So who and what is saving the Dallas Cowboys now?
A bye week trade for receiver Amari Cooper and the firing of offensive line coach Paul Alexander were supposed to give the Cowboys new life after last week’s bye following a disappointing 3-4 start the season.
But a shocking 28-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Monday night at AT&T Stadium has the Cowboys season on life support and the career of coach Jason Garrett in the balance with boos reigning down from home the fans.
It was the first loss at home for the Cowboys (3-5), who have yet to win on the road, and they remain two games behind the Washington Redskins (5-3) in the NFC East and face road games at the Philadelphia Eagles (4-4) and Atlanta Falcons (4-4) up next.
With two weeks to prepare and to be outplayed at home with so much on the line, owner and general manager Jerry Jones was disappointed in the loss, which called a step backward.
Jones, however, added that Garrett is safe for now. He said he’s not planning any more in-season coaching changes.
“We didn’t see this coming,” Jones said. “We did have a lot of time to prepare. We had a lot of time to get ready and make changes to give us a better shot at this. This is a step back for us. When you’ve played eight games and won three, there’s cause for concern.”
Cooper did his part with five catches for 58 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown pass. But the offensive line allowed five sacks on quarterback Dak Prescott. He also had a first-quarter interception in the end zone that cost the Cowboys and third quarter fumble that turned the game, as the Titans broke a 14-14 halftime tie with a touchdown on the ensuing drive and never looked back.
The Cowboys’ defense contributed to the woeful performance by allowing the Titans to convert 11 of 14 third-down chances, while allowing quarterback Marcus Mariota to complete 21 of 29 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. The Titans came into the game with one of the worst offenses in the league but had their way with the Cowboys.
“It’s disappointing,” Prescott said. “We didn’t get the job done. We all got to get better. It starts with me. I am very disappointed coming off the bye week. To come out with this loss and be 3-5 is very disappointing.”
Here are five thoughts from the game:
1. Quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense still can’t muster a passing game respectable enough to produce wins when it matters most. That was the case on Monday. It was a must win. The Cowboys got a new toy in receiver Amari Cooper.
And while Prescott completed 21 of 31 passes for 243 yards, including touchdown passes to Cooper and Allen Hurns in the first half, his play was far from perfect. He missed a wide-open Cole Beasley in the end zone on the first drive and then Brett Maher missed a 38-yard field goal. After the Cowboys went up 7-0 on his touchdown pass to Cooper, his interception in the end zone on a forced throw to a double-covered Cooper killed the early momentum. The Cowboys had three red zone opportunities in the first quarter but only had seven points. Instead of going up 17-0, 14-0 or at least 10-0 in the first quarter, the Cowboys found themselves tied 7-7 early in the second, as Tennessee turned the interception into a touchdown.
“That was the difference, as simple as that,” Prescott said. “Our defense got us a turnover there, we’re up seven points. I go down there and try to force that ball and give it right back to them. It’s a 14-point swing. They get a touchdown to tie it up. That’s the difference right there.”
It was a third-quarter fumble by Prescott on a sack that helped Tennessee take the lead for good. Prescott has fumbled seven times this season and lost four with the sack-fumble. Prescott lost three fumbles all of last season. He was sacked five times in the game. It simply wasn’t a winning performance by Prescott or the offense.
“It’s third and long. The guy has got me wrapped up. Just go down,” Prescott said about the fumble. “It’s about managing the game. In that situation, I got to go down instead of taking over the game. It would have been too much at that point. It was a turnover and they scored 7 points.”
2. The Cowboys promised to get receiver Amari Cooper involved early and often. He caught an 11-yard pass on the second play of the game and had four targets in the first quarter. His third target was a 4-yard touchdown pass on a brilliant route, a double move against cornerback Malcolm Butler.
“That play is not supposed to work against that defensive look,” Cooper said. “I really sold the first route and he went for it.”
Unfortunately, his fourth target was a force in double coverage by Prescott in the end zone that was intercepted by safety Kevin Byard, turning what could have been 10-0 or 14-0 into 7-7 which the Titans turned into a touchdown drive. Cooper had a 15-yard reception on a touchdown drive late in the second quarter and finished the game with five catches for 58 yards on eight targets.
But he wasn’t much of a factor in the second half and his presence didn’t open up anything for receiver Cole Beasley on the inside or the running game. Beasley had three catches for 16 yards, all on the final drive, and Ezekiel Elliott had 17 rushes for 61 yards.
“I think I have a couple of things to improve on getting locked up on my routes,” Cooper said. “But overall for my first game, being here about two weeks. I think it was an alright performance. But we came up short of a victory. We have a lot to improve on.”
3. The Cowboys defense started off the game strong with a sack and a forced fumble by defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence on its opening series.
Linebacker Sean Lee picked it up, setting up a touchdown drive. Linebacker Jaylon Smith picked up a fumble from an aborted snap on the ensuing series, giving the ball back to the offense in plus territory. The Cowboys got nothing to show for it because of a Dak Prescott interception.
A potential third forced fumble and recovery was overturned on replay on the next series and things went downhill. The Titans turned the new life into a 15-play, 80-yard scoring drive. And then 78 yards on 10 plays on the next drive to take a 14-7 lead.
The Cowboys couldn’t get them off the field on third down. Tennessee was 6 of 7 on third down in the first half and 11 of 14 for the game.
The defense began the game celebrating turnovers with group shots in the end zone. It ended the game being gashed and embarrassed. Quarterback Marcus Mariota completed 21 of 29 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. The Titans rushed for 125 yards.
“It’s shocking. It’s shocking to see the amount of points and what we did on defense,” defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford said. “We started off fast and had some turnovers. We were excited. We let it get the best of us. We didn’t control it the whole game.”
4. Much was made about the change in offensive line coaches with Marc Colombo replacing the fired Paul Alexander. It proved to be a mixed bag. The line was aggressive with running back Ezekiel Elliott rushing for 31 yards in the first quarter. He had 12 carries for 45 yards at halftime.
The line looked good on a 37-yard screen to Elliott. Quarterback Dak Prescott was sacked five times, including a fumble in the third quarter that led to a Titans score. That drive was put behind the chains by a holding call on guard Connor Williams. Elliott rushed for just 61 yards on 17 carries.
One of the biggest turning points came when the Titans missed a field goal and chance to go up 24-14 after Mariota missed a wide open touchdown pass. The Cowboys had new momentum down just 21-14 early in the fourth quarter yet Prescott was sacked on two of the next three plays to kill the drive.
“I know how we handled the offensive line this week in terms of practicing, getting ready, preparation,” owner Jerry Jones said. “(Marc Colombo) handled it pretty similar to the way we’ve been handling it relative to the run game because he had been intimately involved in the run game. I like what he did. I do know we had breakdowns. I don’t know that I expected the change to create a situation where you just didn’t have breakdowns. I didn’t think it’d be enough to impact the game the way it did and impact Dak the way it did.”
5. If the Cowboys’ season isn’t already over, it will be decided over the next four weeks with back-to-back games at the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons followed by home games against the Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints.
Considering their woeful road record it could be over during the next two weeks. And while the Cowboys have played well at home, the NFC East-leading Redskins and the Saints, who are tied for the best record in the NFL, will be huge challenges.
“We’ve just got to out go out there and find ways to win,” Elliott said. “We are not out of it. But we got to win. We have to win ball games. We have to be better than we were today.”
Prescott said the Cowboys have to win out.
“Yes, of course, we are 3-5,” Prescott said. “We still have a bunch of games left. Playing everybody in the division. No one has a huge lead in the division. But the margin for error is small. When you are 3-5 you got to win every game. It starts next week. That’s all we are focused on now.”