There was an inclination that Saturday’s preseason against the Arizona Cardinals at AT&T Stadium had a chance to be ugly for the Dallas Cowboys before the game when it was officially announced that quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Sean Lee would sit out to prevent injuries.
Never mind that it meant that Elliott would sit out the entire preseason — he didn’t play in the first two games and no starters will play in Thursday’s final at the Houston Texans — nor that Prescott would go 22 days without any game work before the Sept. 9 season opener against the Carolina Panthers.
With three starting offensive linemen out, guard Zack Martin (knee) and center Travis Frederick (Guillain-Barre Syndrome), the Cowboys were taking no chances.
So what usually would have been a dress rehearsal for the season in what was the third preseason game turned into an opportunity to evaluate the roster on offense.
The result was even much uglier than anticipated in an embarrassing 27-3 loss that featured five first-half turnovers by the Cowboys, who are now 0-3 in the preseason.
The Cowboys added three turnovers in the second half for a total of eight for the game.
Receiver Lance Lenoir muffed two punts, including one that was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown by the Cardinals.
Running back Rod Smith lost a fumble.
And most disappointing of all, backup quarterback Cooper Rush tossed two interceptions. Cornerback Patrick Peterson jumped in front of receiver Tavon Austin to return the first one 30 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
And safety Budda Baker jumped a late pass to Michael Gallup to keep the Cowboys out of the end zone right before the half.
“The story obviously is the turnovers,” coach Jason Garrett said at halftime. “The punt return that gave them a touchdown. The interception that gave them a touchdown. Then right at the end when we put something together, another interception. So didn’t really get anything going offensively and then the turnovers obviously killed us.”
Making matters worse is that could have been even more devastating as center Joe Looney, who will start indefinitely for the sidelined Frederick, was briefly shaken up trying to make the tackle on Baker.
The Cowboys added a sixth turnover when tight end Blake Jarwin fumbled in the third quarter. Third quarterback Mike White added No. 7 and 8 with a fumble on a sack and an interception in the fourth quarter.
Rush’s play, which has underwhelmed throughout the preseason, raises questions about whether the Cowboys need to search for an upgrade at quarterback behind Dak Prescott.
His numbers said it all. He completed 11 of 17 passes for 93 yards and two inceptions with a quarterback rating of 39.2, a far cry from the flawless play he showed in the preseason as a rookie last season when he unseated Kellen Moore for the backup job.
But finding another quarterback does not top the list of needs following the Cardinals game.
Safety has long been a huge concern that became even acuter when Xavier Woods suffered a pulled hamstring last week against the Cincinnati Bengals and won’t be available for the season opener.
The Cowboys might be in desperation mode now after Kavon Frazier, who was starting in place of Woods alongside Jeff Heath, suffered a shoulder injury in the first quarter.
He was taken to the locker room for X-rays and returned to the sideline.
But it’s more evidence of how precarious the situation is at safety, considering that Frazier has already been dealing with knee swelling that has caused to get it drained weekly.
The Cowboys will most certainly add a safety after final cuts on Saturday.
The question is whether this will finally force them to up their offer to the Seattle Seahawks for Pro Bowler Earl Thomas, who is holding out for a new contract and has made it known he would love to continue his career with the Cowboys.
The biggest bright on Saturday continues to be the play of the first-team defense and the impressive return of defensive end Randy Gregory.
While this was a sit out game on offense, the defense, save for Sean Lee, treated it as a dress rehearsal. The starters played well into the second quarter and allowed just 36 total yards.
The starters on defense have not allowed a point through three preseason games.
Cornerback Chido Awuzie and Byron Jones were outstanding again.
But the highlight was Gregory, who returned to the Cowboys for start of training camp after being suspended since the season finale in 2016 for repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Gregory opened the game with the starting defense at right end, opposite Pro Bowl left end DeMarcus Lawrence. He made his presence felt quickly with a sack of Sam Bradford on the third play on defense.
Gregory made a beautiful spin move to get by left tackle D.J. Humphries. He also had a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits and three tackles in the first half.
“I thought the defense played particularly well,” Garrett said of the starters. “The Cardinals couldn’t get anything going offensively. We defended the run. We rushed the passer. We made plays on the back end on the ball. I thought that was really pretty solid.”
Everything else was really ugly, even more so than expected.