If you are near AT&T Stadium and hear a strange echo, but can’t quite make it out, let me help you. It is a spectral voice saying “28-3. 28-3. 28-3.” The team that once famously blew that lead in the Super Bowl had it happen again, losing a one-point game that they led by 19 at halftime.
It is a 1-1 start for the Dallas Cowboys as they edge the Atlanta Falcons by a score of 40-39, and this was one they had absolutely no right to win. The game was ugly at times, with the sporadic Cowboys scoring drives trying to overcome a rash of early mistakes and a complete inability by their defense to do much at all to slow the Falcons time after time. It is amazing that the Cowboys pulled this off, and got their first 40 burger of the year, because they did so much to lose this game. With only 2:00 left, they pulled to within two, and then pulled off an onsides kick recovery, apparently because the Falcons players didn’t understand that they did not have to wait for the ball to go 10 yards before they could fall on it and get possession. Instead, they watch Greg Zuerlein roll the ball just across the 10-yard point, where C.J. Goodwin got the recovery. It set up Zuerlein’s 46-yard game winner.
It really shouldn’t have turned out this way, because it is just about impossible to overcome multiple mistakes in a game. When you make a game’s worth in the first fifteen minutes, it is even worse. In the first quarter against the Falcons, the Cowboys had these things happen:
- Dak Prescott fumbled the ball away at the Dallas 22, leading to a quick Matt Ryan touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley.
- Ezekiel Elliott fumbles on consecutive carries, the first which he got back but the second setting the Falcons up at their own 48. Three plays later, after Ryan was able to run for a first down when Mike Nolan for some reason only sent three pass rushers, a combination of a well conceived play and a totally blown coverage let to a 42-yard touchdown to Hayden Hurst, where there were no Cowboys defenders even visible in the camera shot.
- Desperately needing a spark, John Fassel dialed up a fake punt from Dallas’ own 29. It was a well designed play, but Chris Jones and C.J. Goodwin just couldn’t connect. The defense at least held them to a field goal.
- Then Dalton Schultz fumbled the ball away for the third time, this time at the Cowboys 40. Again, the defense limited to damage to three.
- There were other, smaller mistakes, like bad decisions to bring it out of the end zone by Tony Pollard, some ineffective first down runs putting Dallas in a hole, and just a general failure to handle the Atlanta pass rush.
The result was a 20-0 hole with 1:07 still left in the first quarter. There seemed to be some coaching confusion, and the execution absolutely failed at some times. While Prescott was under pressure on almost every drop back, Matt Ryan seemed to have all the time he wanted.
The mistakes were horrendous, and the questionable play-calling on offense is something we are sadly almost used to. But the pass rush was supposed to be big gun of the defense. Yet, through the first game and a half, it has been almost nonexistent at times, and certainly has not done much to corral either Ryan or Jared Goff in the season opener.
After his early fumble, Elliott was the engine of a drive to finally get Dallas on the board, rushing for 37 total yards and the TD. Prescott also found a rhythm, hitting CeeDee Lamb, Blake Bell, and Amari Cooper along the way. And Lamb also contributed a nine-yard run. But Atlanta punched right back with their own 75-yard TD drive, with Ryan again having all the time he needed. While the Cowboys still showed a little offensive energy driving to the red zone, a couple of penalties snuffed out a chance to get another touchdown. They settled for three, then let the Falcons answer right back with their own field goal, needing just 1:44 to get in range.
It was almost as if the Cowboys waited a quarter to start playing, and very nearly paid the price. One of the biggest complaints about the team in recent years was that the coaching staff didn’t have their team prepared for important games. Avoiding an 0-2 start, with the Seattle Seahawks in their own house up next, seems to qualify as an important game. Yet the team seemed completely unready. While fumbles can be caused by a defender, when there are a cluster like the Cowboys had, you have to accept that there is a degree of self-infliction involved. Dallas just looked mentally unready for the contest. That reflects back on the coaches.
The game did not get completely out of hand because the Falcons got a little too cute. Dallas came out of halftime and had an impressive 74-yard drive, highlighted by a 37-yard CeeDee Lamb reception and capped by Prescott keeping it for the TD. Then the Cowboys defense was again having problems stopping Atlanta on the next drive. But with a third and two at the Dallas 41, the Falcons called a trick play, with wide receiver Russell Gage getting a direct snap and then arcing a perfect pass to Julio Jones right at the goal line. Uncharacteristically, Jones let the ball slip through his hands. A strange penalty on the Falcons that may have been in error made it 4th-and-7 forced them to punt. The Cowboys answered with an 89-yard drive, highlighted by a great catch of a 58-yard bomb from Prescott. After a scare when Prescott had to go pass a concussion test after a late hit, he returned to sneak the ball across for his second rushing touchdown, narrowing the margin to five points with 4:16 left in the third period.
Then it happened again, as Dallas could not figure out how to stop Ryan and the Falcons. They converted their second fourth down of the game to keep the drive alive, and Trevon Diggs had a potentially game-changing interception bounce off his hands, something that also happened to Daryl Worley in the first quarter. It ended in another Atlanta touchdown, and the deficit was back to 12.
Another failed fourth down attempt on 4th & 5 handed Atlanta back the ball at Dallas’ 43, and the defense was unable to keep them from getting in range for a field goal to make the margin 15 points, with only 7:57 left in the game. A late touchdown with a failed two-point conversion was another one of those too little, too late things we have seen.
There were definitely bright spots for the team, starting with Prescott’s 450 yard, 1 TD passing, 3 (!) rushing TD day. Elliott led all players in yards from scrimmage with 122 yards and a TD. It looks like Dallas may be alright at tight end, as Dalton Schultz led all receivers with nine catches for 88 yards and a touchdown. Blake Bell had two drive-sustaining catches himself. Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb both eclipsed 100 yards receiving while Michael Gallup had a solid 58 yards, including the 38-yard catch late in the game, keeping the drive alive to get the score to within two. Even Noah Brown had a couple of meaningful catches in the game. Aldon Smith just continues to look amazing at times. And Trysten Hill has yet to be a liability for the team, which sounds like weak praise but when you get this kind of performance from the defense, with just one lone sack by Everson Griffen, don’t expect chocolates and roses.
It can be argued that this was not really a game that they deserved to win, but the Cowboys get the W anyway. They did have some incredible numbers once they managed to figure out how to hold onto the ball, amassing 570 yards of offense and 33 first downs.
We do need to keep the warts in view. The same questions that nagged at us in 2019 seem to be back. In particular, the play-calling on both sides of the ball just seemed to be superior for the Falcons. But the biggest thing is, why this vaunted collection of defensive linemen could barely get close enough to Ryan to read his number until there were less than five minutes left? It is the second game in a row they have been manhandled at the line. Jim Tomsula needs to figure something out fast, especially given how many times the words “WIDE OPEN” were being used by the announcers when talking about the coverage. To its credit, the offense was pretty amazing once they got through that horrific first 15 minutes, but the defense just hung on by their fingertips at the end.
But what looked like a dismal and depressing week suddenly has the Cowboys right back in the thick of things. What was most important was how they never gave up. Maybe this will be the start of something. We’ll find out soon.