FRISCO, Texas — Jason Garrett queued up the video.
It featured a snippet of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott gashing the Eagles in Philadelphia last year for yet another big gain on what would be an 187-yard, two-touchdown performance.
The entire Cowboys roster, this week, watched the screen as quarterback Dak Prescott tucked the ball on third-and-14 in a wild-card win vs. the Seahawks, Prescott somersaulting up the middle to the 1-yard line on the game-sealing drive.
Then Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson appeared on screen. He was escaping the pocket on second-and-9 from the 9-yard line, scrambling furiously left toward the end zone. Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith aggressively pursued a collision course with Watson. Safety Xavier Woods wrapped his arms around the quarterback, and fellow safety Jeff Heath delivered a blow to finalize the tackle.
Watson fell out of bounds at the 2-yard line. The Texans, in that 2018 Week 5 game, were held to a field goal.
“It’s a great visual,” tight end Jason Witten said. “It was a good reminder as we start the week of: This is who we are. … A reminder of, ‘This is how we play.’ ”
The Cowboys, losers of their last three games and seven of their last 10, do not feel as though they have consistently played to the standard they expect of themselves. They’re still atop the NFC East with three weeks to play. But they know the performances they have managed in recent weeks against the Bills and Bears are unlikely to produce any deep postseason run.
So Garrett, in the final year of his contract, turned the tape back for a couple minutes early this week in a team meeting. The message to his players: This is the level of play we expect.
It’s a key teaching tool, Garrett said Thursday.
“You’re always trying to reinforce what’s right, doing it the right way,” he said. “The best examples are the ones of your own players doing it the right way. And then you’re also saying: ‘This is the wrong way. This is the difference between those two things.’ ”
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Comparing the plays that Garrett showed this week to recent performances, the difference is stark.
Take the Houston goal-line stand, which preceded another sack of Watson at the 1-yard line entering halftime in October 2018. Instead, in a span of 19 days recently, the Cowboys were outjuked for rushing touchdowns by Lions quarterback Jeff Driskel, Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Missed tackles abounded. The Houston crispness was long gone.
“When we played Houston last year, we was running to the ball like our life depended on it,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s the basis of our defense [so we have to] play with the energy we haven’t played with for a while.”
So, too, with Prescott’s rushing scores, which have been a key component of Dallas’ red-zone success the last four years. In 2019, the Cowboys lead the league in offense (430.8 yards per game), passing yards (306.8) and third-down conversion rate (48.2%). But in the red zone, they have fallen to 17th place, converting on just 56.5% of attempts, including just 48.6% of their tries after a 3-0 season start.
Prescott hasn’t rushed for a touchdown—or more than 30 yards in a game—the last six games. He leads the league in passing, and has improved in several areas. But against Chicago last week, three run attempts produced a combined 1 yard.
So reminders like the Seattle play, featuring both solid run blocks and quick decision-making by Prescott, are a welcome boost.
“Just showing us what it looks like when we’re all in the same page,” right tackle La’el Collins said. “They was like a highlight reel. They all was like fantastic plays, everything went well on them, offense and defense. It just shows you the type of team we have.
“I think it’s good to see yourself doing it the right way. I definitely don’t think it hurts.”
The Cowboys aren’t praising their strengths to the exclusion of shoring up weaknesses. Garrett is actually “pretty honest with us,” Witten said, and “when it’s bad, he’s very honest with you and tells you it’s not very good.” The Cowboys are still studying the footage from their recent losses—missed tackles, drops in the passing game and all. They’re studying film from their 30-22 January playoff loss to the Rams, reminding themselves how Wade Phillips’ defensive scheme bested them. They know they’re frustrated, and Prescott is glad his teammates are expressing that sentiment.
But as pressure heats up both for a playoff run and Garrett’s job security, a dose of good plays was refreshing.
“It’s good for everybody to see that,” receiver Michael Gallup said, “and make sure we know we can come out here and ball, any time any game.”
Next: The offense and defense need to jell at the same time and overcome the lengthy periods without scoring (51 minutes vs. Buffalo, 36 vs. Chicago) that have left Dallas playing from behind, and scrapping much of its game plan. The Cowboys need to “be a little more urgent in our fight,” Prescott said. “For sure, 100%, we can get better. We can fight harder.”
Then, perhaps, the Cowboys can return to the tenets that enabled a mostly intact roster to win seven of its last eight in 2018 and a playoff contest. They can return to the tendencies that enabled Prescott to engineer 14 game-winning drives in his first three seasons, most by any quarterback in NFL history.
He nodded when reminded Thursday of that record.
“Want to get back to that,” Prescott said. “Feel like obviously I’m better in every aspect of the game and the position right now than I’ve ever been. It’s frustrating to get in those positions, have the ball in your hand and not get it done.
“Keep beating the drum. It’s going to happen. It’s going to break. And when it does, it’s going to be when it matters the most.”
And maybe it will even make Garrett’s next highlight reel.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein