Great expectations: Dallas duo faces pressure to Cowboy up
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.”
Dak Prescott, left, blossomed into a franchise quarterback a year ago, and fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing.