ARLINGTON, Texas -- In the regular season, December and January is when quarterbacks make their names in football.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has to hope the final six weeks of the season, starting next Thursday against the New Orleans Saints, is better than what happened in November.
The Cowboys went 1-3 after Prescott’s return from a calf strain with November losses to the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders, 36-33 in overtime on Thanksgiving. For the month, Prescott completed 103 of 160 passes for 1,119 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
November marked his lowest yards per game average (280), lowest completion percentage (64.4%) and most sacks (eight). In the final eight quarters of the month, he did not have receiver Amari Cooper, who was on the reserve/COVID-19 list. In the final six quarters, he did not have his leading receiver, CeeDee Lamb, because of a concussion.
He didn’t have his Pro Bowl left tackle, Tyron Smith, for three of those games. Running back Ezekiel Elliott has been dealing with a bone bruise on his right knee. The Cowboys have shifted their left guard with Connor McGovern replacing Connor Williams and have kept Terence Steele over La’el Collins at right tackle.
When you’re the third-highest paid quarterback in the NFL with a deal averaging $40 million a season, all that matters is the results. When Prescott signed his contract in March, he went from the underpaid and undervalued fourth-round pick to a big-money quarterback where expectations rise to absurd heights, whether he is throwing to Cooper and Lamb or Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown.
For a good portion of the Raiders’ contest, the passing game looked like it did before Cooper’s arrival in a 2018 trade when Prescott struggled to throw for 200 yards. In the first half, he completed 11 of 17 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown, but 51 yards came on one play and the Cowboys put up just 13 points. In the third quarter he threw for just 19 yards.
“I just try to stay within the game -- stay within the game plan, trust my reads, trust the plays that are being called,” Prescott said. “I’ve been in this offense for a while, so it’s about not trying to force something and trying to do too much, rather than allowing the game to come to me.”
With the position he plays and the money he earns, Prescott understands the expectations but it doesn’t change his parameters.
“That’s my job is to lift guys up but that doesn’t mean trying to force things or trying to do anything outside of the game plan,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a balance. It’s about being who I am and the opinions of what other people have in mind for my job to be, doesn’t really affect the way I approach my work each and every day.”
Despite the struggles against Las Vegas, everything was lining up for Prescott to deliver.
Twice in the final three minutes he directed the Cowboys on game-tying drives, and he opened overtime with the ball.
Before Thursday, he had never had an incomplete pass in overtime, going a perfect 18-of-18 for 214 yards and three touchdowns, including a 35-yarder to Lamb to beat the New England Patriots in October.
That streak came to an end Thursday when a third-down pass he has completed on the move hundreds of times fell short to Brown and forced a Cowboys punt. Prescott would not touch the ball again as the Raiders' Daniel Carlson kicked the game-winning field goal.
“Just guess the ball, in a sense, got away,” Prescott said. “Not necessarily excuses for that, I guess.”
The final numbers against the Raiders look rather Prescott-like: 32-of-47, 375 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions but were deceptive because he threw for 209 yards in the fourth quarter when the offense found a rhythm by going to a no-huddle look.
“You saw Dak’s numbers, it looked like he had good numbers,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He threw what, 68-69%, over 300 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions? If that’s struggling, hell, I’d like to play tomorrow.”
As the calendar turns to December (and January), McCarthy has no worries about Prescott. Neither does owner and general manager Jerry Jones.
In 17 regular-season games in December and January, Prescott has thrown for 4,059 yards on 359-of-561 passing (65.4%) with 24 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. He has an 11-6 record, although in the lone January regular-season game he played just a quarter in a loss to the Eagles with the Cowboys’ playoff positioning settled.
This season, four of the last six are away from home, with the Saints’ contest starting a three-game road trip. Four of the remaining six are NFC East games, and the Eagles might start pushing the conversation about a divisional race with their play of late.
Prescott must deliver.
“We’ve got to get back to believing in the basics and just playing fundamental football and being smart, being able to keep the officials out of the game, playing complementary football, scoring touchdowns when the defense gets turnovers, and we’ll be OK,” Prescott said.
“The sense is I’m sure a bunch of people are jumping off the bandwagon, which is fine with us, because we know what we’re capable of. We know the team we have. More importantly, we know the men that are in that locker room. That’s the most important thing is just our belief in each other. That’s not going anywhere. It’s not fading. We lost a tough one in an overtime game. That’s the bottom line.”