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Spagnola: Jump To This Conclusion For Dak's Recently Improved Performance

FRISCO, Texas –Narratives around here with the Dallas Cowboys change like the Texas weather.

         You know, one morning you wake up these days and it's 37 degrees. By time you come home after work in the evening it's like 70 degrees.

         Go figure.

         Same with these opinions surrounding Dak Prescott. You might have heard of him. He's the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, that NFL organization seemingly forever creating a buzz, good, bad or otherwise.

         One minute he's being hailed as the best thing since sliced bread. A Pro Bowler. Some insisting the NFC Rookie of the Year in the Cowboys' 13-3 season of 2016.

         The next minute he can't get the ball down the field, defenses have figured him out.

         The minute after that he's putting the team on his back, carrying an offense with his arm and his legs during the first eight games of the 2017 season. He's the bomb.

         Then three games later, after a 5-3 start, Dak is limited, can't play without Ezekiel Elliott, who was suspended for six games, accused of violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. Why, suddenly he's no more than a complementary quarterback, and without Zeke, well, he just can't play since the Cowboys lost the first three games during his suspension, scoring no more than nine points in any of those outings.

Then, voila, the Cowboys win two straight, scoring at least 30 points in each of those victories, and now the narrative does a 180:

Overnight, Dak has learned to play without Zeke. Uh, like took him four-and-three-quarters games to figure all this out, and in the fourth quarter of the 30-10 victory over the New York Giants suddenly this all miraculously kicked in, Dak leading the Cowboys to a 20-point quarter, the most they've scored in a fourth quarter all season long.

Seriously, 37 degrees to 70 in the blink of an eye?

Good thing Dak is mature beyond his 24 years. None of this seems to bother him. He understands this all comes with the quarterbacking dinner. He knows more than you know, and he's pretty sly, answering questions diplomatically without being contentious, yet parring narratives he knows deep down are B.S.

Same with Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.

So, by late Monday afternoon, here came the latest narrative: Did Dak finally figure out how to perform admirably without Zeke on the field? The Cowboys beat the Redskins, 38-14, and then came back 10 days later to thump the Giants, 30-10, even though the game still was tied, 10-10, midway through the fourth quarter.

Like that light bulb finally came on right there in the fourth quarter?

You guys, please.

Garrett was asked the same on Monday: So has Dak finally learned how to play without Zeke on the field? He, too, deftly parried the question, and unless you listened carefully, you might have missed that he didn't exactly agree with the premise.

"I think the most important thing for everybody is to be your best regardless of what the circumstances are," Garrett began. "Obviously, Zeke is a really good football player and makes everybody around him better. I would make the same argument about Dak. He's a really good player and he continues to grow week after week, and I think the guys around him have done a really nice job the last couple of weeks. He has certainly played well and played very well in the ballgame on Sunday."

Are we listening? Because if we are, Garrett certainly wasn't agreeing with the latest narrative, but politely so.

Neither was Dak when asked about his five-game learning curve, that suddenly everything clicked in that final quarter against the Giants.

"It's a different thing, and I think that is the first thing you've got to recognize," he said of playing without Zeke. "It's not the same. It's going to be different, play calls are going to be different. And for what I've learned, I guess, everybody is embracing their role – their new role, their different role or maybe it's the same role. But they are embracing it, and everybody is wanting to step up and make a play, not looking for another guy to make it."

Now, what did he say? Read it again. He certainly wasn't agreeing with the premise that he figured out how to play successfully without the NFL's defending rushing champ.

So beware about you, too, buying in.

Let's be practical.

What happened when Zeke began his six-game suspension the ninth game of the season at Atlanta?

Well, coinciding with Zeke's absence was that of Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith. Remember? His replacement Chaz Green spit the bit. Adrian Clayborn abused him for four sacks. He tallied two more against Green's replacement Byron Bell. In all, the Falcons registered eight sacks in that game. Dak was hit another nine times. Dak throws for 176 yards. No touchdowns for only the second time in the season. The Cowboys get beat, 27-7, after tailing just 10-7 at halftime.

Next week, same thing against Philadelphia. He's sacked four times. Hit another six times. Is intercepted three times, two of them not really his fault. Finishes with just 145 yards passing. Cowboys get clobbered, 37-9, after leading 9-7 at halftime.

Need one more? Against the Chargers, Tyron gets back, but really isn't himself. Guard Zack Martin plays just 20 of 55 snaps, leaving with a concussion. Right tackle La'el Collins began having back problems. Dak is sacked two more times. Hit another four times. Is intercepted twice. And after down just 3-0 at halftime, the Cowboys fall a third consecutive game, 28-6, on Thanksgiving, Dak throwing for just 179 yards.

My gosh, Dak was sacked 14 times in three games, when he had been sacked just 10 times in the first eight games. Hit a total of 19 times in those three losses.

Come on, now. Anyone see a pattern here, more so than just no Zeke? More so than the quarterback just couldn't figure out how to play without Zeke?

You guys, wake up. Don't get fooled.

 "The offensive line is all about the group, and it kind of felt like at that point in the season we weren't where we are now," Collins reasoned. "We weren't there yet. It took some time."

He's being generous. All the starters weren't in those games or were playing through an injury.

But with a healthy offensive line, and granted the next two opponents were Washington and the Giants, currently a combined 7-19, Dak was sacked just once, wasn't intercepted and threw five touchdown passes. Won both games, scoring 38 and 30 points.

Me thinks there is a correlation between the offensive line becoming much healthier, playing much better, and in turn Dak playing at a much higher level.

And with a healthier offensive line, the Cowboys also ran for 304 yards and three touchdowns in those two games, compared to just two TDs during the three-game losing streak.

Let's be honest, remember what Bill Parcells used to say about quarterbacks: They aren't out there playing singles.

Plus, if you were a defensive coordinator, who would scare you more, the tandem running attack of Alfred Morris and Rod Smith or Dak slinging the ball down field? No need to answer. We know it.

Plus, at least now the Cowboys offensive line is much healthier. All the starters are back out there, plus Collins was able to practice these past couple of days for the first time in three weeks in preparation for Sunday night's game against the Oakland Raiders (6-7).

"Got to jell and be on the same page," Collins said. "We do a great job of being on the same page, and having unity on the offensive line and being five strong."

So let's be real. There's no Pythagorean theorem needed to figure all this out. Dak on his feet is much better than Dak on his back. Or Dak being hit. Or Dak being harassed in the pocket.

That must continue Sunday night. The Raiders, too, are playing for their playoff lives. And of late, a team recording just 14 sacks over the first 10 games of the season, suddenly has erupted for 12 sacks in the past three games, five of those belonging to defensive end Bruce Irvin (7.5 this season). This all taking place after former Cowboys linebacker and now head coach Jack Del Rio fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., the former Cowboys Pro Bowl linebacker, and replaced him with assistant head coach John Pagano.

And this doesn't take into account the Raiders sack leader, the ever-dangerous Khalil Mack (8.5 sacks).

"It's a fight," Collins said of facing this Raiders defensive front. "Can't let them get to my quarterback."

You'd better believe it, and don't you forget it, a narrative that does not waver.

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