It is always difficult to take away too many things from the first game of an NFL season, because some teams come in playing at or near their mid-season form, while others are essentially playing a preseason game and still figuring things out. The Dallas Cowboys looked a lot more like the latter in week one, while their opponent, the Carolina Panthers, were much closer to the former. While that means it is hard to learn a lot about the teams in that opening contest, for the Cowboys, one lesson seems clear: Preseason is important for some players and positions, and Dallas did not get enough done this year.
Well, at least on offense. And that drives home a big point about who preseason matters for. When you are putting a lot of new players into the mix on one side of the ball, and especially for certain positions, you need those live game reps to get things right. The Cowboys sat a lot of players in preseason to protect them. And it looks to be obvious that they paid the price.
But the defense didn’t suffer the same issues, at least for the most part. This fits in with the idea of who does and doesn’t need the repetitions in those games that don’t count.
Consider the starting lineups for the Carolina game. Players in their first year with the Cowboys are in all caps, and players with a substantially new role are in italics.
WR DEONTE THOMPSON
LT Tyron Smith
LG CONNOR WILLIAMS
C Joe Looney
RG Zack Martin
RT La’el Collins
TE Geoff Swaim
FB JAMIZE OLAWALE
WR Terrance Williams
QB Dak Prescott
RB Ezekiel Elliott
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
DT Tyrone Crawford
DT ANTWAUN WOODS
DE Taco Charlton
DB Anthony Brown
MLB Jaylon Smith
WLB Sean Lee
CB Chidobe Awuzie
CB Byron Jones
FS Kavon Frazier
SS Jeff Heath
Some might argue that Charlton, Jones, and Frazier were also in substantially new positions, but all have seen some experience on the field in those spots before, and the defense has always moved players around a lot. On offense, Looney had almost no experience as the center prior to this game, and Swaim was strictly a TE2 behind Jason Witten, so both of them are essentially doing something they basically never have on the field for Dallas.
Note the difference. Five of the starters for the Cowboys were new to the team or taking on very different roles. Only one defender was in that category.
Put simply, the defense didn’t need a lot of preseason work, because they were doing things they were comfortable with next to players they have worked beside many times in the past. That last bit is emphasized because of how important that is in making things go well on the field. Knowing what the guy next to you, ahead of you, or behind you is going to do, and having trust in them, is key to executing plays, and for the most part, the defense did that against the Panthers.
The offense was in the opposite situation, with almost half the players new to the team or their job. Add in that seven new receivers (Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, Michael Gallup, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Shultz, the inactive Rico Gathers, and Thompson) were on the roster, since receivers rotate in a lot, and there was just a lot of inexperience.
And arguably, an offense suffers more from that than a defense. On the offensive line, the coordination and synchronization between linemen is crucial. Knowing the assignments, who to pass a rusher off to, and trusting those other guys are the key to good offensive line play. It can be more important than the actual talent level, because an average but well disciplined and knowledgeable player is less likely to mess things up than a very talented but unschooled one. Similarly, the oft-discussed “chemistry” between the quarterback and his receivers is just as vital, especially with a still-young quarterback. A wily veteran like Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, or Tom Brady may be able to quickly figure out what a new guy is going to do, but Prescott is not near that level. Overall, offense takes the initiative, while the defense has to read and react more, which again makes experience more crucial for the former than the latter.
What the offense needed to really be ready for the Panthers game was a lot more preseason reps with the projected starters, and all the receivers with Prescott. No matter how much they practiced together, it is not the same as live action. In practice, players hold up to avoid injury, and nobody who wants to keep his job actually hits the quarterback. Only in preseason games do things go full speed. The defense, which was coming back mostly intact from last season, just did not require as much to be ready to roll.
While some of the lack of preseason work was a matter of choice, such as limiting Dak and Tyron to avoid potential injury, there were unavoidable things that contributed. Travis Frederick’s Guillain-Barre Syndrome thrust Looney into the starting job, and Martin’s knee injury kept him from working beside Looney much (if at all) before the first game. I am not certain, but it is likely that the starting lineup against the Panthers did not have one snap together prior to lining up against one of the best defensive front sevens in the league.
That is a recipe for disaster.
Similarly, while Prescott had a bad day, part of the issue may have been a hesitance born of not being sure what his receivers were going to do, or not having real trust in their ability to get open. Protecting him may have kept him healthy, but it certainly lessened his comfort level with all those new faces. It is no coincidence that the leading receiver (by a huge margin) for Dallas in the opener was Cole Beasley, with whom Prescott has always had a great rapport. It also raises another question about the coaching, with Terrance Williams, the only other receiver Prescott has a lot of experience with, only being on the field for 30% of the plays.
A lot has been made about how the first regular season has come to resemble a preseason game, at least for some teams. And there is good reason to think that was true for the Cowboys’ offense, while their defense was much more ready to go. The results on the field certainly support that theory.
This also offers a bit of hope for the team going forward. Now the offense has a game working together under their belt, with video to review and identify what went wrong (and what did go right). Now they can work to correct things, and of course they have the experience they did not get in the preseason.
It better benefit them, because they can ill afford a second loss to start the season. The New York Giants are not going to be a pushover. They have an impressive defensive line themselves and better defensive backs than Dallas faced in the opener. Fortunately, their linebacking corps is not at the level of Carolina’s. Offensively, their receivers are a much more potent group than the Panthers and they have an exciting rookie running back in Saquon Barkley. The best news about them is that the offensive line is really not good at all. As for Eli Manning, the game may hinge on whether we see more good Eli or bad Eli.
Still, the Dallas offense has something they lacked before that first game, and it is four quarters of working together on the field. How much they learn and build from that is likely to make all the difference.