Cowboys are proving they don’t have to rely on Dak Prescott, which makes them dangerous when he returns

In the fourth quarter of the Dallas Cowboys opener, quarterback Dak Prescott tossed a screen pass to Ezekiel Elliott. During the follow through, Prescott’s thumb smashed into the outstretched mitt of Buccaneers defender Shaq Barrett.

Prescott immediately left the game holding his hand and would soon need surgery. Dallas lost, 19-3. Many pundits, and fans, declared the Cowboys’ season all but over.

The reason Prescott’s injury and expected prolonged absence caused such dire predictions is because for too long he’s been expected to do too much. The idea of ​​Dallas without Dak was unfathomable.

Yet the ensuing month hasn’t just delivered four consecutive victories for the Cowboys, including a road win against the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. It hasn’t just set Dallas up for a playoff run.

It allowed the rest of the team — virtually every unit on both sides of the ball — to step up and assert themselves.

That includes quarterback, backup Cooper Rush certainly hasn’t done anything to take Prescott’s job once he returns from that hand injury (perhaps soon), but Rush may have redefined it not by doing as much or more, but by showing that less can work as well.

Dallas looks right now like a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The defense is, or at least is among, the best in the league. The running game is strong. So is the offensive line. There is enough talent at wide receiver.

They won four consecutive games with Rush acting as mostly a game manager. He is averaging just 193.8 passing yards a game. He’s thrown just four touchdowns against most importantly, no interceptions.

He’s making sure Dallas doesn’t beat himself, while the rest of the team does what it does best.

Whether Prescott is back for Sunday’s NFC East clash against Philadelphia or in the weeks that follow, what he returns to is a team that is confident and capable across the board. Gone, presumably, are the days where everything revolved around the star QB because there was no other way to win.

Instead in the vacuum of a Dak-less offense, everyone stepped up and made the job easier.

It could be the key to everything for Dallas.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons has a league-leading six sacks this season for a defense that ranks among the best in the NFL in several categories. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

“This is how we do,” said linebacker Micah Parsons after beating the Rams despite the offense earning just 10 first downs. “Nobody does it like we do.”

Nobody does. And certainly Dallas didn’t before this.

Prescott averaged 37.3 pass attempts a game in 2021. Cooper Rush is down to just 26.2 per game he’s started this year. Rushing attempts are up from 27.8 last year to 30.0 in the last four games. Against the Rams, Dallas ran the ball a tone-setting 60 percent of the time on first down.

Mostly though, it hasn’t beaten itself. Since Prescott’s injury, they have just one turnover… and none in the last three games.

That’s been the key.

No fear of punting it away to a defense that ranks third in points allowed, third in turnover differential and seventh in passing and total yardage. They are second in sacks with 20, led by a league-leading six from Parsons.

They haven’t given up more than one touchdown in a game this season, despite playing against Matthew Stafford, Joe Burrow and Tom Brady.

It’s so good that Stephen Jones is saying the defense could compare to the heyday of the 1990s and it’s Parsons, not Prescott, who is the MVP candidate so far.

“They are definitely the straw that’s stirring this drink,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “They are playing lights out.”

So imagine all of this except with an upgrade at quarterback. Imagine adding someone who can make plays and keep defenses honest, such as Prescott. Rush has been incredible as a fill-in, but come January a team needs more than that. Dallas has that pop of talent returning soon.

Can Prescott thrive by throwing fewer times a game? Can the play-calling continue to value what the defense can bring? Can all the components maintain the improved production when their leader and star returns?

If so, Dallas is a serious Super Bowl contender, because sometimes you get stronger at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways.