In winning the game over the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys offense put together a nearly flawless touchdown drive. Tony Romo was at his best, completing five of the six passes he threw while using up just enough of the minute and a half that the Giants inexplicably left him to work with. He even calmly scooped up a snap that hit the ground before finding Mr. Reliable himself, Jason Witten, to set up the all important Dan Bailey extra point. It touched off a sense of relief and jubilation that still probably brings a smile to your face just thinking about it.
But in the preceding 58 and a half minutes of play, the Cowboys showed enough warts to keep the coaching staff going 24 hours a day in preparation for the next game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and to make them wish they had more time. Add in the injuries to Dez Bryant, Randy Gregory, and Ronald Leary, and the challenges if the Cowboys want to continue their success are substantial indeed.
One thing I stressed in my recap of the improbable win over the Giants was that the first week of the NFL season can be very deceptive. The gutsy Dallas win as well as the Monday night loss by the Eagles may not be true indicators of what either team really is. The Cowboys were very sloppy in their play at times, as evidenced by the three turnovers that came so close to handing the Giants a win. There was also a nearly fatal letdown in run defense late in the game where it looked like Dallas players were pressing too hard to get a stop and overrunning plays. And Dallas left points on the board by bogging down in the red zone early in the game. These have to be cleared up. The example of last season, where the opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers was followed by a string of victories, shows that the coaching staff can fix things. Having nearly the entire staff back intact is a plus for Dallas. Given the way the Cowboys approached camp and the preseason, with so many starters seeing little if any action to try and get them to the first game healthy, it is not surprising things were at times rocky. The starting lineup never saw action intact in any of the games. It was in many ways a better performance than it could have been. Dallas moved the ball effectively and the defense gave up no touchdown drives. The lone touchdown scored by the New York offense covered all of one yard after an interception. Hopefully the team will be much more in synch for the second game.
Dallas only got one sack of Eli Manning (thank you, Tyrone Crawford). They did get considerably more pressure on him than the Giants ever got on Romo. But to a large extent, the Giants neutralized the pass rush with quick passes. That blueprint is now on video for all to see, and the defense has to expect more of the same in most if not all the games they play. Fortunately, the secondary seemed up to the task. The New York receivers never really burned anyone. That is extremely encouraging, but it has to hold up.
The running game looks somewhat underwhelming at first glance. While that can be partially attributed to having to go to basically a two minute offense for much of the second half as the Cowboys tried to catch up, we still cannot be absolutely sure they can control the ball the way they did for so much of the 2014 season. However, there is a more encouraging way to look at this (note that the numbers do not include the final Monday night game between the 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings, where Carlos Hyde had 168 yards - but Adrian Peterson was held to 31).
Through wk 1, Joseph Randle has the 10th most rushing yds in the NFL. That's more than J. Hill, L. Miller, J. Charles, D. Murray & L. McCoy.— Jordan Ross (@TheJordanRoss) September 15, 2015
And there is no doubt that the running backs showed that they can be essential in the passing game, totaling a very satisfactory 131 yards as receivers. All three of the backs had at least one long catch and run. With the loss of Bryant, Romo may have to rely much more on the short and underneath routes. It is good to know that the backs, especially Lance Dunbar, are up to the task.
Michael Sisemore is looking at the situations with Bryant and Gregory being out, so that will be left for him to address. But Leary may be just as significant. He was called day-to-day by Jason Garrett in his Monday press conference. That may just be typical Garrettspeak, avoiding giving out any more information than necessary. Other reports say Leary is likely out for one to three weeks. The Cowboys will have to decide whether to go with Mackenzy Bernadeau (who played all the snaps on the two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter) or to put La'el Collins in. Collins may be the option, since Bernadeau is the backup for all three interior line positions, and the coaches may not want to face having to make a double move if there is any problem with Travis Frederick. Unfortunately, media access is now very limited during practice, and we may not know for sure how the team will handle this until the game itself.
Dallas has the good fortune to find itself all alone in first place in the division, and as OCC pointed out in his article on how early won/loss records affect playoff chances, that already gives them a leg up. But it also means that the Eagles are in what is very close to a must-win situation already, and Dallas has to go to the friendly confines of Lincoln Financial Field to play them. If the Cowboys can manage to come out of that game with a win, they will already have a significant advantage in the run for the playoffs. But the Philly coaching staff is going to be doing all they can to fix their own issues.
It is suddenly a very important game (although we all knew it was anyway). Dallas has a lot of adjustments to make and some real problems to address. It is hardly an insurmountable situation, but it will almost certainly take a better effort than the one they got away with against the Giants. They cannot count on Chip Kelly and Sam Bradford making the same kind of bad decisions at the end of the game as Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning did.