth quarter.

The team's margin for error tightens late when you don't score early. That's why they also – and most importantly – can't leave eight points on the board by kicking two field goals instead of scoring two touchdowns in the red zone. Prescott's throw to Cole Beasley from the 10-yard line on the opening drive looked like a sure TD.

He also missed some throws, and the game plan did seem conservative, causing fans painful flashbacks to 2015. But the coaching staff isn't expecting him in Career Start One to make the same types of plays Romo would have in Career Start 128. He didn't turn the ball over and he converted 10 of 17 third downs (58.9 percent). The offense's third-down efficiency last year? 34.6 percent.

The defense also gave him an extra possession with a Brandon Carr interception. That's backup for the young backup-turned-starter.

Nate Newton, my co-host on Talkin' Cowboys, has been harping on this point since Prescott moved into the No. 2 spot when Kellen Moore broke his fibula Aug. 2, and again since Prescott moved into the starting role when Romo fractured a bone in his back Aug. 25. The three-time Super Bowl champ is more concerned with the 20 or so other offensive guys doing their job.

That includes the 20-plus defensive guys active in the game, too. As Jones said Tuesday, "We can play better. We can block better. Certainly those mistakes on the next-to-last two possessions, oh, how much they hurt, those penalties by some really key guys on our team. And key drops, those hurt. We can expect these players that we have, the supporting cast around Dak, we can expect to play better."

That essentially perfect preseason was no fluke. Dak Prescott showed he can play when the games count.

The Cowboys expect him to improve with each start until Romo returns. He'll need a little more help, too.

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