FRISCO, Texas — It’s an easy question without an easy answer.
What changes about the Dallas Cowboys’ offense in Dak Prescott’s return from a fractured right thumb, potentially as early as Sunday against the Detroit Lions (1 p.m. ET, CBS)?
Nothing and everything.
Nothing changes, because how the Cowboys (4-2) played in their five games with quarterback Cooper Rush starting in place of Prescott is how they designed their offense in the offseason. When the team traded wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns and did not replace him with a proven veteran or high draft pick, the plan was to be a run-first operation and play to the defensive strength of the team.
Everything changes, because Prescott can do more than Rush. Despite the calls from certain segments of the fan base or national media types wishing for drama, there was no quarterback controversy and there never was going to be. Even owner and general manager Jerry Jones’ comments that he hoped there would be a controversy were about the team winning games without Prescott.
This was not 2016, when Prescott took over for an injured Tony Romo. After losing the opener, the Cowboys won 11 straight games that season. They failed only once to score at least 24 points during that winning streak.
Under Rush, the Cowboys topped 24 points only once, scoring 25 against the Washington Commanders.
While the Cowboys did not feel handcuffed offensively with Rush as their quarterback, Prescott’s ability and experience opens up more possibilities. However, the Cowboys don’t want Prescott to feel like he’s returning as the conquering hero, needing to do everything for the team to succeed.
When Prescott has been at his best, the Cowboys have had a complementary bent, even when he threw for 4,900 yards in 2019 and set a franchise record with 37 touchdown passes last season.
“I just think Dak needs to play his game — if he goes this week,” McCarthy said.
Prescott said after last week’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that it is his plan to play against the Lions. Speaking on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas on Tuesday, Jones said, “He looks ready to go.” He has been cleared medically.
“Dak’s as motivated of a person as we’re ever going to meet in life,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “We’ll just have to go through this thing the right way, and we’ll see where it takes us day by day.”
Whenever Prescott returns, the Cowboys will continue to rely on a running game that has put up at least 134 yards in three of the past four games. The Cowboys are averaging 118.8 rushing yards per game, up from 97 last season.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott had his best game in the loss to the Eagles (13 carries, 81 yards), and running back Tony Pollard has the big-play ability. He has two runs of at least 46 yards and a 46-yard reception.
“We never thought that was a question, I think that was some of that outside noise,” right guard Zack Martin said on questions regarding Elliott’s viability. “But he’s still our go-to back, and I think Jerry [Jones] said it in the beginning of the year: A lot of what we do goes through Zeke. Him and TP [Pollard], it’s fun blocking for both of them.”
One thing that will be different now than in the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when Prescott got hurt, is the passing game that surrounds him.
Rookie Tyler Smith is more accustomed to left tackle after not taking a snap there all training camp. Wide receiver Michael Gallup has returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb is growing into the No. 1 role, while Noah Brown has become a viable receiving option. While a knee injury has slowed down tight end Dalton Schultz, rookies Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot have developed.
“Our best days are ahead of us,” McCarthy said. “I’m being ‘Captain Obvious’ here, but we still have a lot of work to do. That’s been our approach. But obviously when Dak last played, there were some young spots there. Dalton, hopefully we can get him back this week. We definitely have a chance to improve. Having Michael in there is a big plus. … Our improvement is starting to climb.”
There are many areas where the Cowboys need to improve.
They are converting on third down just 30.9% of the time, which is a big reason why they’ve run only 294 plays. They have just 12 pass plays of 20 yards or more, including none against the Eagles on Sunday night. Through six games last season, the Cowboys converted on third down 46.7% of the time, ran 420 plays and had 25 pass plays of 20 yards or more.
That offense is not this offense, but Prescott’s return has everybody excited.
“Sky’s the limit,” Lamb said. “The offense is very good and everyone knows this. When we get him back, we’re going to show everybody.”