During the 2016 season when both Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot were in their first year, the Cowboys smartly trusted their rookie running back more than their rookie quarterback. Elliot was able to run the ball for 5.07 yards per carry and be the main guy in this offense.
Flash forward to 2019 and everyone is ready to tell you that things should change, expect this Dallas Cowboys coaching staff. Prescott has taken a step up and has become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Every single game needs to be put in his hands as he gives the Cowboys the best opportunity to win each game. That does not mean Elliot is a terrible running back, but running the ball and controlling the clock does not work like it used to for the Cowboys in 2016.
Specifically on first down is when the Cowboys playcalling is losing them football games. Against the Vikings, not only did the Cowboys have the opportunity to win, but to win comfortably if they trusted Prescott in early downs. The numbers show when the ball was handed to Elliot on first down, the Cowboys struggled. When Prescott went back to throw, great things happened.
A few plays are ultimately what cost the Cowboys the game against the Vikings and possibly even worse, the division and playoff spot.
Here is a breakdown of all of the Cowboys’ plays on first down and other crucial ones.
First half – Drive No. 1
1st and 10 from the DAL 25 – Ezekiel Elliot left tackle for 3 yards
1st and 10 from the DAL 41 – Ezekiel Elliot up the middle for 2 yards
1st and 10 from the MIN 43 – Ezekiel Elliot left end for 4 yards
On all three first downs on this drive, the ball was taken out of Prescott’s hands and force-fed to Elliot. He averaged three yards a carry on this drive, setting the Cowboys up in second and long all three times. After moving the ball a little, two Dak incompletions on 2nd and 6 + 3rd and 6 caused a missed 57-yard FG by Brett Maher.
First half – Drive No. 2
1st and 10 from the DAL 25 – Ezekiel Elliot right guard for 4 yards
1st and 10 from the DAL 48 – Ezekiel Elliot right guard for 4 yards
Another scenario where Dak is forced into obvious passing situations and has two incompletions to end a Cowboy drive. Even after a 15-yard completion to Amari Cooper on 2nd and 6, the ball is given right back to Elliot to set up another 2nd and 6. The Cowboys gave the ball back to Minnesota and went down 14-0.
First half – Drive No. 3
1st and 10 from the DAL 25 – Dak Prescott pass complete to Ezekiel Elliot for 4 yards
1st and 10 from the MIN 46 – Dak Prescott pass incomplete deep right intended for Randall Cobb
This was one of two drives were passing on first down did nothing for the Cowboys. The pass to Elliot was just the same as a running play and the incompletion on the second first down followed by a run forced a Cowboys punt.
First half – Drive No. 4
1st and 10 from the MIN 48 – Ezekiel Elliot left tackle for 2 yards
1st and 10 from the MIN 30 – Tavon Austin left end for 9 yards
While they did run two running plays, one was not a conventional running play and they gained yards from in. On this drive, Prescott was 2/2 with 43 yards and a touchdown. He saved the Cowboys by firing a bullet to Amari Cooper on 3rd and 12, while Gallup walked into the end zone on a crossing route two plays later. Prescott was starting to play outstanding for this team, but the coaching staff had not figured that out just yet.
First half – Drive No. 5
1st and 10 from the DAL 17- Dak Prescott pass incomplete deep middle intended for Michael Gallup
1st and 10 from the DAL 29 – Ezekiel Elliot left tackle for -2 yards
1st and 10 from the DAL 42 – Ezekiel Elliot right tackle for 6 yards
1st and 10 from the MIN 25 – Randall Cobb pass incomplete
This is the second drive where throwing the ball on first down did not do much for the Cowboys. It does have an asterisk next to it though as one of those passes would on a reverse to Randall Cobb. Prescott went 4/6 with 75 yards on this drive, including the free play touchdown to Randall Cobb. After tying the game at 14, Minnesota goes down and grabs a field goal before halftime to take a 17-14 lead. Starting to heat up, Prescott was about to have an outstanding second half.
In the first half, Prescott was 1/3 for four yards on a total of 13 first downplays. Elliot was handed the ball eight times, averaging a terrible 2.8 yards per carry. The Cowboys were set up in second on long consistently, only resulting in 14 first-half points. In the second half, the first down throws went up a level and so did this offense.
Second Half – Drive No. 1
1st and 10 from the DAL 25 – Dak Prescott pass complete short left to Ezekiel Elliot for 12 yards
1st and 10 from the DAL 37 – Dak Prescott pass complete short middle to Jason Witten for 9 yards
1st and 10 from the MIN 39 – Dak Prescott pass complete short right to Amari Cooper for 13 yards
1st and 10 from the MIN 26 – Ezekiel Elliot right tackle for 2 yards
1st and 10 from the MIN 12 – Dak Prescott pass complete short right to Amari Cooper for 12 yards, touchdown
Wow. What an opening first-half drive for Kellen Moore and the offense. An outstanding 4/4 for 46 yards and a touchdown on first down for Prescott, while even after three straight completions on first down for the quarterback, Elliot got one carry for two yards. It was a quick seven-play, 2:30 drive for Dallas, sparked by Prescott throwing the ball on first down. Taking a 21-17 lead, the Cowboys should have never looked back from this point by putting the game in the hands of Prescott.
Second half – Drive No. 2
1st and 10 from the DAL 25 – Tony Pollard left end for -4 yards
1st and 10 from the DAL 41 – Ezekiel Elliot right guard for 1 yard
1st and 10 from the MIN 40 – Ezekiel Elliot left tackle for 5 yards
1st and 10 from the MIN 30 – Ezekiel Elliot left tackle for no gain
1st and 10 from the MIN 6 – Ezekiel Elliot left guard for 1 yard
This was probably the most frustrating drive of the night. Prescott did not get a single opportunity to throw the ball on first down this drive, even after his outstanding numbers on the last drive. He actually bailed the Cowboys out twice, throwing it to Cobb for 20 yards after Pollard lost four yards and then hit Cooper for 18 yards after Elliot only gained a yard inside Dallas territory. A holding penalty is what extended this drive and after a 24-yard completion to Cobb to put the Cowboys in the red zone, they had to settle for a field goal, cutting the lead to 28-24 Minnesota.
Second half – Drive No. 3 (final drive)
1st and 10 from the DAL 6 – Dak Prescott pass complete deep middle to Randall Cobb for 20 yards
1st and 10 from the DAL 26 – Dak Prescott pass complete short left to Amari Cooper for 10 yards
1st and 10 from the DAL 36 – Dak Prescott pass incomplete short right intended for Michael Gallup
1st and 10 from the DAL 49 – Dak Prescott pass complete short right to Amari Cooper for 20 yards
1st and 10 from the MIN 31 – Ezekiel Elliot up the middle for 4 yards
1st and 10 from the MIN 19 – Dak Prescott complete short right to Amari Cooper for 8 yards
Up to this point, the Cowboys are flying towards a game-winning touchdown. With only 1:33 left in the game, a touchdown most likely wins it for the Cowboys. The next three plays are some of, if not the worst, play calls this offensive staff has called all year.
2nd and 2 from the MIN 11 – Ezekiel Elliot up the middle for no gain
3rd and 2 from the MIN 11 – Ezekiel Elliot left end for -3 yards
4th and 5 from the MIN 14 – Dak Prescott pass incomplete short left intended for Ezekiel Elliot
These three plays right here lost the game for the Cowboys. Before that play on 2nd and 2, Prescott was 4/5 with 58 yards on that drive and had the Cowboys in a good spot to win the game. Elliot got two carries that resulted in a loss of three yards. When asked why they ran the ball on those two plays, Prescott said: “You don’t want to leave too much time on the clock for them.”
The fourth-down call may have been worse than the second and third-down plays because you went away from your receivers that were all having excellent games and you ran a five-yard out to your running back on fourth down. Even though the Cowboys got the ball back, none of it was important as it came down to a Hail Mary that resulted in an interception in the end zone.
While Kellen Moore may be the main guy to blame in this scenario, some of it falls on Dak Prescott too. He has the ability to call out of plays and run what he thinks is right. The offense would have had to execute, but based on how Prescott and the receivers performed, there was a high possibility the would have.
Overall, the numbers showing the difference between Prescott and Elliot on first-down are astonishing.
On 1st down the #Cowboys:
Passed 14 times for 108 yards (8.3 YPA).
Ran 16 times for 39 yards (2.44 YPC).
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) November 11, 2019
Once those second + third and long scenarios popped up, Prescott was outstanding, continually bailing out the coaching staff and their terrible decisions.
Now this is crazy great.
On 3rd & 7+ tonight, Dak is:
• 100% conversions
• 17.8 YPA
• 1 TD
3 & 14 ► 20 yd completion
3 & 12 ► 20 yd completion
3 & 12 ► 15 yd completion
3 & 8 ► 12 yd completion
3 & 7 ► 22 yd completion, TD
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) November 11, 2019
If there is any positive takeaway from last night’s loss it is this: There is no question that Dak Prescott is the guy at quarterback. He did everything in his power to win this football game, but it was taken away from him by Jason Garrett and Kellen Moore. Yes, he could have audibled out of those running plays in the red zone on the final drive, but he was doing what his coaches were telling him to do.
Running the ball on first down is not the answer and there are numbers to back it up. Ezekiel Elliot is an outstanding running back that has and will continue to do well for the Cowboys, but he cannot be the main guy anymore. It is time to give the reigns over to Dak Prescott and watch the team fly towards a playoff appearance.