Among the oldest clichés in sports is the dreaded “sophomore slump.” Another cliché, though, is that players take their biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2.
What cliché will hold true for Dak Prescott as he enters his sophomore year in the NFL? What cliché will hold true for Ezekiel Elliott , who recently won a motion for a preliminary injunction on his six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
The Dallas Cowboys certainly feel that Prescott and Elliott will take another step forward instead of taking a step back.
Neither of them hit the proverbial “rookie wall” a year ago, so it’s a safe bet that expectations will be high for both of them to surpass their impressive rookie seasons.
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Prescott put together one of the best seasons by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. He led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record with 3,667 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 104.9 passer rating.
The fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State doesn’t take anything for granted, however. He knows he has room to grow and feels more and more comfortable in Scott Linehan’s offense.
“I don’t really sense other people, outsiders expectations or their pressure,” Prescott said. “To me, it’s all about what I put on myself. I think I put more pressure and high expectations on myself than anyone else has. I know in this organization we have high expectations as a team as well.
“I don’t think me or any of these guys really pay attention to outside of our locker room. We know what we have to do. We know what it’s going to take.”
Prescott has gotten significantly more reps in training camp than a year ago when he was behind Tony Romo and Kellen Moore on the depth chart. That should help his growth.
Plus the Cowboys love that Prescott has an “insatiable appetite” to get better. He is not going to rest until he reaches the top.
“He’s just a really good learner,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s someone who listens to what you’re saying, and you can just see it. He’s trying to eat the words out of your mouth and he’s locked in on what you’re saying and immediately he tries to put it into practice — on the practice field, at that time. And he’s the kind of guy who works on it after practice, he comes back the next day and he’s better at whatever we’re asking him to do.
“He’s always prepared, he’s always striving to get better. And in my experience that’s what the best ones have. They have that desire to be great, they’re willing to try different things to break through and become a better player. He’s certainly demonstrated that, really from Day One.”
Elliott has a similar drive going into Year 2. He feels he left “a lot of yards on the field” from his sensational rookie season.
Elliott led the league in rushing with 1,631 yards. He was just the fifth rookie since the NFL merger to win the league’s rushing title and was named All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl.
Elliott has blocked out his off-field issues well in training camp and has been focused on putting together another solid season. He is expected to take on an even greater role in the offense and become a bigger threat in the passing game.
“Zeke loves football,” Garrett said. “He studies his stuff hard, he’s very engaged in meetings. He loves taking part of walk-throughs. His walk-throughs aren’t really walk-throughs, he’s always running around and certainly when he gets to practice he practices as hard and as well as anybody we have on our football team.”
Elliott said early in the summer that he is focused on being a more elite runner on the second level.
Elliott rushed for 10 or more yards on 48 of his league-high 322 carries. Of those 48, 14 went for 20 or more yards.
Elliott’s longest run was a 60-yard score in the third quarter against Cincinnati. He also had touchdown runs of 55 and 32 yards. Elliott would like to have more of those in 2017.
“When you get those one-on-ones, making that guy miss, taking it to the house and just tripping up because you’re trying to do too much,” Elliott said. “Missing holes. Missing reads.
“That’s what’s going to propel you from 1,600 yards to 1,800 yards to 1,900 yards — making sure I make all those plays and continue to not leave any yards on the field.”
From everything Prescott and Elliott say, as well as the coaching staff, it’s hard to envision either having a significant sophomore slump when they’re in the game.
It’s happened to great ones before, though. Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris struggled in the second season of his Hall of Fame career. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had a down year as a sophomore, but he rebounded to lead the franchise to a Super Bowl appearance last season.
The Cowboys, however, are betting on Prescott and Elliott to avoid such a trap. The season begins Sunday night at home against the New York Giants.
Elliott might have put it best when asked his goals for the season: “Win ballgames.”