Cowboys Dak Prescott Gets “the Alex Smith Audition”

The Dallas Cowboys Seem to Be Following Andy Reid’s Kansas City Script for Offense Building

I’ve been watching the Kansas City Chiefs a lot this season. For one, they’re a lot of fun with young gun Pat Mahomes at the controls. Second, because my Cowboys fan-self sees a lot of promising similarities between the path the Chiefs have followed since Andy Reid took over in 2014 and what the Cowboys have done since 2016.

Reid deserved plaudits for turning the team building paradigm on his head. At Philadelphia, he used a time-tested formula used by new coaches – come in, get your quarterback as quickly as possible and build together. Chuck Noll picked Terry Bradshaw 1st overall after suffering a 1-13 debut season at Pittsburgh. Bill Walsh drafted Joe Montana in his first spring with the club. Jimmy Johnson did the same in Dallas, spending his first draft pick to select Troy Aikman. Ron Wolf traded a high pick for Brett Favre, who was holding a clipboard on Atlanta’s sideline, so his new coach Mike Holmgren would have his triggerman.

When Reid graduated from Holmgren’s staff in 1999 he spent his first draft pick on Syracuse QB Donovan McNabb. The rookie watched for 10 games in 2000, then helmed Reid’s Eagles offenses for the next ten very successful years.

At Kansas City, Reid took a very different tack. Looking for a quick takeoff, he dealt a 2nd round pick to San Francisco for seven-year veteran Alex Smith. After Smith helped raise the Chiefs to an 11-4 record and a playoff berth (the team was 2-14 the year before Smith and Reid arrived) Andy gave his signal caller a fat four-year extension.

While Smith led the Chiefs to two more double-digit seasons and three playoff berths in his first four Kansas City campaigns, he never won a playoff game (sound familiar, Cowboys fans?). With one year left on Smith’s deal, Reid made a fateful decision. He concluded that Smith, despite his solid stats and win percentage (Smith had QB ratings in the 90s in each of his last four seasons with the club) was not a QB who could get the Chiefs past Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady and into a Super Bowl.

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In the 2017 draft, the Chiefs boldly dealt two 1st round picks and a 3rd rounder to move up 17 spots, from 27th overall to the 10th spot, where they selected Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes. The plan was clear. Give Mahomes a season to learn the game at Reid’s side and then deal Smith from a position of strength in early 2018.

The plan worked superbly. Smith retained his trade value with another double-digit, low turnover season. The Chiefs dealt him immediately after the season, before the league’s year ran out, to the Washington Redskins, recouping a 3rd round pick and CB Kendall Fuller. Mahomes got two late 2017 starts after the Chiefs had secured a playoff berth, and was handed the keys to the KC Ferrari in the spring.

The coach who followed the QB-first approach in Philly used the QB-last method in Kansas City. Before Mahomes, as added, Reid had built a speedy, dangerous unit around Smith, featuring tight end Travis Kelce, back Kareem Hunt and pocket rocket wideout Tyreek Hill. KC signed free agent split end Sammy Watkins to give Mahomes one more field-stretching target and the results have been spectacular. The Chiefs lead the league in scoring, averaging over 36 points per game.

Whether by design or by necessity, the Cowboys have been working on the “quarterback last” approach since Prescott was forced into the starting job by Tony Romo’s back injury in the summer of 2016. The team was set on a veteran group of skill position players (Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley) and a high pick offensive line around Romo. This bunch, plus running back Demarco Murray, took the team teasingly close to success in 2014 but dropped off when Murray departed via free agency in 2015.

The plan in 2016 was to restock the backfield with top pick Ezekiel Elliott and give Romo another run. A pre-season back injury against Seattle scotched that plan and put Prescott at the controls. He surprised everybody with a 13 win rookie campaign and retained the job when Romo retired the following spring.

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Prescott’s game dropped in 2017 but in fairness to him, every unit on the Cowboys offense dipped. The line suffered from Doug Free’s retirement and Ron Leary’s departure. Elliott missed half a dozen games due to a suspension and age and injury ravaged the receiving corps. Bryant lost his down the field fastball and father time finally caught up with Jason Witten.

The Cowboys 2018 has been a rush drive to rebuild the units around Prescott. The last draft added Connor Williams to replace Leary and Michael Gallup was tasked with the difficult job of bearing Bryant’s heavy split end load. The rookie has shown promise, improving slowly week to week, but the receiving corps was still a poor imitation of the 2014 and ‘16 groups, with only Cole Beasley matching their week-to-week production.

Amari Cooper’s acquisition shows the Cowboys trying to restore equilibrium to the wideouts. Cooper slides into the X position, a spot he handled with aplomb in 2015 and 2016. Gallup takes his improving game to split end, where he’ll see less secondary attention and lesser cornerback competition, which should allow his learning curve to continue apace.

Beasley, who like Gallup has worn too many hats this season, doubling as an inside receiver and a wide threat, can focus on filling Jason Witten’s role from the slot.

With three credible wideouts, the Cowboys can follow the lead of teams like Los Angeles and the aforementioned Chiefs, and run from spread 11 personnel packages. This should be a tonic to Elliott, who has seen an abundance of stacked fronts on early downs this year.

All of which buys Prescott nothing but time. He has the remainder of 2018 and 2019 on his contract and will surely get the Alex Smith assessment. With no 1st rounder next May and a poor quarterback draft class overall, all moves will likely be on filling out the rest of the offense around Dak. A tight end likely figures highly on the team’s wish list and an offensive tackle could also factor into the teams’ thinking, to provide depth and competition for Williams (the Cowboys practice is to draft tackles and move them anywhere along the line they see a need) or for RT La’el Collins, whose play at right tackle has been inconsistent.

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At some point, and soon, the decision Andy Reid made with Alex Smith will be made in Dallas. Is Dak Prescott a guy who’s good enough to keep you on the win-loss yo-yo, or has he merely been a guy bedeviled by a declining supporting cast the last year and a half? If the answer is the former, the Cowboys may start planning for a 2017-Chiefs-like draft jump in 2020, which promises a far deeper, more talented quarterback prospect crop than 2019’s.

The front office has laid out its fifteen-month blueprint. But if the offensive results are slow to improve, can the brass maintain the plan if it faces heavy blowback from a fan base whose collective nervous system has worn out oscillating between euphoria and despair?

The Chiefs were not willing to settle for one-and-done. Pat Mahomes hasn’t won a playoff game yet, but his talent hints at many over his career. Are the Cowboys’ ambitions on par with Kansas City’s? Are they really on a slow-track for their own Mahomes, or are they content with an Alex Smith-level existence?

Show us what you’ve got, Dak.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst SportsTalkLine at Sports Talk Line
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
Rafael Vela