There were so many questions about the Dallas Cowboys going into their season-opening game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We started to get some answers, but they were not exactly what we wanted to see. An already beat up offensive line took another hit. The inexperienced wide receivers did not step up nearly enough. The defense showed promise, but it was a surprisingly bad outing from the starting quarterback. Even worse, the quarterback left the game late with an apparent hand injury. This all combined to lead to a very disappointing 19-3 loss on a day when all the other NFC East teams put up wins. It is a long season and all, but this was just discouraging.
The first half was one of frustration for the Cowboys, but it was not very satisfying for the Buccaneers. After the Cowboys came out on the opening possession of the game and drove it down the field to the 32, they stalled and had to settle for a 51-yard field goal from Brett Maher. But it came at a cost, as Connor McGovern left the field with what was described as an ankle injury. Matt Farniok had to take his place.
But from that point, the offense was basically impotent the rest of the first half, and the game. While Tyler Smith held up well at LT, Dallas was just not able to move the ball. Ezekiel Elliott was solid with a 5.3 yards per carry average, but they were not able to stay on schedule. That old bugaboo was back in force as the Cowboys drew four flags, all on offense. That disrupted things. Given that Dallas also was dealing with bad field position, they simply could not afford to hurt themselves like that. They would get to halftime with only 94 yards of total offense, and Prescott was inaccurate, often trying to force the ball into tight coverage. That usually involved trying to connect with CeeDee Lamb. It appeared he did not have enough faith in the very inexperienced wide receivers, and he only connected with TE Dalton Schultz twice. As a result of what was pretty bad decision making by the QB, he wound up getting intercepted, and could easily have had a couple more. He only completed 38% of his passes in the first half. If he could not do better, there was not going to be much hope for the Cowboys.
Tom Brady and company were able to move more or less at will between the 20 yard lines as Julio Jones, Chris Godwin, and Mike Evans all had 20+ yard receptions. But the Dallas defense stiffened in the red zone, and despite having 214 yards of offense, Tampa Bay had to settle for five field goal attempts, one of which was missed. Brady was generally getting the ball out in his quick fashion, but Micah Parsons picked up right where he left off last season by getting two sacks before intermission. Leonard Fournette was running well, adding another dimension for the Cowboys to worry about, and helped Tampa Bay hold the ball for 18:11 of the first half. Still, they only managed twelve points. Dallas was just down nine, and it could easily have been far worse.
Meanwhile, Godwin went out with what was reported as a hamstring problem as the injury bug played no favorites.
The Buccaneers took the kickoff to open the second half. They only got one first down and on third and long, Trevon Diggs and Malik Hooker combined to deny a long completion. Diggs was active and really not giving up much. The ensuing punt became a do-over as the punt, which was close to being blocked, hit the giant screen above the field. The rusher ran into the punter, but since it was just a five yard penalty, they had to punt it a third time. It was ironic as the Buccaneers did not punt once in the first half, and had to do it three times just to complete one down at the start of the third quarter.
Elliott moved the chains with a couple of runs, but their sixth flag of the game, for an ineligible man downfield, once again broke their rhythm. That set up a sack of Prescott, forcing yet another Bryan Anger punt.
The Buccaneers started to lean on Fournette, who was getting big chunks. A 17-yard run put him over 100 yards with just over six minutes left in the third quarter. Had they just kept pounding it on the ground, they might have simply beaten Dallas into submission. But the Cowboys went to man coverage to try and bring pressure, and that is seldom a wise move against Tom Brady. A couple of completions to Mike Evans finally ended the touchdown drought and left the Cowboys down 19-3. There was still over 18 minutes left on the clock, but with the inability of Dallas to sustain any offense, it was looking increasingly that the game was getting out of control.
While there were concerns about both the offensive line and the wide receivers coming into the game, it cannot be overlooked that Dak Prescott was just bad all game. The team, as the ownership and coaching staff have clearly stated, is relying on him to lift this team up. He did not come close through the first three quarters. The frequent penalties did him no favors. On the drive that bridged the switch from the third to the fourth quarter, they had two false starts and a holding - all three on Terence Steele. It would force the team to go for in on 4th and 2 early in the fourth quarter, and when it was almost picked again, the ball went over on downs and the situation became more and more hopeless.
A bit of hope came just three plays later as Donovan Wilson came up with an interception of Brady. However, the Cowboys promptly went three and out, including a poor pass intended for Noah Brown that would have kept the drive alive.
It was one of the worst games of Prescott’s career, with him finishing 14 of 29 for only 134 yards and an interception. With him misfiring, the Dallas offense is pretty much DOA. And in the fourth quarter, he left the game to be replaced by Cooper Rush after Prescott hurt his hand. Their defense came up with multiple stops to force field goals instead of touchdowns, but when nothing happens to put your own points on the board, that is not going to work. Racking up double digit penalties yet again is also a major problem that shows no improvement from last year’s frequently horrible showing there. There is a lot of work to be done, and it needs to get done quickly. It is only one game, but there are only 16 more. You can’t afford to stack those Ls up early. And now, with Prescott’s health looming as the ultimate dark cloud, it is going to be a very rough week.