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The Cowboys’ Biggest Problem Isn’t the Receivers—It’s Dak

For months the Cowboys’ receivers have listened to how they’re not talented enough to carry the Dallas offense. But after the first game of the season, the issue might not be the receivers.

All offseason the Cowboys wanted you to believe the team had enough talented pass-catchers for Dak Prescott to successfully run the offense without Jason Witten (who retired) and Dez Bryant (who was cut). Almost defiantly the franchise didn’t sign a player of Bryant’s or Witten’s caliber, choosing to put their faith in a wideout group that includes Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, Deonte Thompson and Allen Hurns.

But after limping out of Charlotte having scored only eight points, Dallas’s first game of the season raises other questions. One game does not a sample size make, but perhaps the question isn’t whether Prescott has enough around him, but rather, can he get the ball to the guys he has?

On Sunday Prescott picked up right where he left off in his sophomore slump of 2017. Short and low to Hurns on third-and-11. Short and low to a wide-open Blake Jarwin on third-and-seven. Not seeing an even more wide-open Beasley downfield early in the third quarter. Behind Gallup on a shallow cross in the fourth quarter.

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Prescott didn’t get his team across midfield until the third quarter and only began looking like an accurate passer early in the fourth quarter. He should have been able to find some completions in Carolina’s zone coverage, but he went just 3-of-10 on throws that traveled at least 10 yards downfield. For the seventh time in his past 11 games, the third-year quarterback failed to throw a touchdown.

“I was off,” Prescott admitted shortly after the 16–8 loss. “That stuff you have to go back and look on film. I have to figure out why I was off. Was I rushing it? Did I feel pressure? What were the things that were causing it? Was it just me missing the pass. That’s not anything that I can judge right now.”

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Credit Prescott for taking ownership of the issues, just as he did this summer when discussing what went wrong last year. He played poorly in a game where offensive coordinator Scott Linehan seemed to lack creativity in his play-calling. Dallas never got the run-game established against Carolina’s defense. The Panthers’ front seven could handle the run alone but would sometimes bring in an eighth defender into the box. Ezekiel Elliott could only get 15 carries for 69 yards.

“Every week they’re going to load the box,” Elliott said. “If they don’t then they’re going to pay. So I mean, there’s no point in even talking about it anymore. We know they’re going to load the box. They know we like to run the ball.”

For four months, the Cowboys’ proud group of receivers heard that they’re the football equivalent of trash, and a couple of them pushed back against that very notion after the game. I asked Gallup, a rookie, whether this game helped the narrative that Prescott doesn’t have many targets to throw to.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Gallup said. “Most of the game [the wide receivers] stepped up to the call when the ball was in the air and it was a catchable ball, most of the time we were making it. I think we just need to do what we can control.”

When faced with a similar question, Beasley said, “The strength is not in one guy, it’s in the group. That’s what a lot of people won’t understand but that’s fine. We don’t need people to understand. We’re going to come out and put it on film. If you watch film you’ll come out and see guys open. That’s what we bring to the table and we’ve just got to continue to do that every game.”

As promised the Cowboys had a healthy rotation at receiver—of the 64 offensive snaps, Beasley played on 43, followed by Hurns’s 38, Thompson’s 30, Gallup’s 29 and Terrence Williams’s 19. Beasley led all receivers with seven catches on eight targets for 73 yards while no one else got more than three catches and 30 yards. Tavon Austin saw just 10 snaps, and he got one rush for one yard.

Off the field, former Dallas wideouts were drawing attention to themselves in other ways. Bryant was trolling the Cowboys on Twitter, tweeting about what the Patriots’ offense would look like with him in it, and Witten was in Oakland, preparing for his debut as an analyst on Monday Night Football the following day.

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But Prescott couldn’t worry about them; he was concerned with his group of receivers.

“We are not talking about guys that we used to have or guys that were missing, it’s about the guys that were on that field tonight and we gave it our all,” Prescott said. “I promise that we will do it again next Sunday and put a better performance out there.”

And there should be some concern for Prescott, as well.