The Dallas Cowboys spent the entire offseason overhauling the offense and the passing game. They got rid of receiver Dez Bryant and cut kicker Dan Bailey for the unknown Brett Maher.
As first games go, the changes and decisions leave a lot to be desired after a 16-8 loss to the Carolina Panthers in the season opener.
Quarterback Dak Prescott and the moribund offense will certainly be questioned. But, so should the front office after Maher missed his only kick of the game, a 47-yarder that would have made it one score game in the third quarter.
The Cowboys turned a 16-0 score to 16-8 midway through the fourth quarter but it wasn’t enough to overcome a game full of mistakes, penalties and ineptitude that fittingly ended with a Prescott sack and fumble.
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The team committed 10 penalties for 85 yards in the game.
Prescott passed for just 170 yards, marking the seventh time in last nine games dating back to last season that he passed for under 200.
What’s also true is that the Cowboys have scored just 26 points in three games since Ezekiel Elliott returned from a six-game suspension at the end of last season. This was the sixth time in the last nine games that the Cowboys scored 12 points or fewer.
Owner Jerry Jones was so frustrated and disappointed that he purposely avoided the media after the game, foregoing his customary press conference outside the locker room. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan out right refused requests to be interviewed.
Here are five observations from the game:
1. Dak Prescott was down right awful through three quarters as was the Cowboys offense. He competed 11 of 18 passes for 100 yards and that as improvement after a six for 10 first half, that included just four first first downs. He wasn’t helped by a lack of creativity in the playcalling as well as penalties and sacks that kept the offense behind the chains in long-yardage situations. But Prescott was also woefully inaccurate and refused to challenge the defense down the field. His horrible misfire to a wide open Blake Jarwin was typical of his work. Prescott’s best drive came in the fourth quarter when the Cowboys went to their no huddle offense after falling behind 16-0. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 170 yards in the game. He had seven games last season in which he passed for under 200 yards. The more things change the more things stay the same. The Cowboys gave up six sacks, including two by rookie guard Connor Williams. Left tackle Tyron Smith was flagged for holding and a block in the back. Right guard La’el Collins was flagged twice for holding. The Cowboys offense did not cross the 50-yard line in the first half for the first time since 2002.
“I thought I was off,” said Prescott, who only played 39 snaps in the preseason and sat out the final two games with the rest of the first team offense. “That is something you got to look at on film. I got to figure out why I was off.... I am not going to make excuses. We had a lot of time this week to prepare. We weren’t as sharp as we needed to be.”
2. Running back Ezekiel Elliott entered the season hoping to prove he was the best back in the league. It didn’t start well. He had seven carries for 18 yards in the first half. He also gave up a sack that put the offense behind the chains. Elliott found it tough running against a defense that focused on stopping the run with no help from a Cowboys pass offense that got nothing going down the field. He picked things up in the second half to finish with 15 rushes for 69 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown.
“It was definitely tough,” Elliott said. “We jut didn’t go out there and execute. Our offense put our defense in a bad situation. We kept them on the field too long. We couldn’t get first downs, keep our drives going. We need to improve our offense.”
Elliott also had no impact as a pass receiver. He had three receptions for 17 yards but laments the inability to make defenders miss in the open field.
“I was a little disappointed,” Elliott said. “I’ve got to be a better ball player and play at a higher level than that.”
3. The Cowboys receivers and tight ends will be a focal point because of the retirement of Jason Witten and the release of Dez Bryant. The wide outs caught just three passes in the first half. Two went to Cole Beasley for 19 yards and one to Michael Gallup. Tight end Geoff Swaim led the Cowboys in receptions with three catches for 18 yards. But there were rarely any attempts down field and Prescott missed a wide open Blake Jarwin with an unconscionable under throw. The receivers picked things up in the fourth quarter, especially Beasley, who led the Cowboys with seven catches for 73 yards. But the lack of a true go-to threat hurt the offense late. Deonte Thompson couldn’t come up with a potential catch on the sideline on fourth down that would have kept a game-tying drive alive in the fourth quarter. Would Dez Bryant have made the play?
Coach Jason Garrett said penalties that kept the offense behind the chains is the reason they were conservative early and was pleased with how the offense show a spark in the second half.
“I thought it was better in the second half,” Garrett said. “We opened it up more. We spread it out more. We felt more like ourselves. Obviously, it was not good enough. We have to score than eight points.”
4. The Cowboys defense had no answers for Panthers quarterback Cam Newton as a runner early. He had seven rushes for 64 yards in the first half, including a 29-yard scamper and a four-yard touchdown. It’s surprising they would be surprised by Newton on the zone read considering it’s been a staple of the Panthers offense since he has been in the league and the Cowboys use it with Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Newton’s running opened things up for the Panthers offense as Christian McCaffery started getting loose as a receiver against a tiring Cowboys defense. Jeff Heath dropped a potential tipped interception. And cornerback Chido Awuzie failed to come up with a fumble. The Panthers scored on both drives after the missed opportunities. The defense played solidly, considering it got no help from the offense early on. Newton ended the game with 58 yards rushing and only passed for 161. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence had a great game with a team-high seven tackles, three tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and had a huge sack in the fourth quarter to give the offense a chance for a comeback. But it wasn’t enough.
“The first half hurt, the quarterback options, we didn’t do a good job there,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said.
Regarding the missed turnovers, he said “we got to come up with the ball when the opportunities are there. We got to make those plays.”
5. Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory played for the first time since season finale of 2016 and it proved to be a day to forget. It started with him being the subject of an ESPN report of him facing NFL scrutiny for allegedly having a relapse in August. The Cowboys and Gregory’s camp said he hasn’t been notified by the NFL and they were just happy to see him play after missing 30 of the last 32 games while serving an NFL suspension for repeated violations of the substance abuse policy. His first game saw him visit the medical tent twice for possible injuries. He didn’t play in the second half due to a concussion. Asked after the game about Gregory’s reported relapse, coach Jason Garrett said: “I don’t know nothing about that.”