Tuesday, January 31, 2023 Jan 31, 2023
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Dallas Cowboys Checklist

The Cowboys Found a Different, Chaotic, Fun-as-Hell Way to Win

It wasn't what we're used to seeing. That may be a good thing.
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We're not accustomed to this many Cowboys touchdown celebrations in one game. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The first half of the Cowboys’ season ended on a good note, as Dallas walloped Chicago 49-29 to improve to 6-2 entering the bye week. Let’s run down the Dallas Cowboys Checklist and see what got accomplished against the Bears.

Took a detour into the win column

On balance, this was the Cowboys’ worst defensive performance to date. How could it not be when the Bears scored the most points (29), compiled the most rushing yards (240) and total yards (371), and tied for the most first downs (22) of any Dallas opponent all season?

That they did this with one of the worst collections of offensive talent in the league—a unit that, collectively, ranked 28th in yards per game entering Sunday (Dallas was 29th, although not having Dak Prescott skews that number quite a bit)—suggests that the Cowboys have plenty to clean up on their week off. First and foremost is devising a game plan to contain mobile quarterbacks, after Justin Fields followed Jalen Hurts’ lead and terrorized Dallas’ containment on the ground. That wasn’t enough to make the outcome of this one feel very much in doubt, not even when Chicago trimmed a 28-7 lead all the way down to 28-23. But at 6-2, the Cowboys are hunting bigger game than the lowly Bears, and Philadelphia has already beaten Dallas once with Hurts’ offense playing at something like half speed (thank an opportune Lane Johnson injury for that). They can certainly do it again if Hurts better resembles the MVP candidate he’s been throughout the rest of the season.

So there is something to be said for desiring a little less chaos from what was the Cowboys’ most entertaining win of the season, as well as their messiest. Fun as this was—and who wasn’t having fun watching Prescott architect a first-quarter destruction?—it also underscored that even a defense this good has a noticeable shortcoming to address.

But consider the narrow band of ways Dallas could win football games in Prescott’s absence. Now consider how this same team, mere weeks removed from running a popgun offense, could squander a multi-touchdown lead and watch its defense get bored and still mosey its way to scoring 49 points, the most Chicago has allowed in a game since 2014. The Cowboys did all of this without their starting running back (albeit not their best running back; we’ll get to that) and with their secondary in shambles once all three members of their safety troika either didn’t suit up (Malik Hooker) or missed parts of this game due to injury (Donovan Wilson and Jayron Kearse).

All of which made this the perfect microcosm of the first half of Dallas’ season. Little about Sunday went entirely to plan, aside from the outcome. There’s something to be said for that, too.

Dusted off the Dak rushing playbook

2019 was a long time ago—more than enough time to forget the quarterback Dak Prescott used to be. In his first four NFL seasons, Prescott averaged 305 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns per season on 5.1 yards per attempt. Then came the season-ending ankle injury in 2020, which served as an informal line of demarcation between dual-threat Dak and pocket-passer-with-mobility Dak. In his next 18 games, Prescott registered just 157 yards and a touchdown on 3.0 yards per attempt.

Sunday marked his 19th game since that injury and, with it, the first signs that the Cowboys’ offseason soundbites about getting Prescott more involved on the ground could be more than mere lip service.

It began with this tricked-out option keeper for Prescott’s first rushing touchdown since November of last year:

Then came this, a 3rd-and-1 plunge that mushroomed into Prescott’s longest carry since 2019:

Neither of those plays suggests that Prescott is on track to become a rushing threat on par with Fields. But they do signify that this dimension of Prescott’s game is not dead and gone just yet. And that, with a bye week to tinker with the offensive schemes, Kellen Moore would be foolish not to leverage them often enough in the second half to make opposing defenses sweat.

Hosted an old friend in an awful jersey

About half an hour before game time, my old colleague at The Athletic, Jon Machota, tweeted a photo of the worst jersey I’ve seen in a long time:

Questions abound. Who manufactured this? Why would someone ask them to? For the sake of uniformity, shouldn’t it be Justin and Dak or Fields and Prescott? What happens to the other halves of each jersey?

And, most important, what person would purchase—and flaunt—such a garment?

That last one, I can answer. And it’s better than you possibly could have imagined:

Carter battled addiction and came out on the other side, so it’s great to see him back around the team he quarterbacked from 2001 through 2003. And while this is hardly the best aesthetic choice, it certainly is garish enough for a man making his first pilgrimage to Jerry World.

As for why he picked the hybrid jersey over a traditional Prescott, my best guess is mutual Georgia ties between Carter and Fields: both are from the state and played at the University of Georgia (Fields eventually transferred to Ohio State). But let me know if you’ve solved that mystery—and then get on the one about what happens to the other halves of each jersey.

Honored another, slightly more prominent old friend

Twenty years and three days ago, Emmitt Smith broke Walter Peyton’s career rushing record on an 11-yard, fourth-quarter run in a Cowboys loss to Seattle.

Naturally, everyone involved made sure to commemorate the platinum anniversary—of the run, not the loss. Reminders were everywhere, from Dallas’ opponent (Payton’s Bears) to a nod on the video board to the broadcast replaying the emotional moment shared between Smith and Moose Johnston, his old fullback and current FOX broadcaster, in 2002 to Emmitt joining Johnston in the booth to reminisce about it.

It wasn’t the highlight of the afternoon; things would have had to go woefully wrong on the field for that to happen. But it was a proper tribute to the signature achievement of the greatest player to wear the uniform. (I said what I said, @ me at your leisure.)

Delivered another piece of Micah Parsons brilliance

Memo to highlight curators everywhere: when Parsons wins Defensive Player of the Year, make this the first play on his reel:

Widened the gap at running back

StrongSide readers know that we disavowed any notion of a quarterback controversy between Dak Prescott and Cooper Rush on this here website. The mentions we did make of it were in service to one of three things: A) To explain how the Cowboys got boxed into a certain kind of (temporarily successful) formula under Rush. B) To clarify that this wasn’t a real controversy in the first place. And C) to remind any skeptics that Prescott does myriad things that Rush cannot replicate with his limited skill set. This game stamped out any lingering notion of whether Prescott still ranks among the game’s best quarterbacks, and so we have no need to consider this storyline any longer.

But we’ll happily discuss the situation at running back, even if there’s no controversy there, either. You can chalk that up to two things. First, Tony Pollard is Dallas’ best player at the position and has been for some time. Today’s supernova of a performance—147 all-purpose yards on just 15 touches, and the first 100-rushing yard, three-touchdown game for a Cowboy since Julius Jones in 2004—did not declare this so much as confirm what most every Cowboys observer not named Jerral already knew.

This takes us to the second item: said Cowboys observer Jerral continues to show zero interest in giving Pollard touches commensurate to his ability.

The Cowboys do not, in fact, go as Zeke goes. This is a passing team that crests and falls with Prescott’s play, the way virtually every great NFL offense does in 2022. But they don’t have to pretend to live and die by Zeke, either. They could simply start their best running back—a player who has compiled 279 total yards and five touchdowns in only two career NFL starts—and find out just how productive this offense might become if they didn’t shackle their most explosive playmaker.  

But they won’t, because the contract Jones awarded Elliott remains a monument to stubbornness and football obsolescence. So don’t expect a running back controversy in Dallas any time soon. What a pity.

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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