Monday, November 07, 2016

The Morning After: Cowboys 35, Browns 10

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) runs the ball during the first quarter of their game against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, November 6, 2016 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)
Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) runs the ball during the first quarter of their game against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, November 6, 2016 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)

The Morning After

This is getting a bit repetitive. The Cowboys just clocked another opponent on the road with such ease that the final two hours of the three-hour affair seemed like they were pretty much just to help fantasy football players get their numbers. The game was over quickly and early.

The Cleveland Browns play in the same league as the Cowboys, but right now, they could not be further apart in the quality of football they play, and that is why the game felt like it might be a preseason affair or an organized scrimmage in which everyone would get a good sweat in without ever turning the intensity all the way up. It was just another mismatch.
This Cowboys team is on such a roll, with such consistent shows of strength, that the outlier is a game like last week, when they had to struggle for their win. We see that and we start to wonder if they are coming back down to Earth. Maybe the league has figured out the formula to deal with these two rookies out of the college circuit.
Sunday confirmed that is not the case at all. The teams in the playoff mix can put up a fight and there is no question there will be losses ahead (I figure), but when they get to play teams near the bottom -- of which they have been blessed with three times this year: Chicago, San Francisco and Cleveland, which are likely three of the four worst teams in football -- there is no reason to analyze the game too carefully. It is a no contest.
The formula is simple. The Cowboys get ahead. They grab an early lead with a quick flex and show of strength. From there, they stay ahead of the scoreboard and the sticks. They get a lead and put the opposition in a nervous position of urgency, where each position seems vital. This forces teams to make decisions that cause mistakes. Then you get the ball back and hammer them again.
Each time the offense gets the ball, they look a threat to score. They hardly ever give the ball away. They hardly ever have a negative play. They hardly ever commit a penalty. On days when all three of those are consistently on the plate, they march the ball and score repeatedly.
On Sunday against the Browns? Look at this drive chart. It is absurd. Again.
Essentially, four drives in the first half (the fifth was a kneel), of which the Cowboys put 21 points up on three drives that each required at least 67 yards. They also each required over 4:30 to complete. They each required five first downs. They march. They wear you down. They beat you down. They pummel you.
But they also confuse you. They throw so many ideas in your head -- all based around the big hammer of this O-line and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott threatening to destroy you if you do not account for him. Even when you do have him accounted for, the damage is still pretty substantial. But, if you put too many troops over there, they then use him as a diversion.
And that diversion is where this quarterback is so great. Dak Prescott has the ability to make things that are simply not easy look easy. He does things that appear repeatable and precise and do immense damage because he has a numbers advantage built off the Ezekiel problem in the other direction. How many times have they run the roll-out bootleg off zone action in the other direction? And how many times has Dak either kept the ball, or moved the chains with what appears to be a simple pitch-and-catch?
Then, here is Dez Bryant. Dez isn't himself. I fear that the accumulation of injuries in the past two years have at least taken a temporary toll. He is not as explosive and now must be a technician of routes to get open, which was never his specialty.
But, to call him a non-factor is just flat wrong. Jason Witten is wide open on a few plays because Dez is getting all sorts of attention. Cole Beasley is open in the end zone because both defensive backs flocked to Dez Bryant. Dez Bryant dictates coverage. As long as he does, he serves a similar purpose as Ezekiel Elliott. So now, you have a player who puts the front seven on its toes and another who puts the secondary on notice.
This may not last forever. Dez will be required to do damage soon to still get this treatment from the league's defensive coordinators, but as long as they think he can kill them, he is valuable just by standing on the field. So, like Emmitt and Michael before them, they have Zeke and Dez as the main threats of any game plan. And that is why there are weeks when you cannot believe that Cole Beasley, Lucky Whitehead, Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, Brice Butler, Terrance Williams or Geoff Swaim are "so wide open." It is because they are. You can't cover everyone.
So now we circle back to the quarterback story. Why is Dak Prescott successful?
Because he makes plays out of nothing? No. Because when he has a chance to make a play, he makes it. He is playing with this tremendous numbers advantage, and then, in Aikman-like fashion, simply makes sound decisions where turnovers are seldom risked and the chains keep moving. When he has a chance to make a big throw, he does so. His throw into the seam to Beasley on third-and-6 in the fourth quarter yesterday is not a throw everyone makes. But, he can.
They don't ask him to make that throw 20 times a game. But, they do ask him to make throws -- which he generally does. Or, he makes a play with his legs on third down. Or he sells a fake like a veteran. And that is why you need to stop this Kellen Moore/Mark Sanchez nonsense.
In fact, you may need to even slow down in thinking present-day Tony Romo could do all of this.
To do what Dak Prescott has done in the past few months would require the ability to threaten teams with running ability. It would also require someone to take some pretty big shots in the pocket and jump back up like nothing happened. Do you remember the last big hit Prescott has taken? No? Do you know why you feel that way? Because when he gets hit, it is a non-factor. His health is not a concern to you, because he looks like an indestructible kid. That may not last forever either, but for now, the difference between a quarterback you think will get hurt each time he is touched and one you think is bigger than those who hit him is immense.
I am not saying Tony Romo can't get his seat back and his success, too. I am saying anyone who wants to mess with a 7-1 team at the top of its conference when they look this dominant for two straight months is out of their mind. If Prescott struggles mightily at the helm in the next few weeks, maybe we have something to discuss.
But for now, with Prescott following up his least impressive victory with a victory in which it looked like he never broke a sweat while almost throwing a perfect game, I would contend that the biggest issue in Cowboys-land has been declared a "non-issue."
This team is on a roll. A roll that is rare and potentially quite special. The quarterback of this team is an unfamiliar face replicating the local hero at the height of his powers. We were told nobody could do this but the man himself. And then this fourth-rounder walks in and matches the passing numbers and adds a whole new element with his feet, making you think you've won the lottery by finding a modern day, dual-threat quarterback who is just getting started.
He hands to a running back who also is brand new. In fact, this all feels brand new. I know everyone wants to compare it to 2014, but you should aim higher than a season of which the best thing someone could say is that it produced a wild-card win and neat hashtag (#DezCaughtIt).
You should realize there is a trophy case that has been collecting only dust for two decades. At 7-1, you should begin to raise your target beyond 2014. You should ask if this machine, as presently constituted, could earn a bye right past the wild-card round and, perhaps, need just one home win for its first trip to the NFC Championship Game since Troy, Michael, and Emmitt tied opponents in knots.
From there, anything is possible.
At 7-1, dare to dream.

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