We won't attempt to insult anyone's intelligence about the state of the offense at the present time. There is no question this offense that was described in this space as recently as Week 9 as a "machine" is nothing close to that and is in desperate need of some big plays again.
Big plays, where have you gone?
In the first eight games of the season -- with Ezekiel Elliott on the active roster -- this team was capable of big plays. At the time, there were plenty of complaints about how few big plays there were, because the number would not make the Saints or Patriots blush, but by Cowboys standards, it was pretty solid. Elliott didn't have his hands on the majority of them by any stretch -- he had six of the 26 the offense had accounted for in the first half of the season -- but he obviously attracted enough attention that others had opportunities.
In the first four games of the season (when the Cowboys were sputtering at 2-2), they had 14 explosives (20 yards or more on a single play). In the next four games (Cowboys went 3-1), they had 12 explosives and were able to feel pretty good about where their offense was overall after a decisive win over the Chiefs in early November.
But evidently, no Elliott means no threat of a big pass.
Now they have played four games during his suspension, and we see the issues of the big plays -- or lack thereof. There have been seven explosives in 16 quarters of football.
No team in the NFL has fewer explosive plays in the past month than the Cowboys.
It gets worse. Of those seven explosives, only four are pass plays. Only three other teams have less than double that during this stretch. Chicago (6), Cincinnati (6) and Buffalo (5) have more than Dallas, too, but not double.
So, yeah, four games and four passes of 20-plus yards, including zero against the Eagles on that Sunday night we don't like to speak of. Worse yet, they don't seem interested in attempting them, either.
We may need to see some signs of life soon from this passing game if there is to be any chance to put a run together.
It all starts with what appears to be a combination of elements that include a quarterback who is not putting the ball where he would like to put it, a wide receiver group that has no real ability to win downfield (aside from red-zone fades to Dez Bryant), pass protection seeing a lot more pressure that forces the ball out quickly and a play-calling staff that is not interested in gambling beyond 5 yards and a cloud of dust up front.
Meanwhile, opponents are aware of Alfred Morris and Rod Smith behind this hulking offensive line but they are also not afraid of big plays, so they are happy to let the Cowboys to pick up 4-5 yards and force 12-play drives without a penalty or a third-down stumble and take their chances.
Clearly, based on the Cowboys going 1-3 during this run, the defenses are doing fine.
Below you will find the 11 times (as of Thursday) in which an NFL team passed for less than 100 yards in a game. To my shock and amazement, the league is actually 6-5 in games in which a team does not get to 100 yards. Three times, the Redskins have allowed less than 100 passing yards in 2017, which seems under-reported, but this is the first time they have lost a game like that. Chicago has actually won two games this year without piercing that mark.
And now the Cowboys have put one in the win column with just 93 yards in net passing. Nothing comes easy at the moment.
In this space, we attempt to offer some reasonable defenses of quarterback play when the Cowboys' offense struggles. There is so much more to evaluating an offense than just the quarterback. For years, when Tony Romo would struggle -- yes, it would happen -- we would look at all sorts of elements to justify sharing the blame. Even though this fan base currently seems oddly divided between Dak Prescott and the fairy-tale scenario under which Romo leaves the broadcast booth and returns to play quarterback, despite a broken-down body, this sort of conversation is back.
Let's address this right here: I have not seen Prescott play this poorly at any point since his draft. He needs to be better and appeared to lose confidence at a very high level Thursday night. If he is going to lose his most impressive quality -- his unshakable mental resolve -- then it is time to get awfully concerned.