Dallas Cowboys

Dak Prescott still learning the ups and downs of NFL life

It was a question that hung over Dak Prescott the entire off-season.

Never mind his sensational rookie season, which was perhaps the finest of any quarterback in NFL history.

He was the bus driver of a run-oriented offense. The decisions and throws were easy.

But could the Dallas Cowboys truly rely on his arm to win games if necessary?

They insisted they could.

They pointed out his off-season improvements and stellar training camp.

Receivers Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant, tight end Jason Witten and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan were ringing the bell the loudest.

But then came the season opener. And despite the 19-3 victory against the New York Giants, Prescott was not sharp.

The aforementioned question was at the root of the widespread criticism of the “three passes from the 3” debate.

That would prove to be nothing but whispers compared to loud aspersions now being cast following Sunday’s 42-17 blowout loss to the Denver Broncos, who shut down the run and forced Prescott to pass.

He couldn’t do it well enough.

Prescott completed 30 of 50 passes for 238 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and quarterback rating of 68.6 against the Broncos.

“I don’t buy into that,” Prescott said. “I think we just didn’t play our game and we didn’t execute the way that we should or we normally do. I kind of encourage teams and hope teams give us that same scheme and those same matchups. I’m not buying it.”

Some claim the Broncos provided the blueprint to stopping the Cowboys — and not just opposing fans and/or leftover Tony Romo worshippers, who are still not comfortable with how Prescott took the job a season ago and their idol’s subsequent decision to walk away from the game.

Scouts and former players have raised the question.

Prescott finished 2016 ranked in the top five among league passers in quarterback rating (104.9), completion percentage (67.8) and yards per attempt (7.99). He is currently 24th (78.2), 21st (60.7) and 28th (5.69) in those categories, respectively.

Prescott is second and third in the league in completions and attempts, which is the team’s formula for success, per Linehan.

Coach Jason Garrett readily acknowledges the Cowboys’ inability to make plays in the passing game was the reason the Boncos’ plan worked and the offense was shut down.

He was talking about everybody involved. And certainly, No. 1 receiver Dez Bryant has to be better and do his part by playing like one of the league’s gamebreakers, as he is paid to be.

But this is a quarterback-driven league. The game is about the quarterback. The passing game most definitely.

Garrett was talking about Prescott.

“I’ve just got to be better,” Prescott said. “I’ve got to make sure I’m critical of my accuracy throughout the week. Just being tough on myself and making sure it’s in stride. Not making a guy slow down, not making him pull up, no matter if they’re wide open or not. Just imagining and simulating that they are covered in a tight window, so come Monday, there’s no question about it.”

Monday’s matchup with the Cardinals will be a prove-it game for Prescott after what he called “a humbling” experience against the Broncos.

If Prescott and the passing game don’t prove they can beat teams through the air, it might be a constant state of humble pie.

Rest assured that the Cardinals and every other team on the schedule will employ similar tactics as the Broncos did until Prescott answers the question.

“In order to be a good offense, you have to be able to have success running the football and throwing the football,” Garrett said. “You have to be able to attack a defense a lot of different ways. I think if you reflect back on the team we had last year, we were able to do that week in and week out. The running game sets up the passing game. The passing game sets up the running game. All those things fit together. They work together. The best offenses, when they’re playing well, are able to do both those things throughout a ballgame.”

The always motivated Prescott, who is forever fueled by last year’s draft-day slide and being picked in the fourth round behind seven other quarterbacks, says he’s ready.

Nobody is pushing the panic button.

“I know I’ll get better from it, I know this team will get better from it and it’ll be a learning experience,” Prescott said. “I’m always tough on myself after a win or a loss. I don’t know if I say more in a loss like that. I know it’s important to not lose confidence, not lose confidence in this scheme, my teammates, myself. I know what we’re capable of doing.

“It’s important for me to be the same. Come in with the same energy, the same leadership, get these guys going. Maybe be contagious to not lose confidence or even be worried. It’s Week 2 in the NFL, we have a lot of football left to play. A lot of big wins and maybe other losses, so it’s just part of this game.”

Prescott is going to have to prove it over and over again, starting anew against the Cardinals.

Clarence Hill: 817-390-7760, @clarencehilljr

Cowboys at Cardinals

7:30 p.m. Monday, WFAA/8, ESPN, ESPN2

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