Great ex­pec­ta­tions: Dal­las duo faces pres­sure to Cow­boy up

The Washington Post Sunday - - PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL - BY MARK MASKE mark.maske@wash­post.com

OXNARD, calif. — Al­fred Mor­ris has seen this be­fore. And if any­one knows the Dal­las Cow­boys can­not take any­thing for granted, even with such big things ex­pected in the sopho­more cam­paigns of quar­ter­back Dak Prescott and run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott, it’s Mor­ris.

Mor­ris, now a backup tail­back for the Cow­boys, was a stand­out rookie for the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins in 2012. Those Red­skins had another daz­zling rookie at quar­ter­back, Robert Grif­fin III. Grif­fin was the NFL’s of­fen­sive rookie of the year. Mor­ris was a 1,600-yard rusher. The Red­skins won an NFC East ti­tle, and prac­ti­cally every­one fig­ured that Grif­fin and Mor­ris would be the fran­chise’s on-field cor­ner­stones for a decade or so that would in­clude mul­ti­ple Su­per Bowls and all-pro se­lec­tions. What could go wrong?

Plenty, as it turned out. Grif­fin’s Red­skins ca­reer de­te­ri­o­rated quickly amid in­juries, con­tro­versy and dis­ap­point­ing play. He is now search­ing for his third NFL team. Mor­ris had two more 1,000-yard rush­ing sea­sons in Wash­ing­ton but signed with the Cow­boys be­fore last sea­son and was an afterthought in Dal­las. So noth­ing, Mor­ris knows from ex­pe­ri­ence, is guar­an­teed, even with play­ers as promis­ing as Prescott and El­liott in the fold.

“I feel like our year, we lost so many pieces the next year, free agents and that type of stuff,” Mor­ris said last week­end, stand­ing on a prac­tice field at the Cow­boys’ train­ing camp. “It wasn’t the same team. It kind of was. But at the same time, it wasn’t. So you can, in a sense, build. But you have to have the right pieces. You have to have the right mind-set. A lot of times when you have suc­cess — ‘Okay, we’re good’ — you kind of get com­pla­cent in a sense. I feel like that’s when the down­fall hap­pens, when you get com­pla­cent like, ‘We don’t have any­thing to work on.’ There’s al­ways some­thing to work on. There’s al­ways room for im­prove­ment.”

Mor­ris doesn’t ex­pect these Cow­boys to come unglued.

“I feel like this team’s mind-set is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent in that we’re not com­pla­cent,” he said. “We’re al­ways work­ing hard. Coach [Jason] Gar­rett pushes us to not be okay with okay. I think we have all the po­ten­tial in the world to build around these young guys.”

That is the pre­vail­ing wis­dom, that the Cow­boys will pick up where they left off last sea­son, when El­liott led the league in rush­ing and Prescott went from fourth-round draft pick to prospec­tive fran­chise quar­ter­back af­ter tak­ing over for the in­jured Tony Romo.

“You’ve got to go prove it all over again,” Cow­boys tight end Jason Wit­ten said. “But it doesn’t erase what you built. I’m the player that I am be­cause I draw on my past ex­pe­ri­ences, good and bad, the suc­cesses that I’ve had and the ad­ver­sity that I’ve had. It’s the same for young play­ers. It would be fool­ish to think that we can’t build from that and learn from that. In the same sense, you’ve got to go do it again.”

Prescott and El­liott now must deal with raised ex­pec­ta­tions. That shouldn’t be a ma­jor prob­lem for them, ac­cord­ing to Wit­ten.

“Zeke had a great year,” Wit­ten said. “Dak, too. They did a lot of great things. But there’s a lot of things they can im­prove on. And that’s what they’re work­ing on. When you have that ap­proach, then it’s re­ally easy to kind of take this big pic­ture and dial it back down into, ‘My read on that. My drop on this,’ and that’s the ma­tu­rity you have to have at a young age. And they’ve shown that, which as a vet­eran, I sure as hell ap­pre­ci­ate it just be­cause that ap­proach al­lows you to think that good things are go­ing to hap­pen.”

The Cow­boys’ 2016 sea­son ended with a cu­ri­ous mix of pride in what was ac­com­plished and dis­ap­point­ment with how it ended. They won the di­vi­sion and se­cured the NFC’s No. 1 play­off seed. They cap­ti­vated the foot­ball-watch­ing na­tion, fu­el­ing the NFL’s post­elec­tion re­cov­ery in tele­vi­sion rat­ings. But then they lost a pul­sat­ing NFC semi­fi­nal at home to the Green Bay Pack­ers.

“We set a great foun­da­tion,” Mor­ris said. “At the same time, we felt like we should have and could have pushed fur­ther than we did.”

Cow­boys ex­ec­u­tive Stephen Jones said that he and his fa­ther, team owner Jerry Jones, did some post-play­off-de­feat soul-search­ing about whether the fran­chise had done the right thing by stick­ing with Prescott af­ter Romo re­cov­ered from his pre­sea­son back in­jury. They con­cluded, Stephen Jones said, that they’d made the proper move.

“The tough part of that is that we didn’t get it done and we lost in the first [play­off game] again,” Jones said. “That’s ob­vi­ously frus­trat­ing for us. The other thing is, you al­ways think a lit­tle bit about had you had a sea­soned quar­ter­back in there for the play­offs like Tony — I think you pay a lit­tle bit of a price when you have a young guy. Not many young guys get it done.

“When you look who was in the fi­nal four [in last sea­son’s NFL play­offs], it was Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan and Tom Brady and Ben Roeth­lis­berger. Those were the fi­nal four quar­ter­backs. That’s a whole lot of ex­pe­ri­ence sit­ting on the shelf there with those four guys. I know Jerry has asked him­self a cou­ple times: Did we do the right thing? But Dak was just so hot and play­ing so well, at the end of the day, it’s sports and I think we did the right thing play­ing Dak.”

There is no safety net now for Prescott, with Romo hav­ing re­tired and joined the CBS broad­cast booth.

“To be able to think that we’ve more than likely found our fu­ture in Dak, as we all know in this league, is a huge deal,” Stephen Jones said. “We’ve been through it be­fore af­ter Troy, the jour­ney we took try­ing to find the next guy af­ter Troy Aik­man. And to think that we’ve been able to roll right from Tony to Dak is cer­tainly some­thing that’s en­cour­ag­ing as well as set­tling in terms of what our fu­ture may look like.”

Prescott has spo­ken about the risk-vs.-re­ward con­sid­er­a­tions of tak­ing more shots with passes deep down the field this sea­son. But he also has talked about us­ing El­liott as a receiver out of the back­field more fre­quently. What­ever his ap­proach, he will have some NFL sea­son­ing this time around.

“I’ve got­ten more and more reps,” Prescott said. “I’ve taken way more reps than I took in train­ing camp last year, ob­vi­ously. It’s been valu­able to me.”

With El­liott fac­ing a pos­si­ble sus­pen­sion by the NFL un­der its per­sonal con­duct pol­icy, the Cow­boys might find them­selves re­ly­ing at the sea­son’s out­set on Mor­ris and fel­low backup run­ning back Dar­ren McFad­den. The bur­den on Prescott and the team’s de­fense would in­crease if El­liott is out of the lineup tem­po­rar­ily. But the of­fen­sive line re­mains im­pos­ing and wide re­ceivers Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Ter­rance Wil­liams should cre­ate con­sid­er­able prob­lems for op­pos­ing de­fenses.

It’s not all up to Prescott and El­liott. But they are ex­pected to lead the way.

“You can build on that,” Mor­ris said. “That’s not to say you will build on it. It’s hard to re­peat suc­cess, es­pe­cially in this di­vi­sion. I feel like we can. We have the right pieces.”

MICHAEL OWEN BAKER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dak Prescott, left, blos­somed into a fran­chise quar­ter­back a year ago, and fel­low rookie Ezekiel El­liott led the NFL in rush­ing.

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