The Cowboys' challenging opener against Tom Brady and the Bucs keeps getting harder

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Dak Prescott hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since last October — a combination of a broken ankle ending the 2020 campaign and a shoulder injury that wiped out this preseason.

Ezekiel Elliott, meanwhile, is coming off his least productive season as a Dallas Cowboy as some wonder if he has lost his effectiveness after carrying a heavy workload through five professional seasons and a couple years at Ohio State.

Zeke didn’t take a snap this preseason either because the Cowboys are trying to preserve whatever they can out of him.

It didn’t seem that the pressure to perform could get any higher for these two heading into Thursday’s NFL Opening Night, when Dallas travels to take on the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Then Dallas’ top offensive lineman, six-time pro bowl Zack Martin, tested positive for COVID-19 and reportedly needs two test negative results by Thursday to play.

“Zack's our best player on our offense,” Elliott said. “I mean most runs, they [are] coming back behind him.”

The tone of Elliott’s voice expressed all the concern necessary. He and Prescott are saying all the right things and certainly aren't backing down heading into the season, but they knew how hard this was going to be under the best of circumstances. This is no longer that.

“It's disappointing but you can't harp on it, can't let it be more than what it is,” Elliott said. “I mean, definitely going to miss him, definitely wish he was out there, but we still have a game to go play."

Dak Prescott (4), Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys can beat Tampa Bay even if Zack Martin can't play, but it's yet another challenge to overcome in an already difficult opener. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
Dak Prescott (4), Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys can beat Tampa Bay even if Zack Martin can't play, but it's yet another challenge to overcome in an already difficult opener. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

The basics are obvious. Prescott is probably going to have to move more often to avoid the Bucs pass rush last seen harassing Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl. And Elliott won’t have the same kind of hole to run through as he might have hoped. Plus, neither has played any meaningful snaps in awhile.

Prescott has participated in just five practices since straining his shoulder on July 27. Much of that was precautionary and this is a veteran player, but still, he’s basically entering the season cold. Not that he’ll use it as a crutch.

“I’m definitely ready,” he said last week. “I’m excited. I put a lot of work [getting] to this point. Whether it was months ago, rehabbing the ankle, to the last few [weeks] keeping the feet working while I was letting my arm rest. There is so much work I put into this I'm just excited to go out there and be a part of the full game ...

"Obviously, I have high expectations for myself," Prescott continued. "I plan to come out starting fast.”

Dallas is always among the league leaders in offseason hype — even in years without the "Hard Knocks" appearance they have this year — regardless of whether it is merited. This is a team that went just 6-10 last year. The Cowboys weren’t much (1-3) with Prescott, but they fell apart after he suffered a compound fracture of his right ankle in Week 5.

Regardless, Prescott got a rich contract extension one year after Elliott got a similar deal … only to underproduce. Zeke recorded career lows in yards (979), yards per attempt (4.0) and touchdowns (6). He was also down, per Pro Football Focus, in yards after contact (2.82), rushes over 10 yards (just 22) and breakaway percentage (a lowly 11.6).

A running back who used to be nearly untackleable was suddenly easy to secure. Elliott didn’t shy away from his performance.

“I think the hardest part about last year is you feel like you let your teammates down,” Elliott said. “That hurts … Just having the year I had last year, you don’t need more motivation than that. I just know the type of player I am. I don’t think I showed that last year. I’ve got a lot to prove.”

Along that vein, he reported to camp at 218 pounds, down from 228 the year prior. He looked leaner, faster and more explosive. We’ll see.

Thursday was expected to be a bit of a coming out party for both. Prescott wants to show he’s worth the four-year, $160 million contract extension and is ready to lead the Cowboys to the Super Bowl.

“I don't necessarily want the numbers that I had that early [in my career],” Prescott said. “Because we weren't winning games and we weren't being competitive early, and that's why some of those numbers came about. I plan to come out better than I was last year, to be honest.”

Elliott wants to prove he’s not on the down slope of his career already and he and Prescott can cement themselves as champions, not just stars in Dallas.

Martin played a critical role in all of that. His absence wouldn’t doom the Cowboys, of course. They can still win. Plus Dak and Zeke can still deliver. And Martin would be back soon enough, of course.

Still, such a setback wasn’t needed when facing an opponent like this on the biggest stage in regular-season football. In Dallas, it already felt like everyone had waited long enough.

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