Struggles of Dak Prescott, Cowboys' offense come down to this: Everybody is gearing up to stop Ezekiel Elliott

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Maybe it was the loss. Or the offensive line playing like a poor facsimile of itself. Or the quarterback looking like a guy who might belong in the lower-third of the starters at his position. Or maybe Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn’t want to be asked about Randy Gregory, yet again.

Whatever the case, Jerry did a rare opening-night sidestep out of Bank of America Stadium after his Cowboys lost 16-8 to the Carolina Panthers in an uninspired start to the season. As his team showered, Jones headed for a black SUV – apparently with no answers for the media members eager to pick his brain.

But that was a Dallas theme for the night: After an offseason of questions about the offense, the first chapter of the season provided no answer key. Just a bunch of blank spaces that are already being filled with plenty of negative data.

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Ezekiel Elliott ran for 69 yards on 15 carries in Dallas’ season opening defeat in Carolina. (AP)\
Ezekiel Elliott ran for 69 yards on 15 carries in Dallas’ season opening defeat in Carolina. (AP)\

The offensive line? Bad. Six sacks. Ten Dak Prescott hits. Shadow of itself.

The quarterback? Shelled. Out of sorts. Inaccurate. Does not look like a progressing player.

The wide receivers? Just a bunch of average guys. Subtracting Dez Bryant may not have hurt the Cowboys’ group, but it didn’t make it any better, either.

The running back? Rarely used creatively, but the offense is definitely built around him. Can the supporting cast function better when opponents remove him?

That’s a rundown that should sound familiar. As problems go, it was basically the majority of the “to-do” list that spanned spring and summer. Now it has officially lingered into the regular season, where it will tend to be far more problematic if things don’t get resolved quickly.

Of course, the rationale will get sliced and diced, and consumed a variety of ways. The lack of talent at wide receiver will get blamed. The offensive line will get raked for lacking chemistry with rookie Connor Williams starting at guard and center Travis Frederick out of commission. There will be questions about not playing the veterans enough in the preseason. Dak Prescott’s development will be a big thing in Dallas again. Ditto for the play-calling of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

All of that is worthy of consideration, of course. And it’s also worthy of considering this was just one game and one bad start – on the road, no less.

But there was one thing that came out of the locker room Sunday night. One thing that is worth absorbing and focusing the rest of the season through one reality: The Dallas offense is built around Ezekiel Elliott; every single opponent knows this is the design. If the Cowboys can’t learn to function without Elliott being the primary breadwinner every single week, this offensive mediocrity will never change.

Teams aren’t afraid of Allen Hurns or Terrance Williams or Cole Beasley beating them. And they know Prescott, who ran five times for 19 yards, isn’t going to morph into a run-pass option monster like Cam Newton.

Dak Prescott and the Cowboys didn’t find the end zone too often, but did here on this 2-point conversion in the second half. (AP)
Dak Prescott and the Cowboys didn’t find the end zone too often, but did here on this 2-point conversion in the second half. (AP)

That means the offensive line has to get back to being the earth-moving unit it was in 2016. This, frankly, might never happen. In hindsight, that unit had far more experience and chemistry with Ron Leary and Doug Free starting alongside Tyron Smith, Frederick and Zack Martin (not to mention La’el Collins providing some spot depth). Maybe if Frederick returns this season – which is completely up in the air – this unit can galvanize and meet expectations. But if Sunday night was a hint at things to come, it’s going to be a long season for the group. The same can be said for the wideouts and Prescott.

All of which brings this back to Elliott. This offense was constructed to run through him. The Cowboys know it. Opponents know it. That means this offense is fundamentally solvable because it’s dependent on using Elliott in a head-on brute-force approach. And if Dallas can’t win with that kind of will and punishment every single week, the offense must grow into a more creative entity than it is right now.

As Elliott said Sunday night: “[The Panthers] didn’t run anything new [on defense]. They didn’t run anything we haven’t seen. We’ve just got to keep working at the offense. … They loaded the box, but you guys keep bringing it up. That’s every week. There’s no point in even talking about it anymore. Every week they’re going to load up the box. We know they’re going to load the box. … We’ve got to start faster. We can’t come out there and lay an egg in the first half.”

That’s a mouthful of true statements. Not exactly answers, but definitely some truth. Since 2016, the Cowboys have engineered an offense that lives and dies with Ezekiel Elliott. In 2016, it thrived with him. In 2017, it tanked in a stretch without him. And all the while, opponents discerned a fundamental fact about this team. Elliott is the driving force the offense still hasn’t learned to live without. Remove him any way you can, limit his opportunities, force the play-calling toward other pieces.

Do this as an opposing defense, and teams have solved a Cowboys offense that can’t seem to solve itself first.

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