The season opened with a thud for the Dallas Cowboys as they dropped their opener 16-8 to the Carolina Panthers in a mistake ridden effort. They could get nothing going until the second half and were outplayed on both sides of the ball. Despite that, they managed to get it to a one possession game in the fourth quarter as the offense began to show a modicum of life, but the last hope was snuffed out on a strip sack of Dak Prescott.
A lot of games this first week of the NFL schedule have raised the question of just how much NFL teams really need preseason games, and this one was certainly evidence that keeping your starters in bubble wrap can lead to really bad football. The Cowboys looked confused for much of the game, and ineptitude on the part of the offense left the Dallas defense looking definitely worn down as the second half progressed. The loss of Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Dan Bailey are going to be talked about a lot this week, as the offense sputtered for so much of the game and Brett Maher missed his first field goal attempt as a Cowboy.
The first half was almost as bad as it could be for the Cowboys. The offense only muster 60 yards total with four first downs, and never had a snap in the Carolina half of the field. Ezekiel Elliott was bottled up, only gaining 18 yards on 7 carries, and most of those came on long plays just to set up the punt. Dak Prescott was frequently off target, none more egregious than a low pass to a wide open Blake Jarwin that could easily have gone the distance. The offensive line was pushed around, and Tyron Smith was flagged twice, once on a block to the back that wiped out one of the few decent offensive plays.
The defense managed to hold the Panthers to only 10 points, but they were getting pushed around as well up front, and missed tackles were an epidemic. Even the normally superb Sean Lee had ballcarriers just run through him. Cam Newton was the biggest weapon of the half. He was 11 of 18 for 102 yards, and had 64 yards on seven carries, including a touchdown. His runs came on both designed plays and when he evaded the pass rush, which could only muster one sack.
The 10-0 halftime deficit should really have been much worse, as the Panthers were driving on their first possession, but Daniel Ross forced a fumble that was recovered by DeMarcus Lawrence at their own 10. And the Panthers had a shot at a second touchdown as the half ran down, but poor clock management forced them to settle for a 27 yard field goal.
Six penalties in the half didn’t help Dallas at all.
The offensive impotence could not be blamed on offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, as he tried various things like a jet sweep, but the execution varied from poor to just plain bad. Another sign that his playcalling is different this year were empty backfield sets on first down, which definitely goes against the trend of first down runs he has been blamed for. The Cowboys could get no rhythm going, and the defense, while making some stops at important times, got gashed a few too many times.
There was really only one bright spot outside the forced fumble, and that was Chris Jones, who averaged 52.4 yards on five punts. But even then, poor coverage allowed the Panthers to improve their field position as they racked up 62 yards on returns.
The second half started to show a little improvement, as Elliott got a couple of long runs and Prescott started to find some receivers. The got into Panthers territory on their first three drives, and finally got into the red zone on a third down scramble by Prescott. (It was only the second third down conversion of the game, and came at about the 10 minute mark of the fourth quarter.) Then, after a nice run by Zeke, the Cowboys served the Panthers a nice dose of their own medicine. Cam Newton had dished the ball to Christian McCaffrey earlier in the game for a nice gain, and Dak and Zeke combined on their own option toss to get a four yard touchdown run. A two point conversion by Prescott running up the middle made the score 16-8, and it was suddenly a one-possession game thanks to a missed extra point by the Panthers on their second touchdown.
The next drive by Carolina was cut short after a stuffed run by Newton, and then a holding call made it second and 26 all the way back at their own 20. A pass to Devin Funchess got it to 3rd and 14, but Lawrence came through with a sack to force the punt. But the problem for the Cowboys was that they had less than five minutes on the clock and 79 yards to cover after the punt. Some costly penalties, the second sack of the game by Kawaan Short, and an incomplete pass to Deonte Thompson on fourth down turned the ball back over to Carolina with just over two minutes to go. The offense came through with too little, too late, and the defense’s efforts, which gave the Cowboys one last shot inside the two minute warning, was also not enough.
On an injury note, Randy Gregory left the field with what might have been a concussion. The Panthers lost tight end Greg Olsen, linebacker Luke Kuechly, and tackle Daryl Williams during the game. It was about the only place Dallas came out ahead.