The Dallas Cowboys are long past the franchise’s peak years of the 1990s when they were atop the NFL with three Super Bowl championships in four years (1992-95), but the 2019 team has its own version of “The Triplets” who drove the Cowboys’ offense in those championships.
Whatever run the Cowboys make to win the NFC East for the second straight year and third time in the last four depends largely on their offense, led by the potent trio of quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
They’re the stars of an offense that’s ranked No. 1 in the league in six categories – including yards per game (437.4) – and sixth in points per game (27.9).
“Those guys all love ball,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said in a conference-call interview. “They love being part of our team. They go about it the right way. We’re lucky to have them.”
Despite the lofty offensive production individually and collectively as a unit, the Cowboys are in a tie with the Eagles for first place going into Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Both teams are 5-4.
They are coming off a disappointing 28-24 loss at home to the Minnesota Vikings. It was their fourth loss in the last six games after starting the season with three straight wins.
Meet this week's opponents, the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys’ “Triplets” of their 1990s Super Bowl era were quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin.
It’s a stretch to think any or all of the Prescott-Elliott-Cooper trio will make the Hall of Fame, but they certainly rank near the top of any current threesome.
“I don’t know if it’s fair to rank them, but they’re up there,” said Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. “We have seen some awesome guys so far this year ... if you look at what they’ve done and what they’re doing, they are really, really good.”
Here’s a look at the trio, and the problems they present for the Lions:
Dak Prescott: A Pro Bowl player as a rookie in 2016 and again in 2018, he’s having the best season of his career in terms of completion rate (68.3 percent) and TD passes (18, just five short of his career high of 23 as a rookie).
The downside has been his nine interceptions – more than any full season except for 13 in 2017.
Prescott has benefited from the promotion of former Lions backup quarterback Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator. Prescott’s ability to get the ball downfield more is reflected in his career high of averaging 308.6 yards per game.
Ezekiel Elliott: The league’s rushing champion as a rookie in 2016 and again in 2018, he hasn’t been quite as productive as in the past with 788 yards rushing and an average of 87.6 yards per game, lowest of his career.
The Vikings held him to 47 yards on 20 attempts – 2.35 yards per carry – with a long run of six yards. It was one of four games this season under 65 yards.
Amari Cooper: Unlike Elliott and Prescott, who were 2016 Cowboys draft picks, Cooper was acquired in a midseason trade with the Raiders last year. He made the Pro Bowl his first two seasons in Oakland.
He had 53 catches and six TDs in nine games with the Cowboys last year, and after nine games this year he also had 53 catches and seven TDs. He had 11 catches for 147 yards and a TD in last weeks loss to the Vikings.
Many of his catches were spectacular sideline catches that gave the defender little opportunity to compete for the ball.
Sack stats: On offense, the improvement in the Cowboys’ pass protection has been dramatic – from 55 for the full season last year to 11 in nine games. They’re No. 1 in the league in sacks allowed per play.
On defense, they’re in the middle of the pack – tied for 18th with 23 sacks and 16th in sacks per play.
The Lions and Cowboys are even with 12 takeaways and 12 giveaways.
Staff connections: Garrett has a strong Detroit connection on his staff. Former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli is in his sixth season as defensive coordinator.
Moore was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator this year.
And Jon Kitna, a starting quarterback for the Lions from 2006-08 and the first quarterback in franchise history to pass for 4,000 yards in consecutive seasons, is in his first season as quarterbacks coach.
Both ended their playing careers in Dallas.