Dak Prescott's value to Cowboys will keep rising with every epic fail by Andy Dalton, Ezekiel Elliott

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Vinnie Iyer

Dak Prescott's value to Cowboys will keep rising with every epic fail by Andy Dalton, Ezekiel Elliott 1

The Cowboys’ offense wasn’t their problem during the 2020 NFL season until their Monday night meltdown against the Cardinals. The shock of Dallas’ 38-10 home loss to Arizona isn’t that its defense gave up so many points in defeat, but rather the total dysfunction in trying to move the ball and score enough points to be competitive.

While quarterback Dak Prescott is beginning his long recovery from the brutal season-ending right ankle injury he suffered in Week 5 against the Giants, he should have felt his long-term value to the Cowboys going up as both his replacement, Andy Dalton, and his backfield running mate, Ezekiel Elliott, were going down hard.

MORE: Dalton’s bad night summed up by one throw | Elliott takes blame for Cowboys’ loss

Dalton, who notoriously struggled in night games with the Bengals, faded to black with two interceptions and three sacks against the Cardinals. He averaged a dismal 4.6 yards per attempt with a microscopic 65.8 passer rating. 

Elliott, who was supposed to the Cowboys’ new offensive rock and go back to being the centerpiece of their attack with his hard, consistent running, coughed up two fumbles that changed the entire complexion of the game. His 20 touches for 80 yards ended up being absolutely meaningless.

Look, Dalton isn’t supposed to be as good as Prescott. That’s why Dalton is making $ 3 million as a late one-year free-agent signing and Prescott is still earning his $ 31.4 guaranteed on the franchise tag ahead of a more lucrative long-term deal.

But Elliott should be elite. He has the largest contract in total money of any running back in the league, $ 90 million, and the $ 15 million he averages per season is only behind the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey.

Sure, the Cowboys’ offensive line is beat up, depleted and now is dealing with a new injury to right guard Zack Martin. The defense somehow became more terrible against the Cardinals, leaving even less of a margin for offensive error.

A great back such as Elliott should lift the team through a tough situation, not drag it down. He should show his leadership and back it up with veteran-like top production. Dalton should have worked harder to be on the same page with his top wide receiver trio of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. Those three could have helped out by running smoother routes against the Cardinals’ bad cornerbacks without drops and falls.

Prescott was the tie who binded everything together, and it became more evident without him. He’s been attached at the hip with Ellliott since both entered the league as dynamic rookies, leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 season in 2016. But as Elliott has had an off-field drama and a holdout, Prescott has been the steadfast leader, playing every game for the Cowboys until Week 7, and last season, took complete control of the offense with Kellen Moore opening up the passing game for him.

IYER: Dak Prescott’s injury gives Cowboys even more reason to work out long-term contract

When Prescott went down against the Giants, it was a dififcult emotional moment for the Cowboys’ organization, all the way up top to the two guys who will ultimately decide how much and for how long they want to pay the quarterback — Stephen and Jerry Jones. The public sentiment was having confidence that Dalton would help do the job as the “next man up” because of those receivers and that they could survive and win the weak NFC East by leaning on Elliott, also better protecting their defense in the process.

In private, you can bet there was a total sense of dread, fearing the team as a whole would respond much worse to the combination of Dalton and Elliott at the forefront of the offense. There was a lot of hope on paper against a Cardinals’ defense that was without elite edge rusher Chandler Jones, that wasn’t forcing turnovers and had issues in the red zone.

Sure, the Cardinals have a dominant safety in Budda Baker, who did wreak his share of havoc. But make no mistake that more of the Cowboys’ woes were tied to self-inflicted wounds, Elliott being careless with the ball and Dalton forcing things that weren’t there and also missing things that were.

Prescott did have some turnovers, too, but the difference is that he was the one leading the big charge to recover from mistakes and making the Cowboys get better from them, not worse. He ran and threw, did whatever he needed to do to keep the Cowboys in games despite the defense doing its best to keep letting them down.

Prescott’s arm and athleticism were missed on Monday, but his intangibles — his mental toughness, heart, soul and compettivie spirit — were missed by the Cowboys a lot more. They have a new coach in Mike McCarthy, but Prescott is their most indispensable leader and offensive-minded presence.

Somehow, even with that debacle, Dallas is in first place in the division at 2-4. The optimist would say that they have time to get things figured out without Prescott to compensate for their awful defense. The pessimist would say that the Cowboys have given the Eagles, at 1-4-1, all the confidence in the world to keep grinding with Carson Wentz to steal the NFC East’s lone playoff berth at the end again.

Wentz, even with more crumbling around him and a bad start to the season, is digging deep to get his team out of a hole. Prescott was doing the same. After Monday night, it’s hard to believe the Cowboys can feel good about Dalton and Elliott doing enough to pick up where Prescott left off in that effort.

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