It was seen as a bit of a must-win situation for the Dallas Cowboys in the second game of the year. And in a back-and-forth contest against Washington, they did what they must, winning a thrilling 27-23 game that saw some things look much better, but most importantly saw the team dig deep and come up with a huge win for so early in the season.
It was a heartstopping finish. After Ezekiel Elliott suddenly developed a fumbling issue, and a failed gamble, the game came down to a fourth and one for Washington with under two minutes left and Dallas clinging to a 27-23 lead. And this time, it turned on a defensive play, as Justin Durant broke up Kirk Cousins’ pass, turning the ball back over to the Cowboys. And the drama was not over yet, as the Cowboys were unable to move the ball and were forced to punt the ball back with 1:30 left as Washington used all their timeouts to save as much time as possible. Tyrone Crawford would get a sack, but the next play would see a long catch and run to get Washington across midfield. But a flag cost them ten seconds, leaving just eight on the clock. And Cousins would put his Hail Mary just out of the back of the end zone, and Dallas would escape with a badly needed win.
For almost three quarters, the game against was a very evenly matched affair, trading punches, but neither team able to pull away. Then with just about a minute left before the final quarter, with the score tied at 20, disaster struck for Dallas as Ezekiel Elliott fumbled the ball at the 34. It could have been a really devastating moment, but the defense stiffened, with some really good secondary play from both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, and held them to a field goal.
One complaint that has been heard a lot, for all of Jason Garrett’s tenure as head coach, is that the Cowboys are too conservative. The coaches threw caution to the wind in the third quarter, calling for an onside kick after the Cowboys took a 20-17 lead. But the ball only traveled 8 yards, and the ball went to Washington at the 38. They were able to turn that into another field goal to tie the game back up.
The Cowboys came into the game against Washington needing to fix several things. On the plus side, they definitely got Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott more involved. Bryant would go over 100 yard receiving, and Elliott had 83 yards before he was pulled in favor of the more sure-handed Morris. They still had struggles on a couple of trips into the red zone, but got three touchdowns in (all on the ground, as Dak Prescott is still seeking his first touchdown pass). They also were able to get stops of their own in the red zone, which is why the game stayed very close rather than turning into a blowout by Washington. But the defense still was struggling to get pressure on the quarterback and was sometimes vulnerable to runs up the middle. And if Kirk Cousins had been more accurate on some long passes, Washington could have run away from Dallas. He still made some huge throws, such as the 57 yard pass to Josh Doctson which could have put the game completely out of reach early in the fourth quarter, but three plays later, Barry Church would intercept Cousins in the end zone to keep the Cowboys within 3 and set up the finish.
However, the confidence in Dak Prescott has to be increasing. He made repeated big throws, and of course scored his first NFL touchdown using his legs. His poise has always been impressive, and he continues to look like a seasoned veteran, not a rookie who has only had two starts in his brief career. The question of whether he can succeed in the league is being answered in the affirmative with plays such as the one where he would convert a third and eleven with a pass to Cole Beasley that would set up Alfred Morris’ winning touchdown run. It was the third redzone touchdown for the Cowboys, who seem to be making incremental improvements in many areas.
Obviously, the biggest concern for the team has to be the difficulty they continue to have getting pressure on the quarterback. They did get one sack from Jack Crawford in the first quarter, but there were still far too many plays where Cousins was not harassed at all. Again, had he been more accurate, the Cowboys would have been buried. However, there were more key stops for the defense than there were big plays surrendered, and in the end, it was the opponent that lost largely because they could not turn red zone possessions into touchdowns. You have to give credit to Rod Marinelli and his charges, because this time, they did not let the offense down. They had some shaky moments, but they made just enough plays to preserve the victory.
Most importantly, the Cowboys know they can win with Prescott at quarterback. There still is a lot to work on - but 1-1 is a lot better place to be doing it than 0-2.