The first month of the 2020 season didn't go at all according to plan for the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas opened the season with three losses in four games, largely because of a defense that couldn't slow anyone down, much less stop them.
However, there was one major bright spot: the play of Dak Prescott. Through four games, Prescott led the league with a jaw-dropping 1,690 passing yards. If the Cowboys were going to turn things around and get into the playoffs in 2020, it was going to be with Prescott carrying them.
That all ended in heartbreaking fashion Sunday against the New York Giants. Prescott's 2020 season is over after he suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle. As things stand now, veteran Andy Dalton will be the starter for the Cowboys under center the rest of the way.
Against the winless G-Men, Dalton played well enough to get Dallas a win that moved the Cowboys into first place in the NFC East. But if Dallas is going to salvage something from this shattered season and get back to the postseason, it will have to make some major changes.
Because the days of the quarterback position carrying the Dallas offense are most definitely done.
Before we go any further, we might as well get the obvious out of the way. Even by 2020 standards, what happened to Prescott on Sunday was awful. The 27-year-old was a legitimate MVP candidate who was playing as well as any quarterback in the league. Entering Week 5, Prescott was averaging a ridiculous 422.5 passing yards per game and had a passer rating of 102.6.
Seeing that breakout season end with a tearful Prescott being carted from the field was gut-wrenching. It didn't take long for well-wishes to start pouring in, including one from one of the best quarterbacks in franchise history.
As NFL Network's Jane Slater tweeted, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott summed up the whole sad situation pretty well.
"It sucks," Elliott said. "It sucks. I know we won. But it sucks to lose Dak, our leader."
If ever there were two words that perfectly sum up 2020, it would be, "it sucks."
However, this is the reason that the Cowboys signed Andy Dalton to begin with, to have a proven veteran backup capable of stepping up if Prescott went down. And to Dalton's credit given a lack of prep time, the 32-year-old played pretty well.
It wasn't a flawless performance—Dalton lost a fumble that the Giants turned into a go-ahead score. But "The Red Rifle" made plays when he needed to, including a spot-on deep pass to Michael Gallup that set up the game-winning field goal.
For the game, Dalton completed nine of 11 pass attempts for 111 passing yards with a passer rating of 108. Not bad for a guy who has been holding a clipboard for the last month-plus.
As Jon Machota of The Athletic reported, Dalton credited his success to staying prepared.
"You never want anything to happen, but you gotta stay ready," Dalton said. "That's what I've done. I've stayed ready. You want to have the opportunity to play. I knew the situation I was in. Just trying to do my best to support Dak. ... I feel like I was preparing for these moments."
It doesn't hurt that this wasn't Dalton's first rodeo—or his 100th. Over nine seasons in Cincinnati, Dalton started 133 games, winning 70. He led the Bengals to the postseason in each of his first five years in the NFL. Dalton holds a number of franchise records with the Bengals, and he's been named to three Pro Bowls.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that there's a reason Dalton isn't still throwing passes in Cincinnati, and it's not Joe Burrow. In Dalton's last full season as a starter in Cincy, he failed to complete 60 percent of passes, had just 16 touchdown passes against 14 interceptions in 13 games and posted a passer rating of under 80. Dalton is winless in his career in the playoffs and 6-15 at night.
He doesn't have Prescott's arm. He certainly doesn't have Prescott's mobility. Dalton may be a high-end backup, but even at his best he was something of a low-ceiling starter.
Dallas is just going to have to make do, though. There will probably be rumblings on sports talk radio and online about the possibility of Dallas pursuing an "upgrade" at quarterback. But the trade market at quarterback isn't robust in the best of times. The players who might be available would either be veterans like Dalton on the downslope of their careers, such as Joe Flacco of the New York Jets, or youngsters who never lived up to expectations, such as Washington's Dwayne Haskins, Chicago's Mitchell Trubisky and Tampa Bay's Josh Rosen.
There isn't a quarterback Dallas might actually be able to get who gives the team a better chance to win than Dalton—at least not enough to justify the draft capital it would take to get him.
That leaves one option. One viable course of action.
Ride Ezekiel Elliott all game every game. Give the 25-year-old 25 carries (or more) a game. Use the run to control the clock and keep Dalton in favorable down-and-distance situations. Go full-on old-school ground-and-pound.
Even that may not work for one prevailing reason. Prescott wasn't throwing the ball umpteen times a game because he has himself in fantasy. He was doing it because the Dallas defense is hot garbage. Heading into Week 5, the Giants had scored 47 points for the season.
New York scored 34 Sunday, although one of the touchdowns was a defensive score. Over the first month of the season, Dallas allowed 430.5 yards and 36.5 points per game.
Were the Cowboys in any other division in the NFL, they would be finished. The toastiest of toast. But after winning Sunday, Dallas is all alone in first place in the NFC (L)East with a 2-3 record. It's not out of the realm of reason that 7-9 could earn the NFC's No. 4 seed.
It's pitiful, but it's not out of the realm of reason.
But if that's the goal for the now-reeling Cowboys, then head coach Mike McCarthy needs to drastically alter how the team functions from here on out. The pressure to carry the team has to shift from under center to behind the quarterback. For the remainder of 2020, this is Elliott's team. Everything on offense needs to revolve around him.
Dalton is a capable veteran. As insurance policies go, Dallas could have done a lot worse.
But Dalton is who he is.
And who he is isn't Dak Prescott.