With Dak back, can the Cowboys start a passing attack?

The Dallas Cowboys didn’t ask Dak Prescott to do much in his return last Sunday. Not that he really minded. The Cowboys quarterback has looked good with an offense built around the run as long as it works.

“I want to win,” Prescott said this week. “If that means going out there and throwing it 20 times and 200 yards, one touchdown, no touchdown, I’ll do it. Or if it’s 400 yards and five touchdowns … whatever you ask of me. That’s all that really matters. I just care about the bottom line.”

That’s a nice sentiment and exactly what a defender should say. But the reality is that the Cowboys are going to start needing something closer to those bigger numbers from Prescott if they really want to make a playoff run.

Are you impressed with Dak Prescott’s return to the Cowboys lineup? | SPEAK

Are you impressed with Dak Prescott's return to the Cowboys lineup?  |  SPEAK

David Hellman discusses Dak Prescott’s return to the Dallas Cowboys’ starting lineup and explains that Dak did everything he needed to do in his return to get the win.

It might be a little unfair to judge the Cowboys offense now that it has spent five weeks with backup quarterback Cooper Rush at the helm. But there were still high hopes that Prescott’s return from a broken thumb would provide the spark they’ve been missing, especially in the passing game, where they averaged just 183.3 yards per game.

But that didn’t happen in their 24-6 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Against what is statistically the worst defense in the NFL, Prescott was just 19 of 25 for 207 yards and a touchdown. And 70 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, when the Cowboys — with the help of a fumble by Detroit quarterback Jared Goff — broke open a surprisingly low 10-6 game.

There was no pop at all in the passing game, just like there hasn’t been all season. Only two completed passes were longer than 20 yards, and both came in the first half. Maybe it was intentional. Maybe they were just easing Prescott back. But it’s still an inescapable reality that the Cowboys’ passing game in the first half of the season lacked any big-play ability and wasn’t powerful enough to really change any game.

There are many reasons. A big one is that they traded Amari Cooper in the offseason and didn’t really replace him. They appear to be relying heavily on Michael Gallup during his return from a torn ACL in January. He returned in time for Week 4, but has just eight catches for 86 yards in four games so far — including none last Sunday against the Lions.

For a No. 2 receiver, it just won’t do.

“I expect to see more production. I expect,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Friday on his weekly edition of 105.3 the Fan in Dallas. “And that’s not a trait by any means. He’s just such a good receiver. He’s so important to our attack.”

Jones believes that if Prescott can get Gallup going, it could not only take some of the pressure off No. 1 receiver CeeDee Lamb (37 catches, 479 yards), increase their big plays and even spark an improvement in their passing ratio on third down conversion , which is just 32.2 percent – third worst in the league.

“This is all written by Gallup,” Jones said. “You bet we need him to show up with good stats.”

Can Dak carry the Cowboys offense against the Bears in Week 8? | SPEAK

Can Dak carry the Cowboys offense against the Bears in Week 8?  |  SPEAK

David Hellman explains with the help of Dallas Cowboys backup Tony Pollard, Dak Prescott could lead the offense in Week 8 against the Chicago Bears.

That could really matter this weekend, especially if running back Ezekiel Elliott misses the game against the Chicago Bears — as Jones hinted he might — or if he’s even limited with his injured knee. Tony Pollard was extremely efficient, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. An argument can be made that he’s been their best running back this season, and the drop from Elliott to him may be small.

But even at its best, the running game won’t dominate the Cowboys this season. They no longer have the offensive line to really blow away games and wear down opponents as consistently as, say, the Philadelphia Eagles. And while they can rely on their defense, which is great — ranked sixth overall, fourth against the pass — there’s only so far that defense can take them. At least they’re good right now, but they’re not exactly the 2000 Ravens or the 1985 Bears.

No, what makes the Cowboys a threat, what has them picked to win the NFC East in many corners, and what makes them the least bit of a threat to make the Super Bowl is their passing game. Specifically, it’s Dak Prescott. He is the difference maker who can really beat them. All predictions about what the Cowboys would do this season were made with the idea that Prescott was still the quarterback who averaged 278 yards passing per game and threw 37 touchdown passes in 16 starts.

The Cowboys were the NFL’s best and most explosive offense. Their passing game ranked second. Clearly, thanks in large part to Prescott’s injury, this season doesn’t look nearly the same.

But their starting quarterback is healthy. So the time is now.

The Cowboys need Prescott to shake off his rust and show he can be the player he was. They need him to drive this game, to turn Lamb into the big man he was meant to be and make Gallup what Jones believes he is. If this passing game becomes dangerous again, the running game will it looks even better and the defense won’t have to carry as much weight.

That would put them in the championship conversation, which is the only one Jones wants to be in at 80 years old. Any Super Bowl dreams in Dallas were predicated on Prescott playing like an elite quarterback, running a dangerous, explosive passing attack. That’s what they had in Dallas last season.

And they should have that again.

Ralph Vacciano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that spent 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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