FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott said he’d “be lying” if he claimed he hasn’t heard the noise.
The Cowboys quarterback knows his production has been down recently. His decision-making hasn’t resembled the offensive mastery he was praised for earlier this season; his touchdown-to-interception ratio far closer than he’d prefer. In December games, the Cowboys managed just 2-of-13 conversions on third downs vs. the Saints and 1-of-6 in the red zone against Washington.
After witnessing high-caliber offensive play from the Cowboys in September and October, fans wonder: Is Prescott healthy after his midseason calf injury and preseason throwing-shoulder ailment? What’s gone awry?
“I’m fully healthy,” he said Thursday after Cowboys practice. “100% healthy. Thank you, though. Thank you.”
Which leads to the next question: Is Prescott in a slump?
“I don’t feel like necessarily I am,” he said. “I do realize I’m not playing my best ball, haven’t been playing it, have made some poor decisions you could say. That’s kind of part of it. I wouldn’t say it’s slump material, but I’m definitely not up to my standards or expectations.
“When you play at a high level, that’s what you create. So I’m glad people have the same expectations for my game as I do for myself.”
Those expectations are fueled by several factors, including Prescott’s production to start the season after returning from a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle last season that required two surgeries. In the Cowboys’ first six games, Prescott posted a 115.0 quarterback rating while completing 73.1% of passes for 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. He missed one game with a strained calf (the Cowboys won at Minnesota with backup Cooper Rush) and has since posted an 82.8 rating. Prescott’s completion percentage is down 10 points to 63.2% and his ball security in the stretch has hovered at eight touchdowns to six interceptions.
So scrutiny has emerged that Prescott does not fully block out even if he can commit to disproving.
“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t heard it,” he said. “But I’ve been doubted my whole life, said I can’t do this or can’t do that so in a sense I’m kind of glad it’s actually come back. I’m glad that’s the way people feel and there’s a lot of that being said right now.
“(But) yeah, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hear it.”
To be clear, Prescott believes slumps exist. Baseball players, golfers and football players can enter a rut they need to emerge from, he concedes. That admission is more than offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was willing to confirm Monday, when the former NFL quarterback responded to a question about slumps claiming he didn’t know what qualified as one.
OFFENSIVE ISSUES: OC Kellen Moore, Cowboys diagnose where offense has slumped
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy has similarly asserted Prescott is healthy and not slumping, while owner Jerry Jones said it was “probably fair” to acknowledge Prescott’s downturn but reiterated his confidence that Prescott’s work ethic and mental makeup would fuel a rebound. Besides, ownership has said, a disjointed offense results from more than merely quarterback play.
“Everybody wants to point to Dak,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said Wednesday from NFL owners meetings in North Texas. “Well, if you know offensive football, it’s more than one guy— it’s the group working as a whole. Sometimes it looks like a horrible throw, but maybe the receiver didn’t run the right route. Now, Dak’s never going to say that. He wears it all. He’s never going to point any fingers.
“If I were going to bet on anybody, it’s No. 4. Certainly the team believes in him 110% and is behind him and everything he stands for.”
As Jones intimated, Prescott stopped short Thursday of throwing any of his teammates under the bus. But he did say, “to be blunt,” communication was the No. 1 issue plaguing offensive chemistry in games. Prescott threw two interceptions in a 27-20 win at Washington last week, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Additional throws were nearly intercepted. Moore confirmed when asked about a specific play that a receiver lined up in the wrong position. The previous week, second-year receiver CeeDee Lamb acknowledged he ran his route incorrectly on a botched play.
Offensive line cohesion, running back health and Prescott’s footwork have each contributed to a less reliable offense. Prescott and his receivers worked after the Cowboys’ allotted practice time this week to further hammer timing on routes, including red-zone plays that did not materialize last week. Teammates gathered for film sessions, aiming to further unpack what each was saying on plays. The 9-4 Cowboys seek both to beat the 4-9 Giants this week and chase deeper playoff goals that will require them to fire on offensive cylinders.
“It’s the right time for us to turn it on,” Prescott said. “… We’d much rather be going through what we’re going through in this time that we did than two weeks from now.
“Now that we’ve addressed it, we’ve held ourselves accountable for it, we can move forward and peak at the right time heading into the playoffs.”
The Cowboys travel to New York this week with the league’s No. 2 offense, thanks in no small part to their early year success. They’ve scored 29.2 points per game (defensive touchdowns in each of the last two games have contributed) and compiled 409.1 yards per game. The Giants’ defense has allowed 368.7 yards (seventh worst) and 23.8 points per game (12th worst), the Cowboys facing a similarly struggling Washington defense again the following week.
But before NFC powerhouse Arizona arrives in January, the Cowboys know they need to play complementary football. No longer can they settle for one dominant phase after the offense starred early this year, the defense of late, including consecutive four-takeaway games the last two weeks. Offense and defense have each showcased significant potential. They now aspire to perform in concert.
The Cowboys believe settling their challenges comes down less to discerning what blame rests on Prescott vs. his receivers, what stems f suspect playcalling or poor line protection. Sure, receiver Amari Cooper said, quarterbacks tend to receive the most praise and criticism. But the operational challenges are multifaceted.
Prescott said he retains “supreme confidence” in himself and his teammates.
“We’ve got confidence in ourselves,” he said. “No disrespect to any opponent that we play, (but) we have these expectations and standards for ourselves regardless of who we’re playing. Whether it’s a division game against the Giants, a team that we’re familiar with, or it be somebody else out of conference, this is the game that, yeah, we’ve got to get things rolling regardless.
“Just because of the time of the season it is, what we’ve done but more importantly where we’re trying to go. It’s now.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cowboys’ Dak Prescott says he’s not playing his best but is healthy
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