'We're so far away': The Cowboys are in a fight against time, mediocrity

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

FRISCO, Texas – At one point this week, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott sat back at his locker and pulled a large box to his lap, flipping the top open and pulling out a crisp Stetson cowboy hat. Without removing the plastic wrapping, he pulled the brim down over his forehead and smiled.

A perfect fit. One of the few for the Cowboys in this week’s minicamp, which may have been summed up most accurately by head coach Jason Garrett when he said the team (and the offense in particular) is nowhere near a finished product.

“We’re so far away,” Garrett said. “We’re not even close to where we need to be. But we’re doing what we need to do as we go.”

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones can’t afford another cycle of missed opportunity. (AP)

To be fair to Garrett and the Cowboys, this is a typical mid-June rhetoric for NFL teams — the majority of which grind out their final practices before the summer break and then clutch the franchise pearls over how much work is left ahead. But even inside that textbook lament, it’s fair to say these Cowboys are holding their breath as much as anyone else in the NFL. Partially because this is a roster familiar with mid-summer vacation embarrassment. But mostly because Dallas is a franchise that badly needs everything to go right this season … on and off the field.

The future of the coaching staff is depending on it. The contract talks of the starting quarterback are hanging on it. And plenty of other careers are balancing in between.

Going into this five-week break, this is what the Dallas Cowboys will be about when late July finally rolls around: finding the right fit in several critical parts of the defense, kickstarting Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott behind the most expensive offensive line in the NFL, and winning enough games (and playoff games) to ward off the buzzards that will be consistently circling overhead.

The pressure is on for QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott to revive the excitement they showed during their rookie campaigns. (Getty Images)

More than ever before, there is a titanium-plated reality facing the Cowboys. Heading into Garrett’s eighth full season as head coach, Dallas has become ground-zero for no more. As in, no more excuses, no more waiting, no more looking to next year. No more sputtering through an era of mediocrity that chewed up the prime of Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, Dez Bryant and many others.

Whether the Cowboys brain trust is willing to put the message out, the subtext is screaming. Owner Jerry Jones is too old for another cycle of missed opportunity. His son Stephen is too impatient for it. And the fan base – well, it’s safe to say all is not well after watching the division rival Philadelphia Eagles do a flash rebuild and then win a Super Bowl behind quarterback Nick Foles and head coach Doug Pederson.

For whatever reason, that was a perfect fit. The seemingly imperfect coach and undeniably imperfect quarterback found the flawless groove precisely when they had to have it. Which is something no Cowboys team has done in more than 20 years. Much to the chagrin of an owner who would likely reach the point of desperation if 2018 doesn’t finally deliver something seriously meaningful.

And it might be on Prescott as much as Garrett to make that happen. While the driving force of the offense will undoubtedly be Elliott, it’s on Prescott to bring the unit together after a 2017 season that delivered more questions than answers. There is no more Witten to stabilize the offensive meeting room. There is no more Bryant to upset it. Aside from the offensive line, there is no old guard to lean on for guidance. The offense unequivocally falls in line behind Prescott now. And it’s on his shoulders to find a chemistry and command that makes his third season as a starter the cementing moment of his franchise quarterback status.

If Elliott is on the field for a full slate and Prescott replicates his 2017 season, it won’t be enough of a statement to label him the undeniable answer at his position. The plain truth for Dallas is Prescott has to take a jump forward, regardless of the existence of a No. 1 wide receiver or whether the offense is streamlined though an All Pro running back. If his numbers cannot be gaudy, they can at least be exceedingly efficient. If he isn’t called upon to dominate games, he should be able to change them at key moments. And if he can’t – if he’s universally a function of the talent in front of him and behind him – then he should be seen as a piece and not a centerpiece.

To Prescott’s credit, he appears to have that figured out. When he speaks, he talks like a quarterback that knows it’s on him to close any leadership gaps left by Witten’s sudden retirement. And he smartly avoided getting caught up in the Dez Bryant drama, which appears to have been quickly left in the rear-view mirror by this franchise. Instead, Prescott accentuates what he can do next, rather than what me may not have done before this summer.

A key part of the Cowboys’ upcoming season will be Dak Prescott’s level of leadership and influence on the rest of his team. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

According to a source close to Prescott, part of that has been talking to the coaching staff about his leadership role going forward, whether it’s what he does on a daily basis to how he wants to structure his offseason work with the skill position players. The public has seen at least part of that, in a Key West fishing trip over Memorial Day that quickly became public fodder. Another part of that will be a trip taken in the next five weeks, in which Prescott and his receivers and running backs will get together to train and work on timing and chemistry in the passing game.

“It’s huge,” Prescott said of the trips. “It’s about being a family – not just being a team. Once we walk [into the facility], we’re a team. So [the trips are] about being more than that, finding when and where we get that camaraderie in the right way. We can grow to each other, be a brotherhood, be a family. Doing those things like going to Key West and the trip me and the receivers and the backs will make will only help us grow and be better. … We’ll definitely get away [before training camp]. Get a little fresh feel. We’ll go somewhere and work out in the morning, throw and kind of hang out in the afternoon.”

That effort got a Garrett endorsement, too, with the head coach talking Thursday about the work he and Troy Aikman used to do with Michael Irvin decades ago.

“That’s everything,” Garrett said. “… That’s the stuff that translates more than anything else.”

This is the hope. That things start to translate. That some kind of perfection – or at least the right fit – starts to present itself. For now, it’s still June and the toughest work has yet to begin. But nobody is kidding themselves this season. A pivot point is coming, and one way or another, some kind of critical new direction for this entire franchise is coming with it.

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