OXNARD, Calif. (AP) – Dak Prescott threw two interceptions just a few plays apart in a training camp practice, including an ill-advised pass across the field to a receiver just a few yards from the line of scrimmage.
Those picks, and the decisions that go with them, are under more scrutiny after the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback followed his remarkable rookie season with a somewhat pedestrian encore. And Prescott is among those doing the scrutinizing — each night at camp in the film room.
“When I go back, I’m being super-critical of myself, of the throws, of the placement, of where I should have went with the ball,” Prescott said Sunday. “I’m tough on myself. So when I go back tonight, all of that was OK, it’s got to better and this is why it’s got to better. And I take my notes and I move forward.”
With the release of three-time Pro Bowl receiver Dez Bryant and the retirement of 15-year tight end Jason Witten , Prescott is working with a revamped group of receivers and unproven batch of tight ends.
The resulting rough patches for the passing game after a week and a half in California aren’t surprising, but notable nonetheless considering how the offense usually appears to be ahead of the defense with the Cowboys this time of year.
“The best teams I’ve been on are where it’s back and forth all day and everybody is just competing and battling and no one really dominates the whole day,” coach Jason Garrett said. “The other side competes back and challenges back and fights back. That’s what we’ve had really throughout training camp.”
There’s a reality facing Prescott, though.
Two years ago, he set an NFL rookie record for passer rating and was voted the league’s offensive rookie of the year for a team that finished with an NFC-best 13 wins. In 2017, the interceptions more than tripled (from four to 13), the passer rating dropped by almost 20 points and the Cowboys missed the playoffs at 9-7.
Some will point to running back Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension over domestic violence allegations, which started halfway through the season just as Prescott and the Cowboys were looking good enough for another playoff trip.
Others will remind of injuries that sidelined left tackle Tyron Smith for three games, a big reason the offensive line didn’t live up to its reputation as one of the best in the league.
Regardless, the onus will be on Prescott to keep defenses honest with the Cowboys making no secret of building their offense around Elliott, Prescott’s fellow rookie star who led the NFL in rushing that season.
“We have a lot of knew kinks here and there that is going to help everything else,” Prescott said. “It’s going to help our running game. It’s going to help our play-action game out. As long as we’ve all bought into the offensive system, it is going to pay off.”
Of the two key free agents Dallas signed at receiver, Allen Hurns has missed some time with leg discomfort and Deonte Thompson hasn’t practiced at all because of Achilles heel soreness.
Terrance Williams, the second-longest tenured Dallas receiver behind Cole Beasley, is working back slowly from offseason surgery for a broken foot.
Rookie Michael Gallup, a third-rounder who was the team’s first draft choice at receiver after dumping Bryant, has shown promise in camp. That’s a sampling of the collection the Cowboys hope to use to replace Bryant — and develop a rapport with Prescott.
“It’s challenging, but it’s not tough,” Prescott said. “That is what you want. Those guys are going to be rotating in the game. So we have to go ahead and get in out here … so I can gain chemistry with all of them and figure out who is a guy I can call on in that time.”
The Cowboys have to decide how much time to give Prescott and his new receivers in the preseason, starting Thursday night at San Francisco.
Last year, with Prescott coming off his sparkling debut, he played just two exhibition games. If the Cowboys follow the same plan, Prescott will skip the 49ers game. But it would be easy to argue that the Dallas passing game needs the work.
“It is important for those guys to play together,” Garrett said. “You want to be a careful of putting them in the situation where it’s ultimately not going to be productive for your team. So you want to find your spots in practice and preseason games to get them quality work.”
The quality has been lacking at times in camp.
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