Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott leaned over to quarterback Dak Prescott within earshot of the media.
“Two weeks ago, they said I had the most yards in my career after three games, and now they say I have the fewest after five games,” Elliott said, seemingly incredulous about the constantly changing story lines surrounding the Cowboys.
Prescott, the wise one, said, “It’s like coach (Jason) Garrett said, ‘The history of the NFL is told every week.’”
Well, high expectations and intense scrutiny “comes with the dinner” to use a phrase from former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells’ dictionary.
But such is the state of the Cowboys after they opened the season 3-0 and then lost two straight heading into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.
And in keeping with the seasonlong theme, the Cowboys are not likely to get credit for beating the winless and hapless Jets, as the Cowboys’ first three wins came against the Giants (2-4), the Redskins (0-5) and the Dolphins (0-4), before losses to the Saints (4-1) and Packers (4-1).
The Cowboys are supposed to beat the Jets. It’s a must-win to set up the Oct. 20 showdown against the Philadelphia Eagles for first place in the NFC East.
Prescott said he understands as much.
Until then, his focus is simply on the Jets. If they lose, Elliott really won’t like the narrative being spun about the Cowboys.
Here’s what to watch:
Will Elliott be more involved?
In the past two weeks, the game and the situation resulted in Ezekiel Elliott getting just 30 carries in losses to the Saints and the Packers. But the reason does not matter. The Cowboys play their best football when the ground game is going and Elliott is involved in the offense. It won’t be an easy task against the Jets, who give up just 87.5 yards a game on the ground.
Still, Elliott and the ground game give the Cowboys their physical identity.
“We just have to get our edge back,” Elliott said. “We’ve got to go out there and play like us. We’ve got to go out there and play fast, we’ve got to run, we’ve got to play physical football, we’ve got to hit those guys and just get back to our identity.”
Dak Prescott’s care of the football
But there is no escaping the fact that his three interceptions keyed last week’s 34-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers. And fumbles by Elliott and tight end Jason Witten played a role in the 12-10 loss to the Saints the week before.
Prescott has to avoid interceptions but still run the Cowboys offense with aggression. The team must stop beating itself with turnovers and untimely penalties.
“It’s everybody. It’s not just the quarterback,” Witten said. “Certainly the ball is in his hands. He is the decision maker. A lot of that gets pointed his way. He is just resilient. I think we have gotten sloppy a little offensively. We are united. We know what we have to do to get it corrected. I think we are still confident that we can get it back going.”
Will tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins play?
The Cowboys may be without left tackle Tyron Smith and right tackle La’el Collins on Sunday.
Smith missed last week’s game with a high ankle sprain. Collins missed practice much the week before the Green Bay game with a tight back but played, only to suffer a sprained knee.
Neither practiced this week leading up to the Jets game, though they have improved healthwise. The Cowboys listed them as questionable on the injury report.
It will likely be a game-time decision. But owner Jerry Jones thinks at least one will play.
“It’s down to today, and it even could be as late as tomorrow before we will know,” Jones said on Friday. “I think it’s safe to say we’ll get half of them one way or another.”
It will also be a game-time decision on receiver Randall Cobb, who injured his back Thursday in practice. He didn’t practice Friday. He said he feels better but wouldn’t know his status until Saturday or Sunday.
Stopping the run and tackling on defense
The situation is even more acute after the unit’s embarrassing performance against the run in the loss against the Packers. Aaron Jones rushed for 107 yards and four touchdowns.
The Cowboys are getting some help with the return of nose tackle Antwaun Woods, who missed the past three games with a sprained knee. He is their best inside run stopper. But it’s also incumbent on the entire line to keep its gap integrity and run fits while also doing a better job tackling.
“In order to win the game you got to stop the run, get turnovers and that’s it,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “It ain’t rocket science. We gave them the upper hand — we beat ourselves, that’s it and it’s time to move on. It’s standards. We know what the standards are, we know who we are. We know we are as a core and as a defense. It’s all about getting back to those standards and playing Cowboy football.
“We know what the expectation is, it’s about all 11, and we just can’t have one guy out there making the tackle. We got to have all 11 hats to the ball at all times.”
Jerry Jones turns 77 on Sunday
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones turns 77 on Sunday.
Will the Cowboys deliver him a win vs. the Jets as a birthday present?
The Cowboys are 4-1 on Jones’ birthday since he bought the team in 1989.
Garrett will be the second coach behind Barry Switzer to have coached two games on Jones’ birthday.
If the Cowboys lose to the Jets, it’s unlikely Garrett will get a third chance to coach the Cowboys on Jones’ birthday.
What gifts does Jones like on his birthday?
“Well, candidly, it’s the same kinds of things that I’ve wanted and enjoyed from my high school, college days. I want to be around people I love. I want to be around people that I feel good with,” Jones said on his radio show Friday on KRLD-105.3 FM.
“So, proximity to my favorites is always the most important thing for me. And in this particular case we’re going to be in New York. It’s a great place to be. We got great memories. But I like this whole thing.
“One of the great things about it to me, the NFL and getting to be a part of it, is going up to these cities — New York, Washington, Philadelphia — and playing football. It just feels good to be around those tall buildings and do that. Now, I love the collegiate atmosphere, too. But it feels good. What a way to get to spend your birthday is my point.”