With Dak back, can the Cowboys jumpstart passing attack?

The Dallas Cowboys didn’t ask Dak Prescott to do a lot in his return last Sunday. Not that he really minded much. The Cowboys quarterback seemed fine with an offense built around the run, as long as it works.

“I want to win,” Prescott said this week. “If that means going out there and throwing it 20 times and 200 yards, one touchdown, no touchdowns, I’ll do that. Or if it’s 400 yards and five touchdowns … whatever is asked of me. That’s all that really matters. I just care about the final score.”

It’s a nice sentiment and exactly what a quarterback should say. But the reality is the Cowboys are going to start needing something closer to those bigger numbers from Prescott if they really want to make a playoff run.

Impressed with Dak Prescott’s return to Cowboys lineup? | SPEAK

Impressed with Dak Prescott's return to Cowboys lineup? | SPEAK

David Helman discusses the return of Dak Prescott to the Dallas Cowboys starting lineup and explains Dak did everything he needed to do in his return to take home the win.

Maybe it’s a bit unfair to judge the Cowboys offense now, since it spent five weeks with backup quarterback Cooper Rush at the helm. But there were still high hopes that Prescott’s return from a broken thumb would provide the spark that they’ve been missing, especially in the passing game where they’ve averaged just 183.3 yards per game.

But that didn’t happen in their 24-6 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Against what is statistically the NFL’s worst defense, Prescott was just 19 of 25 for 207 yards and a touchdown. And 70 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, when the Cowboys—with the help of a fumble by Detroit quarterback Jared Goff — broke open a surprisingly low-scoring 10-6 game.

There was no pop in the passing game at all, just like there hasn’t been all season. Only two completed passes went for longer than 20 yards, and both of those came in the first half. Maybe it was by design. Maybe they were just easing Prescott back in. But it’s still an inescapable reality that the Cowboys’ passing game in the first half of the season has lacked any big-play ability and it hasn’t been potent enough to really change any games.

There are a lot of reasons why. One big one is they traded away Amari Cooper in the offseason and really haven’t replaced him. They seemed to be counting a lot on Michael Gallup during his comeback from a torn ACL back in January. He made it back in time for Week 4, but has just eight catches for 86 yards in four games so far—including no catches last Sunday against the Lions.

For a No. 2 receiver, that just won’t do.

“I expect to see more production. I do,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said on Friday in his weekly spot on 105.3 the Fan in Dallas. “And that’s not in any way drawing a line. He’s just that quality a receiver. He’s that important to our offense.”

Jones believes that if Prescott can get Gallup going, it not only could take some of the pressure off No. 1 receiver CeeDee Lamb (37 catches, 479 yards), increase their big plays, and even spark improvement in their third-down conversion rate , which is just 32.2 percent—third-worst in the league.

“All of that has Gallup written all over it,” Jones said. “You bet we need him to show up with good stats.”

Can Dak carry the Cowboys offense vs. the Bears in Week 8? | SPEAK

Can Dak carry the Cowboys offense vs. the Bears in Week 8? | SPEAK

David Helman explains with help from Dallas Cowboys backup running back Tony Pollard, Dak Prescott can carry the offense in Week 8 vs. the Chicago Bears.

That may really matter this weekend, especially if running back Ezekiel Elliott misses the game against the Chicago Bears — as Jones hinted he might — or if he’s even limited with his injured knee. Tony Pollard has been extremely effective, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. An argument can be made that he’s been their best running back this season and the drop-off from Elliott to him could be small.

But even at its best, the running game is not going to put the Cowboys over the top this season. They don’t have the offensive line anymore to really grind out games and wear down opponents as consistently as, say, the Philadelphia Eagles do . And while they can rely on their defense, which has been terrific — ranked sixth overall, fourth against the pass—there’s only so far this defense can take them. Right now at least, they are good, but they’re not exactly the 2000 Ravens or 1985 Bears.

No, what makes the Cowboys a threat, what made them a pick to win the NFC East in many corners, and what makes them at least a threat to make a Super Bowl run, is their passing game. More specifically, it’s Dak Prescott. He’s the difference-maker that really could put them over the top. Any projections on what the Cowboys were going to do this season were made with the idea that Prescott was still the quarterback who averaged 278 passing yards per game and threw 37 touchdown passes in 16 starts.

The Cowboys were the NFL’s best and most explosive offense. Their passing game ranked second. Clearly, thanks mostly to Prescott’s injury, it hasn’t looked nearly the same this season.

But their starting quarterback is healthy. So the time is now.

The Cowboys need Prescott to shake off his rust and show he can be the player he was. They need him to kick this passing game into gear, to turn Lamb into the big-play receiver he was supposed to be and to make Gallup what Jones believes he is. If that passing game becomes dangerous again, the running game will look even better and the defense won’t have to carry nearly as much of a burden.

That’s what will get them into the championship conversation, which is the only one Jones wants to be in at 80 years old. Any Super Bowl dreams in Dallas were based on Prescott playing like an elite quarterback, running a dangerous, explosive passing attack. That’s what they had in Dallas last season.

And that’s what they need to have again.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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