We’re not the Bills.
That’s probably one of the better things that can be said of the 2018 Cowboys debut. A team that kept many of its starters in the freezer this preseason took three quarters to thaw, falling behind 16-0 early in the 4th quarter before gaining some early season traction.
The defense melted first but spent its first half befuddled by zone read exchanges between Christian McCaffrey and Cam Newton. On down after down, Newton watched Cowboys linebackers overcommit to the handoff, leaving him open halves of the field when he kept the ball.
The offense took an extra quarter before it showed some life. Some of its issues may be down to a lack of cohesion but the bigger picture looks more distressing.
This is a team that run blocks well and does not pass block well. That was the offensive line’s profile in 2016 when they won 13 games and last year when it dipped to nine wins. Yesterday, it surrendered six sacks to a good Panthers front. What’s more, both starting tackles, Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, took a pair of ten-yard penalties.
That profile suggests the team will have trouble against big fronts that can match up with the run power, as Carolina’s can. In those situations, the team needs to break the pressure. But today we saw a repeat of 2017’s receiving malaise. Those early flags by the line put the club in 1st and 20 situations. Rather than blitzing, the Panthers dropped into two deep shells and dared the green Cowboys wideout to beat them.
They rarely did. The Panthers know quarterback Dak Prescott is highly risk-averse and won’t force passes into coverage. Prescott instead held the ball way too long on late downs, and this let the Panthers rush eat him up. Most of his sacks came on 4th quarter pass attempts where he stuck in the pocket waiting in vain for his targets.
Not that Prescott didn’t make his share of mistakes. His issues were not matters of poor reads but of poor mechanics. Prescott seemed to have the yips from the opening kickoff, and missed open targets on quick, short passes and most critically on a late 2nd down attempt to Blake Jarwin, who had slipped behind a Panthers zone up the left-side numbers. Jarwin was free 25 yards downfield at a time when the game was 7-0 and Prescott rushed the throw, trying to strong-arm the toss while floating left. The lack of a solid base left the attempt short, costing the Cowboys an early chance at a comeback.
Prescott does not look like a come-from-behind quarterback. He’s not willing to take the risky throws to shake up his team, and he may not have a dependable downfield target to redeem such risky passes. Add his lack of short-yardage accuracy (I know, this is one game) and he’ll be challenged to win games in a Montana-Brady style until he proves he can.
The sum of these traits suggests the 2018 Cowboys will be decidedly one-dimensional. They may be able to pound on lesser teams, but this profile will leave them short against the better defenses on their schedule.
The lack of discipline also carried over from recent campaigns. The Cowboys committed penalties on their opening offensive and defensive drives and kept making them. The team finished with ten accepted flags for 85 yards.
That the major culprits were named Smith, Collins and Lawrence, who each took two flags, speaks poorly of the team’s discipline. If your big money is making mistakes, you’re going to trail, and Dallas did.
The Cowboys started 2018 with no margin for injury losses, on either side of the ball. Unless some receivers show some moxie, this team will struggle to keep pace with playoff caliber teams. If it suffers any key injuries, things could go south in a hurry.
This profile seems sadly reminiscent of the Dave Campo era, where Mike Zimmer’s hustle-defense could keep things respectable, but the Chad Hutchinson/Chad Henning/Quincy Carter offenses labored to put points on the board.
A strong rebound against the Giants next week could put this thesis into the trash can and lead to a competitive season but too many of the Garrett-era’s bad habits recurred today to dismiss this loss as a one-off.
The 2018 Dallas Jasons have A LOT to prove next week.