Still cause for concern in Big D despite win over Saints

Dak Prescott wore a postgame smile, and you couldn’t blame the Dallas Cowboys quarterback for that. It’s not easy to win games in the National Football League — just ask the Detroit Lions.

So even a 27-17 slog over a New Orleans Saints team that boasted neither Alvin Kamara nor an actual quarterback still counts. The Cowboys’ record moved to 8-4. Mission accomplished.

“A win,” Prescott said, “is a win.”

These are the Cowboys though, a team of immense popularity and immense hype that spent the first two months of the season making its fans dream of a long-awaited Super Bowl.

The victory stems a slide from a disastrous 1-3 November, but does Dallas look like a real contender, or a team that while almost assuredly is set to win the NFC East is ill-prepared for the top-heavy NFC playoff chase?

In New Orleans the Cowboys looked like the latter, a team destined for an early exit. Lucky for them, the playoffs don’t arrive for five weeks.

The run game has somehow vanished. Dallas rushed for 146 yards Thursday, but those stats were padded by a 58-yard Tony Pollard touchdown run and another 33-yard sweep by wide receiver CeeDee Lamb.

Other than that, Pollard had just 13 yards on six carries, and Ezekiel Elliott (who is clearly banged up) had just 45 yards on 13 attempts. That’s just 3.05 yards per rush. And just four of those carries went for more than three yards.

This from a team that was bulldozing opponents to the tune of 201 yards rushing per contest during a four-game stretch earlier this season.

It has turned the Cowboys into a one-dimensional team. It likely forced offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to repeatedly call passing plays in the fourth quarter when Dallas should have been salting away the game. Instead, incompletions caused repeated three-and-outs that drained almost none of the clock.

An opponent with a real quarterback would have exploited that and, rest assured, Dallas isn’t going to match up with the admirable, but limited, Taysom Hill come January. Counting on Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady to throw four interceptions probably isn’t much of a game plan.

Dec 2, 2021; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) hands the ball off against New Orleans Saints during the first half  at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
The Cowboys' running game was virtually non-existent again against the Saints. (Stephen Lew/USA TODAY Sports)

Even worse, if Dallas remains so obviously committed to the passing game, the improved defenses will be able to focus on that. Right now, as the season heads to its conclusion, the Dallas offensive line can’t create holes for the Dallas running backs to barge through. A team with the combo of Elliott and Pollard was expected to make a huge difference, but isn’t showing it.

Prescott was 26-of-40 against the Saints for 238 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Getting wide receiver Amari Cooper back from injury helped and should help more when he can play more than 24 snaps.

“We’ve just got to be more sound, more focused,” Prescott said. “As I’ve said, I’ve got to stay more disciplined, just playing it play by play.”

All of this is cause for concern. The good news, there’s still time. Bill Belichick championed the concept that good teams need to hit their stride after Thanksgiving, and with the season now extended to a 17th game, this was essentially Thanksgiving.

A three-game stretch against NFC East competition should help — unless you believe Washington, which Dallas will play twice, is a legit contender. The Cowboys also get a mini-bye, having survived Thursday and not playing again until Dec. 12.

The injury situation should improve. Coach Mike McCarthy should return from COVID protocols. Dan Quinn can go back to concentrating on the defense.

It’s certainly no time to write the Cowboys off — they found a way to win a game and that’s all that matters. There are no style points.

"It's good to be past this,” Prescott said. “Obviously, it didn't go the way we hoped and planned it out. But, sitting at 8-4, top of the division with a chance to get rested and recovered this week, we'll put ourselves in a good spot as we hit these next five.

“And we'll hit them the right way."

Hopefully with that lost running game, better balance and the knowledge that that September/October run doesn’t mean anything now, because it all gets tougher the closer the Cowboys get to their goal.