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NFL Draft

What’s The New Ceiling For 2020 Dallas Cowboys?

  • The Draft Network
  • October 12, 2020
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In the blink of an eye, the 2020 outlook for the Dallas Cowboys was turned upside down. Franchise quarterback Dak Prescott's season is presumably over after five games, a horrific compound fracture and dislocation of his right leg ending what was an otherwise brilliant display of passing through the team's first five contests. For Prescott, his focus and energy will shift to getting his body right and bracing for the comeback campaign. One thing we know? You shouldn't bet against him.

Prescott's transformation from a middling college quarterback to a mid-round draft selection to a rookie game manager to the identity of the Cowboys offense and the face of their franchise has been breathtaking. And he's climbed the mountain all while dealing with wave after wave of personal struggle. Between the loss of his mother, the death of his brother this spring, and the subsequent battles with depression, Prescott has conquered battles much more daunting than flesh and bone.

If you've got a pulse, your heart still breaks for Prescott. He's been so transparent through it all and yet been so brilliant with the pressures of shouldering burdens on the gridiron on top of his personal struggle. But he will be back. Whether or not that is in Dallas is now very much up in the air.

That's the ugly side of this business. With the heartbeat of the team sidelined for the year with a crushing injury, the show will go on for the Cowboys. And as a team strapped for salary cap space to secure a long-term deal for Prescott, the team will certainly take note of how it plays without him for the remainder of the season. If there's any poetic ending to all this, the Prescott injury will remind the Cowboys that the grass isn't always greener on the other side and prompt the team to quit pulling punches and playing hardball with their franchise quarterback.

How likely is that to happen?

The ceiling for the Cowboys' team before the Prescott injury was that the team would ride their star passer to big performances each week, spurring a new single-season passing record as the team attempted to outpace their bumbling defense and win shootouts each and every week. With a little luck and some development from the defense along the way, perhaps Dallas could have scratched out eight or nine wins this season.

That's not a likely recipe for success for the Cowboys anymore—although backup quarterback Andy Dalton will bring a different flair to the position. Dalton is a long-time NFL starter and one thing we do know is that the moment will not be too big for him. Another thing we know is that Dalton has had some success in the past with throwing to skilled receivers. But Dalton has never sniffed a group of pass-catchers like this before. Between Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and running back Ezekiel Elliott, Dalton has more talent at his disposal than he's ever seen. Dalton's peak came over half a decade ago in 2013. That year he threw for 4,200 yards and 33 touchdowns while leading Cincinnati to an 11-5 record. His top three receivers that year? A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Giovani Bernard.

Dalton will have to find a new balance to his game, allowing his receivers to win with the ball in the air as he did for so long with Green. But the conservative approach Dalton has generally been regarded as playing with isn't going to cut it with this Cowboys team—not with a defense as horrid as this one. Throws like the one Dalton hit to Gallup in the final seconds to set up the game-winning kick are going to have to be regular occurrences for the quarterback if he's going to keep this Cowboys team in contention late into the season. Maintaining the pace of a scoring offense through five games that is third in the NFL is an unrealistic pace for Dalton to set, but the pressure to outperform the NFL's worst scoring defense (36.0 points per game) isn't going away any time soon.

One possible avenue that can provide hope for Dallas? A more run-oriented attack can help shorten games for the Cowboys, keeping the defense out of big holes by extending possessions and ultimately leading to less defensive appearances throughout the course of games. That approach puts more pressure on Dalton to deliver on critical passing downs, but that's the luxury you can afford to strap a quarterback with once he's been a starter in the NFL for a decade.

What is the ceiling for the 2020 Dallas Cowboys without Dak Prescott? The team's offensive adjustments can potentially prompt a more balanced team, but the impact in the win/loss column isn't likely to change due to the depths of the flaws on this roster and now the loss of Dallas' best player. Look for Dalton to offer his share of moments for the Cowboys. But those late-game situations that were so often pinned on Prescott during the last few years when the ball didn't bounce Dallas' way? Don't expect there to be as many over the final 11 games of the season—the Cowboys are going to have trouble keeping pace.

Logic suggests we should consider this team lucky if they close the year at 8-8. But then again, someone has to win the NFC East. With five games remaining versus Philadelphia, Washington, and New York, there's an outside chance they sneak their way to nine wins. If that is indeed the case, expect the entire team formula to look a lot different than what we've seen the last five weeks.

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