CHARLOTTE — The struggle had been real enough for Dak Prescott that by the second quarter, any opening to give the Dallas Cowboys even as much as a first down would be a welcome reprieve.
Constantly behind the chains, besieged by the Carolina Panthers’ pass rush, Prescott finally had what he so desperately needed: A clean pocket and several options. The best one presented itself at the very last moment, just as Prescott thought about running for a first down. Spotting tight end Blake Jarwin running free down the left sideline, it looked like a certain touchdown as Prescott’s pass traveled 35 yards in the air. Instead, as Jarwin turned back to catch it, Prescott’s pass was too short, too slow.
“Got to make that throw,” Prescott said.
The Cowboys kicked off Year 3 of a rebuild centered around Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott with a 16-8 loss at Bank of America Stadium that didn’t at all resemble the team they led to a 13-3 record as rookies two years ago. And while it was only one game on the road against a high-level defense, every week that the Cowboys struggle to move the ball this season will add ambiguity to the fundamental question of their franchise.
Was their rookie success the baseline for future playoff and perhaps even Super Bowl runs, or has the league caught up to the Prescott-Elliott pairing before it ever accomplished anything meaningful?
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Though the Cowboys took some solace, and they hope some positive momentum, out of a single second-half touchdown drive that gave them a chance to come back, the final numbers were ugly.
A team that finished fifth in the NFL in total offense two years ago with Prescott and Elliott leading the way mustered just 232 on 57 plays against the Panthers. Take away their sole touchdown drive, which went for 75 yards on 10 plays after they got behind 16-0, and you won’t find another occasion during the entire game in which they put stress on Carolina’s defense. No explosive passes, no threatening runs, barely any drives that sustained beyond a single first down.
“We get paid every week to come out and win football games and execute at a high level,” said Elliott, who was limited to 69 yards on 15 carries. “We didn’t have a lot of plays. We got behind. We have to start faster. That’s not Dallas Cowboys football. We can’t come out like that and lay an egg in the first half.”
In the Cowboys’ locker room, the talking points were focused on getting behind the sticks early; lots of second-and-long, third-and-impossible. Prescott’s final numbers weren’t damning — 19-for-29, 170 yards, no interceptions — but too many of those completions were dump-offs well short of the first down marker that Carolina was all too happy to yield. On the rare occasions Prescott could take shots deep, like the ball in the second quarter he underthrew, he missed badly.
“I was off, and I have to see on film if I was rushing or if I was under pressure,” he said.
But the Cowboys have a fundamental problem that they must solve before deciding whether to give Prescott — a fourth-round draft pick who makes just $630,000 — a contract befitting a star quarterback this coming offseason when he’s eligible for an extension.
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Teams have adjusted since 2016, when Prescott was one of the league’s most effective quarterbacks with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions. Since then, the plan has been to keep him in the pocket and make him throw like a conventional quarterback, not the guy who can move around and pick you apart with the field spread.
“We know he’s a scrambling quarterback, and we know he likes to get out of the pocket,” Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “We did a really good job. There were some times he got out and escaped, but overall I think the D-line did a phenomenal job keeping him in the pocket, rewarding us with some sacks, some overthrown balls, some incomplete passes.”
Last season, it was easy to write off Dallas’ offensive regression from No. 5 to No. 14. Add up Prescott coming back to earth a bit, the supporting players getting older and Elliot missing six games due to an NFL suspension, and it all made sense.
And though this was always going to be a year for the Cowboys to transition around the Dak and Zeke show — no more Dez Bryant, no more Jason Witten has put younger players in the spotlight — they are now veterans in this league. It’s up to them to produce.
“We have a lot of great players on this team,” Prescott said. “We aren’t talking about guys we used to have or guys that aren’t here.”
That’s the attitude Prescott should have as he leads the Cowboys into the immediate future. But if Prescott already hit his ceiling as a pocket threat and opponents successfully load up the box to stop him and Elliott from running as the Panthers did Sunday, the longer view of the Cowboys may need some adjustments.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.
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