It is hard to imagine the Cowboys could look any worse than they had in November.
They were 1-3 in the month and were spiraling downward. They had not scored more than 9 points in a game since November 5 - a game against the Chiefs that was played just a few short days after the World Series ended in Los Angeles - and have looked incredibly hopeless without their star RB who sits in NFL purgatory for another 2 weeks.
So, here they are on the last night of the worst Cowboys month in memory, as they run off 4 consecutive drives of 3-and-out to start the game with a feebleness that suggested there was nothing left. They had accepted their fate as one of the most disappointing teams in the 2017 NFL season and will now await their public execution around the first of the year.
3 and out. Punt.
3 and out. Punt.
3 and out. Punt.
3 and out. Punt.
The young QB, who looks younger and more inexperienced each week without his running buddy, either had a case of the yips or the entire fan base has crawled inside his head with their wishful belief that the battered body of Tony Romo can still save them from shattered dreams, despite his career being parked next to Jim Nantz since April. Dak could not make a simple throw. The Redskins kept crowding the line to take away the run and then force Prescott to make throws that for whatever reason are presently inside his head.
I have always been blown away by Prescott's steely demeanor that suggested nothing was a big deal to him, but this last month has chipped away at that facade. He certainly is questioning his own ability right now in front of the entire audience. And while it is probably a long overdue look at the normal roller coaster ride of a young QB in the most difficult league possible, it still has a lot of people concerned. I counted about 8 throws last night that were just absolutely abysmal, and while I try to grade a young QB on an incredibly generous curve, there is no question he was not part of the solution for much of the first half.
If we are to call this the ultimate team sport, then perhaps we should note that in a hard-capped structure, a guy who makes the 37th-most money on the roster at $635,000 should be allowed a slump. Maybe, just maybe, it is requisite upon those 36 (or maybe some of those in his own tax bracket) above him to step up and drag this thing along at its moment of need.
For the last 2 seasons, they have been led by 2 youngsters who have done all of the heavy lifting many weeks, despite being in college in the spring of 2016. It has been an enjoyable ride, but perhaps we have lost sight of the fact that the best way to build a contender sometimes is to not ask any one man to do too much.
And last night, all hands were on deck.
Dez Bryant, the top earner on the team and the guy who has not dominated a season since 2014, was truly dominant last night. After the first two throws did not connect, he was given 6 more opportunities throughout the night and delivered on just about every one. 61 yards will not set the world on fire, but on several 3rd downs, Prescott looked for Bryant, and Dez would not be denied. 3rd and 8 early in the second quarter, Dez moved the chains on a nice inside connection right before the 1st touchdown. Late in the third quarter, another 3rd and 6, a huge DIG to Bryant moved the ball into the red zone and when they changed directions. He was the target on a fade on 3rd and 5 against a big blitz from Washington where he went up over Bashaud Breeland and snatched a touchdown, despite an interference. Then, on the very next drive, facing a 3rd and 11, they went back to the fade and he drew another interference against Breeland to set up an easy TD from the 1. On a night where he had to be great and didn't always have a ton to work with, Bryant became the 3rd down machine he needs to be more often and took the game over. And it was huge.
But, the real story was on the other side of the ball. Demarcus Lawrence has had a pretty quiet couple of weeks, himself. Everyone in the frustrated city wants to blame a league conspiracy for the slowdown in production from Lawrence and David Irving, with 0 sacks and 0 takeaways since Atlanta, it must be the devious work of the commissioner's office that explains it, right? (eyerolls).
The fact is that every top pass rusher in the league gets held repeatedly every game (just ask them). Yet, it is up to them to justify the price-tags that now approach a million dollars a game and get those grabby hands off you with a violent swipe on your way to destroying the QB before he can deliver another dangerous pass. That is what makes you a guy that everyone wants to sign, not one who can easily be neutralized. And Lawrence was fantastic again last night, refusing to be denied and also proving impossible to block. He had 2 sacks, got the ball out on one of them, another couple tackles for loss, and was a menace all game long. Irving chipped in as well and now the team total for sacks exceeds the season totals from 2014 and 2015. 2016 came in at 36 sacks and given that they now have 32 already in the bag with 4 games to play, you should believe that will be passed, too.
And, Irving, who now has a career-high 7 sacks on his season (that only started on October 8th) hopefully demonstrates to Zeke how to be in top form when you get out of purgatory and back on the field. He didn't need 2 snaps to "knock off the rust" and should receive great credit for that. His violent discarding of Kirk Cousins late in the game last night will be remembered for a long time.
Anthony Hitchens continued to be a real breakout story this year. I have always enjoyed his utility, but this year he has proven to be a clear starter and standout who has had things click (right as his contract is expiring). There is no question he has learned plenty in his time here and has been a huge filler for Sean Lee against the run. Heck, he looked like he stripped the ball from Jamison Crowder while suspended in mid-air on a play that was ruled to not be a fumble. I would disagree.
Chidobe Awuzie was huge, too. In his first extended action, he proved why the Cowboys believed so much in his ball skills and confidence. He has to prove to be durable, but beyond that, the futures of Jourdan Lewis, Awuzie, and Xavier Woods, the three defensive backs from the 2017 draft look rather bright and promising. Kavon Frazier brought some downhill collisions to the mix and the defense was able to generate 3 takeaways and the special teams got another one.
Oh, the special teams. Was it the punt return for the touchdown by rookie Ryan Switzer, the punt return fumble caused, or the punt downed at the 6-inch line that was the best special teams contribution? Again, everyone has to row the boat or pull on the rope (whatever metaphor you like most about everyone doing something to help generate a positive result). Last night was all of that.
You see, you don't win very much when you complete less than a majority of your passes. Quincy Carter did it twice during his short run, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Bledsoe, and Tony Romo have each done it once (Romo also lost in Detroit with a 47 percent day in 2013), and now Dak Prescott has done it twice himself already (Philadelphia last October, too).
But, when you do, it is because you won in enough other departments.
If you are going to draft and pay every elite offensive lineman you can get your hands on, then you better be able to ground and pound your way to an occasional win when the QB is not feeling it. 15 carries for 41 yards in the 1st half was not enough, but they kept pounding it and 22 more gives in the 2nd half turned into 111 yards and 2 touchdowns after halftime. In all, 42 runs for 182 yards made sure that the Redskins felt the bruises this morning as Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin were able to fire forward and open up holes for Alfred Morris all night.
We certainly should not lose sight of the fact that the Redskins helped hang themselves last night and played a game in which they were minus-4 in turnovers and had a hard time putting anything together offensively.
We should also not lose sight of the fact that this team now has to play 2 more games without Elliott that they must figure out how to win and now seem to have a QB who has a potentially injured hand to go with whatever he is dealing with in his head.
I have no idea where Prescott's career is headed right now as he plays through his first massive slump. We want to draw large conclusions immediately and we wish to compare his worst days to Tony Romo's best in a way that is just as unfair as comparing Romo to Aikman or Staubach. This fanbase isn't about fair. It is about hyperbole and overreactions. It is about glory days and trying to find the directions back to that magical place.
I give him credit for making some key throws at key moments, but his overall night will not be considered a great night by any stretch. He is fighting it, while trying to pull those high expectations to the postseason.
Getting there this year is looking like a long shot now, to be honest. The win keeps them alive, but they will need Atlanta and/or Carolina to find a big slump immediately and to take Seattle out themselves on Christmas Eve. But, more importantly, they will now need to go on a bit of a run. They need to string several wins together and it will require all hands on deck.
They realize they cannot count on the 2 kids right now to do the heavy lifting. One is in Mexico and the other is nursing a confidence injury and a sore right hand. If anything is to become of this group, they will all have to grab an oar.
But, last night was an vital step in that general direction.
New York is next. And they appear primed to be pounded, too.