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Are Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott bringing the 90s Cowboys back?

Dynamic offense? Check. Efficient, mistake-averse quarterback? Check. A handful of questionable decisions off the field? Also check. So are these the 1996 or 2016 Cowboys?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The 1990s Dallas dynasty had Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. Could the 2016 Cowboys be a Dez Bryant revival away from dubbing a new big three?

Rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have teamed up to give Dallas its best start since 2007. Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, topped out at 937 yards his first season -- and now Elliott is just 46 yards from passing him. The former No. 4 overall pick has gained more rushing yards than anyone else in the league and is on pace for a 1,700-yard, 14-touchdown revelation of a season. He even has a chance to top Eric Dickerson's all-time rookie record of 1,808.

Prescott’s passer rating of 104.2 is good for fourth in the NFL. The young QB only needed half a season to break some of Aikman's records.

If Bryant can return to the form that made him a first-team All-Pro in 2014, the Cowboys will finally have an offense worthy of living up to that early 90s gold standard.

How prolific were the early 90s Cowboys?

From 1992 to 1995, Dallas never finished worse than third in the NFL when it came to total points. When it came to yardage differential, the worst Aikman’s offense could do was fourth. All those teams did was win three Super Bowls and make four trips to the NFC title game.

With Prescott behind center, the Cowboys rank third in total offense and fourth in points per game. Halfway through their season, they’re 7-1 and on pace to claim the top spot in the NFC.

But living up to that standard won’t be easy, and it’s not just because of how they play on the field. The 90s Cowboys were larger than life, a super team that found its way onto national broadcasts seemingly every week in a world before Sunday ticket. For many fans, you only had two options in the fall: watch your local team, or watch Aikman throw darts downfield to Irvin, Alvin Harper, and Jay Novacek. If you lived in an area without a nearby NFL franchise, or were stuck watching football anathema like the Seahawks, Rams, or Buccaneers, the Cowboys were your only chance to root for a winning team.

Off the field, Dallas' players seemed to make just as much news. In 1996, Irvin was arrested for drug possession in a Texas motel room alongside a former teammate and a pair of strippers. The trial that followed uncovered one man's attempt to blackmail the All-Pro and a former police officer's bungled try to have Irvin killed. Team owner Jerry Jones was nearly as identifiable as his star players. Head coach Jimmy Johnson was tasked with fitting this puzzle of dysfunction and talent together into a championship unit.

While the 2016 Cowboys have mostly avoided the rap sheet that followed those 90s teams, some things just remain bigger in Texas. The boisterous owner is still there. Elliott has usurped Irvin’s role as high-performing attention magnet. Both he and Bryant have earned their fair share of headlines for mistakes off the field.

But can Dak Prescott really measure up to prime Troy Aikman as a rookie?

Prescott has played the role of efficient, mistake-averse quarterback better than Aikman. Here’s how Dak’s first eight games compare against the Hall of Famer’s first Super Bowl campaign in 1992, courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.

Age QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Y/C Y/G Rate Sk%
Dak Prescott 23 7-1 165 248 66.5 2020 12 4.8 2 0.8 8.1 12.2 252.5 104.2 4.2
Troy Aikman 26 13-3-0 302 473 63.8 3445 23 4.9 14 3.0 7.3 11.4 215.3 89.5 4.6

Prescott has been more accurate, made fewer mistakes, thrown the ball downfield with more success, and avoided sacks better than Aikman did the first year he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. While there's still plenty of time for the rookie quarterback to regress, Prescott's continually strong first-year campaign suggests he'll finish the season at least in line with Aikman, if not better.

That piece of the equation has thrown Tony Romo's future with the only team he's ever known in question. Jones wants him on the roster, even going as far to tell reporters "my real regret would be to have had him here and not won a Super Bowl with him." However, with Prescott on pace to make franchise history there may not be enough room on the Dallas depth chart for the 36-year-old passer. He could be the Drew Bledsoe to the Cowboys' emerging Tom Brady clone. Or, more appropriately, the Drew Bledsoe to the 2006 version of himself.

There are a lot of moving parts to process, but it’s certainly possible this Dallas team challenges the predecessor that made the Cowboys America’s team two decades ago. Bryant is only 28 years old and coming back from a hairline fracture in his knee that has made him the team’s fourth-most effective receiver. Elliott was a workhorse back who carried the ball 22 times per game at Ohio State and still probably didn't get enough touches. He's confident he'll only get stronger as the season goes on. Prescott is the least turnover-prone young passer in league history.

Can the Cowboys really rely on a big three that includes two rookies?

The promise of this young, dynamic trio is exciting, but comes with caveats. Elliott has been a monster in 2016, taking on a workload we haven’t seen from a rookie back since, well, 2015. That’s when Todd Gurley ran to offensive rookie of the year honors and set a precedent he’s failed to match this fall. After being taxed by an anemic Rams offense last year, he’s gained only 3.1 yards per carry in 2016 -- a mark 1.7 yards lower than in ‘15. Elliott's workload has been even bigger than Gurley's was last year.

2015 also boasts some grim reminders for Prescott about how this league adjusts to young quarterbacks. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota each had promising rookie years, though neither one was as efficient as Prescott has been through eight games. This fall, each has either taken a step backward or stagnated, throwing interceptions at a higher rate or, in Winston’s case, throwing for nearly a full yard less per pass attempt.

It will be difficult to get the timing right for a full Dallas revival for the last half of the season, let alone the four years Johnson kept his Cowboys dynasty together.

Those nigh-unstoppable Dallas teams averaged nearly 12 wins per season in a six-year stretch from 1991 to 1996. They have won just a pair of playoff games in the two decades since. With Prescott and Elliott in the fold, the Cowboys are dead set on ending the drought and returning to the glory of an era when Zubaz were worn unironically and Mark Wahlberg was just a crappy rapper rather than a crappy actor.

That's a tall order, but Prescott, Elliott, and Bryant have all proven they're up for the task -- just not all at the same time. Yet.