sportsday.dallasnews.com
David Moore

ARLINGTON -- At this point is doesn't matter if someone spots Ezekiel Elliott piling groceries into his cart at the supermarket, leaving a phone store or running on a faraway beach.

The longer he's away, the worse Dak Prescott looks.

This development is as surprising as it is disturbing for the Cowboys. The quarterback was supposed to keep the team afloat during Elliott's six-game suspension, not preside over a downward spiral that has all but knocked the Cowboys out of the playoff race.

Thursday's 28-6 loss to the no-longer San Diego Chargers is the latest blow to Prescott's status as one of the NFL's top young players. The quarterback who could do no wrong when he played alongside Elliott has done very little right without him.

The only person who's been exposed more in recent days has been Texas Rep. Joe Barton.

Too soon?

"I'm surprised," owner Jerry Jones conceded about how bad Prescott and the team have looked in Elliott's absence. "We all know it shouldn't be that way.

"Zeke's important. Zeke makes it better, but to a man around here, we'd all say it shouldn't be to this degree at all."

Elliott and Prescott came in as rookies one year ago, put this team on their backs and carried the franchise to unexpected heights. Elliott was the heart and soul. Teammates fed off his exuberance.

But Prescott was equally important. He was the cool customer who made it all run smoothly. He was wise beyond his years and rarely made mistakes.

The two made each other better. They are the ideal complement.

It appears Prescott has lost his mooring without Elliott. The quarterback has thrown for just 500 yards - an average of 166.6 yards per contest - in the three games without the league's leading rusher from last season. The Cowboys have been outscored 72-6 in the second half of these three losses.

"We're in a funk, or whatever you want to call it," Prescott said. "Me individually and this offense collectively.

"I don't know how many it is, five or six turnovers in two games?"

It's six. Prescott has thrown five interceptions in five days - that's one more than he threw all of last season - and lost a fumble.

"I've gone seasons without that many," Prescott said. "It's definitely frustrating."

Prescott's longest completion in the first half of Thursday's game was eight yards. He's had only two completions of longer than 19 yards in the last three games. He missed a few open receivers and made some questionable decisions, especially late in the game when he took chances he normally doesn't take.

Even though the team's dramatic offensive slide coincides with the start of Elliott's suspension - three games left in that, by the way - Prescott doesn't accept that's the reason behind the team's current woes.

"It's pride," Prescott said. "If you point your finger at the reason we're not having success is another guy, or this or that, then you're not going to get in this league.

"The last thing that I am doing is pointing a finger and saying we need this guy or we need that to happen. We just have to figure out what is going on and get out of this funk."

The Cowboys had gone a franchise-record 10 quarters and 26 possessions without a touchdown until Rod Smith plunged over from two yards out early in the fourth quarter. Asked after the game what Prescott hasn't been doing, head coach Jason Garrett responded that it was the entire offense and added, "everybody's got a piece of it."

Fine. But how do the players on this offense guard against the mounting frustration that it can't perform to the level it has come to expect if it doesn't have Elliott?

"We simply have to guard against that," Garrett said. "That's the reality of it.

"At different times in the past we've had players not available to us and we just have to respond to it the right way, put the next guy in there and somehow, someway you've got to keep moving along and have to do a better job at that."

You have to wonder if that's what Tony Romo was thinking as he sat in the booth and called this game for CBS.

The Cowboys ran for 79 yards in Sunday's loss. But these yards are almost incidental. Alfred Morris and Smith - the Cowboys have chosen not to activate Darren McFadden - don't set the tone on the ground the way Elliott has done.

Management pushed the idea this roster was constructed to absorb and compete during the absence of Elliott. That hasn't been the case.

Prescott shoulders a large part of the blame. That doesn't mean the organization's faith in him has been shaken going forward.

"No, not at all," Jones said. "He's our future."

"I saw nothing today, last week or the week before to compromise my thoughts about his future."

The future isn't the issue when it comes to Prescott's place with this franchise.

But the present is bleak.