Although the Dallas Cowboys lost their Divisional Round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers last season, they had a lot to be excited about heading into this season.
They found their heir to Tony Romo’s reign at quarterback in Dak Prescott. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott had an historic rookie season. Their offensive line continued to perform at an NFL-best level. The team went 13-3 in the regular season and seemed to be united under head coach Jason Garrett, who had previously been the subject of a ton of criticism.
Fast forward to the present moment and a lot has changed. The ‘Boys are 5-6 and are on the wrong end of the playoff picture. Ezekiel Elliott has been suspended for six games after a lengthy and confusing court battle. In his absence over the last three games, Dallas has gotten manhandled, losing 27-7 to the Atlanta Falcons, 37-9 to the Philadelphia Eagles and then 28-6 on Thanksgiving against the Los Angeles Chargers in front of their home fans.
After scoring fewer than 10 points in each of the three games without Elliott, a few things have become obvious.
First, the combination of Alfred Morris, Rod Smith and Darren McFadden at running back cannot compare to what Elliott can do on the field.
Secondly, Dak Prescott has not been able to step up. Throwing a total of four interceptions in the eight games that he played with Elliott alongside him, he has thrown five in the last two games alone and posted 179, 145 and 176 passing yards in the games without Zeke. Although defenses can better prepare for a more one-dimensional Dallas offense without Elliott, Prescott's play has been concerning.
Thirdly, Elliott has proven to be Dallas’ only real playmaker. Dez Bryant, coming off a 50-catch, 796-yard, eight-touchdown year over 13 games in 2016, has caught 53 passes for 578 yards through 11 games this year, but hasn’t topped 100 yards a single time. Since Elliott has been out, Bryant caught four passes for 39 yards against the Falcons, eight passes for 63 yards against the Eagles and three passes for 37 yards against the Chargers. He didn’t record a touchdown in that span either.
The most concerning factor of Bryant’s recent play has been his inability to get separation off the line of scrimmage, which he formerly excelled at doing. On Thanksgiving, he wasn’t even targeted during the entire first half against the Chargers because he simply couldn't get open.
But, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones rushed to his defense in a local radio appearance on Friday.
"Dez is actually, from the standpoint of being to excel, is a better player," Jones told 105.3 The Fan Dallas. "I know a lot of people are rolling their eyes on that one -- he's really a better player. He's just got to get into a better position. He had a ball yesterday that he can catch. I've seen him miss that ball before, but I've seen him catch that ball, too, great periods of times. Let me say this: I feel good about Dez."
Up next for Bryant is a tough matchup against Josh Norman and the Washington Redskins in Week 13 . Back in Week 8, Bryant caught four passes on six targets for 39 yards in a 33-19 victory. Judging by recent results, there’s no reason to assume that the Cowboys offense will fare any better in their fourth game without their franchise running back than they did in the first three.
That could mean another forgettable performance by Bryant, who has now gone 17-straight games without eclipsing 100 yards.