It looked nothing like the Dallas Cowboys we saw the first three weeks, and an awful lot like the team that made us pull our hair out last season. The Cowboys suffered their first loss, 12-10 to the New Orleans Saints, who did not have Drew Brees. But they had just enough to prevail in a hard fought and sometimes sloppy game. And the worst thing of all may be that Tyron Smith left the game late after Dak Prescott was sacked and rolled into Smith’s ankle.
While turnovers, penalties, and a sudden reversion to conservative play calling all hurt the Cowboys, the biggest issue was that Teddy Bridgewater played an outstanding game in the situation. He did not have a huge conversion percentage, but he kept key drives alive. It was especially important as the Saints only let the Cowboys have one possession in the third quarter. The third is still owned by Dak Prescott, with the help of a somewhat questionable penalty, as he still has not thrown an incompletion in that period this year. He marched Dallas on their best drive of the game, 84 yards with the longest play of the game to that point to Blake Jarwin. The 35 yard catch set the Cowboys on the New Orleans 2 yard line, and though it took two tries, Ezekiel Elliott punched it in, giving Dallas a 10-9 lead.
While they had a hard time getting the ball back at times from the Saints, the defense was stiff in the red zone. They forced New Orleans to settle for field goals on four consecutive trips.
But outside of that third quarter touchdown drive, the offensive magic deserted Dallas. Kellen Moore looked disturbingly like Scott Linehan as he repeatedly ran the ball on first down, with the same lack of success we saw last year. The Saints’ secondary did a superb job, especially Marshon Lattimore, who absolutely blanked Amari Cooper. Prescott was also off, and outside the pass to Jarwin, was not taking shots down the field, which also hearkens back to the frustrations of last year.
The passing game wasn’t working, and Elliott was a non-factor. On the other side of the ball, Alvin Kamara was effective, especially as time was running out when Sean Payton just kept feeding him the ball and he kept moving the chains.
Turnovers killed two Dallas drives, and both were fumbles from players you don’t expect to see lose the ball. First, Jason Witten caught a pass that looked like it was about to get something started in the second quarter, but the ball was punched out from behind. Then later in the quarter, Elliott lost the ball just before he was down as he was fighting for a first down. It was a particularly close play that could have gone the other way, but there were several calls during the game that were questionable, and the Cowboys really came out on top of as many as they lost.
One bright spot was that Chidobe Awuzie got the first interception of the year on a ball that bounced off Ted Ginn Jr’s hands. But Dallas still lost the turnover battle 3-1, including a pass interception on a last second desperation heave, and that usually means a loss.
Both teams had problems with penalties, and the Cowboys’ pass rush was the cause of many of New Orleans’ flags. They had fits from Robert Quinn especially. He did notch two sacks, and should have had another but it was nullified by one of Dallas’ miscues.
The real issue, though, was that the Cowboys just could not move the ball. Part of it was a truly fierce effort by the Saint’s defense. Part of it was those puzzling, seemingly predictable play calls that were so different from the previous games.
And perhaps it was that the Cowboys really were just beating up on inferior teams those first three games. Now they have met their first real challenge, and come up short. It was a tremendous blown opportunity, as earlier the Los Angeles Rams were beaten in surprising fashion by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Dallas could have been the only 4-0 team in the NFC, with the 3-0 San Francisco 49ers on a bye.
But it is certainly not the end of the season, by any means, as Dallas still has as many wins as any team in the conference. Right now, no one looks ready to run off with things. The challenge now is to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Sean Payton and his staff did a great job coaching, and outdid Jason Garrett and his assistants. The players on the field also had too many mistakes. This was a real wake-up call.
Now we get to see how the Cowboys respond. There is still a lot of football to play.