For at least one half of football, it looked like the Cowboys might actually do it. Kellen Moore reached deep into his playbook for the most creative trick plays and peppered the Eagles defense with them to help mitigate the severe lack of talent Ben DiNucci brought to the table, and the Cowboys defense actually looked good as they went to the locker room with a 9-7 lead at halftime.
The third quarter and most of the fourth quarter played out the same way, but that fumble recovery for a touchdown that obviously should have been called back changed the dynamic of the game in a major way. That’s obviously the one big play that shaped this loss, but here are five other plays that also had a big impact.
Vinny Curry’s sack kills Cowboys offense’s momentum
The Cowboys got the ball first, which allowed fans to get their first taste of the Nooch right off the bat. Things were fun for a while, with the trick plays helping carry the offense to the Philadelphia 37-yard line. It looked like the Cowboys might just be able to field a competent offense with this rookie quarterback.
But on first down they ran a fairly simple play-action rollout with Blake Bell as the intended target after chipping the defensive end and rolling into the flat. Instead of dumping it to the Belldozer as soon as he disengaged from Vinny Curry, DiNucci tried to slip past the big defensive end. It did not go well.
It’s a learning experience for the rookie, but one that cost him and the team. The offense was humming up ‘til then, but that sack set them back 12 yards. And when you’re playing a third-string quarterback behind an offensive line full of backups, getting behind schedule is a death sentence. The fact that Dallas ended up with a fourth and four is amazing in and of itself, and they still got three points out of it, but DiNucci cost Dallas a shot at the endzone on the opening drive.
Ben DiNucci’s lack of awareness leads to him fumbling away a golden opportunity
It’s hard to harp on DiNucci too much for this game. After all, he’s a seventh-round rookie quarterback who’s basically a project at this point that’s been thrust into starting duties in a year with no offseason or preseason against a talented defensive line with strong winds. Expectations could not have been lower, and yet DiNucci disappointed.
After the Eagles fumbled the ball, Dallas took over just 25 yards from the endzone and pushed the ball up to the Philadelphia 7-yard line. The chance to take a commanding 10-0 lead early was practically already in their hands. But a combination of two rookies way out of their league dashed those hopes.
A few things here: 1) Brandon Graham is a phenomenal edge rusher, 2) Terence Steele needs to at least put up a fight there, and 3) DiNucci needs to sense that pressure. If DiNucci scrambled out to his left, there’s some room to potentially pick up at least a yard or two, but he doesn’t feel the pressure and gets strip sacked. Bye bye, points.
Jaylon Smith’s neutral zone infraction gives Eagles a free first down, leads to touchdown
The Dallas defense looked significantly better after getting rid of three veterans earlier in the week, but Jaylon Smith was the outlier in that respect. He had another bad game - so bad his name appears twice on this relatively short list - and it killed the defense.
After DiNucci’s fumble, Philly was putting together a drive to try and take the lead. They had moved into field goal range, but faced a third and two at the Dallas 36-yard line. Running a no-huddle offense, Philly was trying to keep up the tempo; in exchange, Dallas flooded the line of scrimmage with a loaded split mug front, a sub package that was very effective all night.
We’ll never know if they would have stopped the offense on that play, though, because Smith hopped into the neutral zone and got flagged for it. If they had gotten a stop, it’s a tie game at worst. Instead, it’s a free first down because of a silly mental error. Five plays later, the Eagles were in the endzone.
Jaylon Smith is oblivious to Carson Wentz running right at him
Seriously, Jaylon Smith is bad. The defense had been shutting the Eagles out in the third quarter, thanks in large part to Trevon Diggs’ second interception of the game, but with just over two minutes left in the quarter the offense was moving.
Jourdan Lewis made a big tackle for loss on first down though, and it brought up a second and 12 from the Cowboys’ 18-yard line. Aldon Smith gets great pressure up the middle, forcing Wentz to scramble out to his left and run with it, at which point Smith is completely and totally oblivious to what’s going on.
With even an average amount of field vision there, Smith can probably stop Wentz for a two-yard gain at most, but instead it’s a nine-yard scramble that sets up a third and three. Of course, Wentz throws a touchdown on the very next play, but it’s a nine-yard drop in the basket that would have been a lot more difficult if Smith had made a play.
DiNucci misses Amari Cooper on fourth and short
After that touchdown that was made possible by Smith’s incompetence, the Cowboys trailed for the first time since right before the halftime break. Down 15-9, a touchdown and extra point would give them the lead again, if only they could get the ball in the endzone.
Once again, DiNucci and the offense moved the ball down the field but Dalton Schultz got stopped short on third and long. With fourth down from Philly’s 35-yard line and only two yards to go, Mike McCarthy opted to go for it; after all, a field goal does you no good there.
Taking the snap out of the shotgun, DiNucci was flushed out to his left and tried to throw the ball to Amari Cooper but badly missed him. Again, there’s no reason to expect greatness from him, but DiNucci should be able to pick up two yards. Instead, it’s a turnover on downs. And while the Cowboys defense forced a three-and-out, the Cowboys’ next offensive possession featured the fumble recovery touchdown that never should have happened.