The last time these two teams met for a regular season game, things were drastically different. Week 3 of the 2017 season, on Monday Night Football, the Cardinals were led by head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer and trying to overcome the loss of star running back David Johnson in the season opener. None of those three remain with the team today.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, were in year two of the Dak Prescott Era. Head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan were trying to help Prescott make the jump to a star, with the help of pass catchers like Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Jason Witten. Only Prescott remains, and he won’t be playing this time around.
It’s been a much bumpier road for the Cardinals, who welcomed a new head coach and starting quarterback - Steve Wilks and Josh Rosen, respectively - after Arians and Palmer retired after the 2017 season. But a 3-13 year led them to blow it all up and immediately dump Wilks and Rosen for Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray a year later. Kingsbury, who had just been fired from Texas Tech, brought his Air Raid offense to the NFL, which was a perfect fit for Murray, who had just won a Heisman playing in Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid at Oklahoma. As a result, the Cardinals’ new quarterback won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award last year.
The Cowboys stumbled through aggressively mediocre 2017 and 2019 seasons, with a successful but ultimately disappointing 2018 season sandwiched in between, before dumping Garrett for Mike McCarthy this year. Ironically enough, the Cardinals heavily courted McCarthy after firing Wilks, but when the former Packers head coach opted to take a year off, Arizona pivoted to Kingsbury.
It didn’t start out great for the Kingsbury Cardinals, as they tied with the Lions in the season opener before losing three straight. But Arizona won two of their final three games to finish 5-10-1, and after trading for DeAndre Hopkins in the offseason the Cardinals became everyone’s favorite dark horse playoff contender. After knocking off the 49ers and dominating the Washington Football Team, the 2-0 Cardinals were looking every bit the part. But then they lost two in a row to a really bad Lions team and a Panthers team going through a total rebuild. They handled the Jets last week, but that only proves they are indeed an existent football team. Coming into Monday night’s game, there’s some uncertainty about exactly who this Cardinals team is.
Yet there’s even more uncertainty surrounding the Cowboys right now. How will Andy Dalton do as the starter going forward? Will the Cowboys run the ball more to take pressure off of Dalton? Will Leighton Vander Esch return for this game? Is the defense actually improving or did they just benefit from playing one of the worst offenses in football? Even if they did improve, can they contain this Cardinals offense?
Questions abound in Dallas. It’s been a very tough year already, as the Cowboys have learned how hard it can be to break in a new coaching staff and implement sweeping scheme and culture changes in a year with an abbreviated offseason. It doesn’t help that they started off by playing three different teams with a combined 13-2 record. Losing Prescott took all those problems and multiplied them by a thousand. While Dalton is a more-than-capable backup, losing the heart and soul of your team is never easy.
And sure, the Cowboys’ two wins have come against teams with a combined 0-10 record, one of which has a rookie head coach and lost their best player to injury while the other team just fired their head coach and general manager a mere five games into the year. It’s safe to say that the Cowboys’ schedule has had very high peaks and very low valleys. They’ve either played the best teams in the NFL this year or the very worst. Not surprisingly, Dallas is 2-0 against the worst and 0-3 against the best.
The Cardinals represent the first team on the schedule that can actually be described as just okay. Their 2-0 start proves how good this Cards team can be, but their two losses showed they’re not serious contenders just yet. This would have been the perfect opportunity for the Cowboys to show what kind of team they actually are, but the Prescott injury has complicated things.
Still, Arizona’s defense isn’t great - 20th in defensive DVOA and 26th in pass defense DVOA - so Dalton gets a favorable matchup in his first start for Dallas. Even though their franchise quarterback is down, the story remains the same for the 2020 Cowboys: if their defense can get off the field with some regularity, they have a very good shot at winning.
The importance of this game for playoff purposes is also massive. While the Cowboys are in first place at 2-3 (a truly disgusting fact), it’s far from a commanding lead. Philadelphia could take the lead with a win, thanks to their failure to win or lose against the Bengals, and Washington would tie Dallas with a win on Sunday. Of course, Philly plays the Ravens, which seems like a sure loss for the Eagles, but the Fightin’ Footballs have the Giants on their schedule, making a win on Monday night all the more imperative.
Stopping Murray and this offense won’t be easy, but it is doable. And if the defense can hold up their end of the bargain, the Red Rifle should be able to do his part to take down the Red Birds.