The Seahawks and Cowboys are essentially getting into a playoff game where neither team might make the playoffs. Seattle and Dallas both need this win to stay alive for the postseason, and the Seahawks have the added bonus of trying to at least finish the season with a reminder that they’re usually good.
To find out if the Cowboys are as good — or as bad — as usual, I sent 5 Qs to Dave Halprin from Blogging the Boys, and in kind he sent me 5 As that corresponded to the Qs.
Q: I think a lot of Russell Wilson fans could have been threatened by the success of Dak Prescott's rookie season, but I was highly supportive and praising of Dak in 2016 -- and I am rarely non-skeptical about quarterbacks! This season has still been pretty good, especially given injuries to Tyron Smith and the suspension of Ezekiel Elliott, but certainly a noticeable drop in passer rating and yards per pass attempt. How much of "Dak's dip" can be attributed to losing personnel around him and how much of it is a regression to what we should "normally" assume from Dak as a quarterback? Basically, now that you've watched him for 30 games and 885 pass attempts, how good do you think Dak is really? All-Pro, Pro Bowl, or just very good?
A: There are definitely a few different variables at play here. Dak's performance this year has not been on par with last year, but I really think that last year will be an outlier in his career. He had one of the best rookie seasons ever. It was inevitable that his stats would regress back some. The injuries/changes along the o-line along with the suspension of Zeke have played a part. Dak is not the kind of QB who is going to carry a team consistently on his own, he's not like Aaron Rodgers (or even Russell Wilson) where he is a one-man show at times willing his team to victory.
He is normally a very efficient and accurate passer who doesn't turn the ball over a lot. He's gotten away from that for a few stretches this year, but in general he works much better when he's just distributing the ball and letting others shine. That's also part of the problem, the Cowboys receiving corps has some dependable pieces, but they lack dynamic players. Dez Bryant is not the same player he was a few years ago, and Jason Witten is getting slower by the minute. The Cowboys really need to add some "juice" to their offensive weapons besides just Zeke. I think Dak will make Pro Bowls on and off in his career, but he's never going to be the statistical focal point, so he may always be a little in the background since the Cowboys offense is tied so tightly with the running game.
Q: All the focus this week will be the return of Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott is leading the NFL in rush yards/game for the second time in as many years. He did have nine carries for eight yards against the Broncos though -- what happened in that game to stop him so well? Better yet, what was the main cause for getting blown out by a team that has turned out to be kinda crappy?
A: There is no real rhyme or reason for that game. It was a meltdown in all phases of the game. The Cowboys defense couldn't tackle anyone, including Sean Lee who is as sure a bet as there is when he plays. The secondary had some injury issues. The Cowboys were also still mixing in two new pieces along the offensive line (moving La'el Collins to right tackle and using Chaz Green/Jonathan Cooper at left guard) and they just didn't play well as a unit. Basically everything that could go wrong in a game went wrong. There is no logical explanation for why Zeke had such poor stats and why the Cowboys were steamrolled in that game.
Q: I still think the future of the Cowboys will be determined by how well their young defensive players develop, so what's the current development status and reasonable expectation level for these guys: Jaylon Smith, Byron Jones, Jourdan Lewis, and Taco Charlton?
A: Jaylon Smith had a rough start to the season. After making it back to the field after his terrible injury, he just wasn't ready to play as much as Dallas asked him to because of the Anthony Hitchens injury. He was exposed. Lately though, he's looking better in a more limited role. There is still a chance that he could become a good starter, we'll just have to see how much improvement there is over the offseason. Byron Jones is losing playing time because he's just not that good against the run. His real specialty is in coverage, especially with tight ends, so his role is becoming more limited. It's possible his next contract in the NFL is with another team. Jourdan Lewis looks like he's capable of being a regular starter at cornerback, he has played very well for a rookie. In fact, he, Chidobe Awizue and Xavier Woods look like the future of the Cowboys secondary, and that is basically starting to happen right now. Taco Charlton hasn't showed much at all this year. He really is overly-reliant on his spin move and when that doesn't work he doesn't have much else. He needs to work really hard on picking up some additional pass rushing moves in the offseason. He has the body and athleticism to make it happen, but he needs better technique.
Q: Do you expect Anthony Hitchens, David Irving, or Tyron Smith to start? How have their backups done in the absence of those players?
A: It sounds like the Cowboys are optimistic that Hitchens can play, but he didn't practice on Wednesday. If I had to guess I think he will play. If he can't go then Jaylon Smith is the starter and he has been doing better as of late (see above). David Irving is a little bit of a mystery. He's been in concussion protocol for the past couple of weeks and didn't practice again on Wednesday. Generally when concussions start lasting this long you have some real concerns. It's unclear if he will go, and the Cowboys don't have much behind him at defensive tackle. As for Tyron Smith, I think he is unlikely to go. He reportedly has a sprained LCL and that should keep him out for at least a week or two, even if it is mild. Byron Bell will likely start in his place, and he's inconsistent. At times he looks okay, at other times not so good. I would expect the Cowboys to give him a lot of help.
Q: The Cowboys are only 3-4 at home, but 5-2 on the road. Does Dallas play better on the road or is it just small sample size randomness? If the Cowboys win this game and the next one, they could really turn around a 2-3 start to potentially finish 10-6 with a lot of momentum, knowing that their three losses came without Elliott. I'm assuming you feel pretty good about Dallas's future right about now?
A: It's hard to say about the road/home records. They did lose two heart-breakers at home earlier in the season to the Rams and Packers in successive weeks, then just recently they got blown out at home by the Eagles and Chargers without Zeke. If Zeke plays all year, or a play or two goes differently in those two close losses, the records might be a lot different.
As for the future, I do feel pretty good, as long as Dallas recognizes the issues they have. As previously mentioned, they need some dynamic play-makers on offense, and on defense they need to shore up their linebackers and add some quality depth on the defensive line. They have done a nice job of turning over the secondary, something they really needed to do. They still have a great offensive line and they have Dak and Zeke. There are some quality parts to build around and the future does look pretty bright for the franchise.