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Cowboys’ Week One loss plagued by familiar frustrations

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The Cowboys’ Week One game was highly anticipated. With a new coaching staff in place, it seemed to most fans that 2020 would at the very least usher in some sort of change from the Jason Garret era, for better or for worse.

For many of those fans, Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams was a huge disappointment. Not necessarily because the Cowboys lost, but because of how they lost. It’s a story as old as Time itself: the Dallas Cowboys were outcoached.

Of course, lots of credit goes to the Rams and Sean McVay. Aaron Donald dominated as usual, throwing the banged-up Cowboys offensive line around with ease. Their secondary played a good game and made some critical plays to keep the Cowboys’ offense in check.

But the “explosive” Cowboys offense, hyped up all offseason by fans and critics alike, put up only 17 points in their highly anticipated debut. All the offensive talent seemed to make no difference in the game, a trademark of Garret led teams. And while the defense only gave up 20 points, the Rams moved the ball at will almost the entire night.

Despite these frustrations, there are parts of this loss which should give Cowboys fans some much needed optimism. Let’s look at the few things that went right, and what went horribly wrong in the Cowboys’ Week One loss.

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The good

We can start off with some positivity, because we need more of that in this world.

Defense kept them close

Did I mention that the defense only gave up 20 points? That’s pretty good right there. While the Rams’ 2018 offense fell back to earth in 2019, they came into this game healthy and hungry. McVay is notoriously excellent in season-opening games, and that was true again Sunday.

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Read about Week One from the Rams’ perspective here

The Rams came out with an excellent game-plan of short passes and screens that got the ball out of Jared Goff’s hands quickly. This let them essentially negate Dallas’ pass rush, which is the strongest point of the defense. Only giving up 20 points despite this allowed the Cowboys to at least remain competitive through the whole game.

Picking up where he left off

The brightest spot on the defense was without a doubt Aldon Smith. He was by far the most consistent defender at creating pressure and disrupting plays. He recorded the only sack of the night on a third-and-ten that forced a much-needed punt for the Cowboys. Look for him to build on this performance and try to reach double-digit sacks on the year.

Dynamic Duo

There were also positive takeaways from the offensive side of the ball despite the low point total. Dak and Zeke both looked spectacular for most of the game. Zeke looked slimmer and faster than last year, as evidenced when he juked four Rams defenders out of their cleats for a touchdown:

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Meanwhile, Dak looked great when he had time to throw. He threw an absolute dime to Michael Gallup on their last drive to put the Cowboys in position to at least tie the game. Of course, the play was overturned on a controversial OPI call on Gallup, which sealed the Cowboys’ loss.

More aggressive play calling

Perhaps the most encouraging part for Cowboys fans who fear McCarthy is another Garret: the situational decision making was much more aggressive than any time in Garret’s tenure. First, we can look at the passing rate in “neutral” situations:

There’s Dallas sitting at the sixth-highest pass rate in neutral situations, a huge departure from the previous staff’s preferences.

We can also see they decided to be much more aggressive in late-game scenarios. For example, Dallas elected to go for a fourth and three on the Rams’ 11 yard line down just three points. This is the kind of decision fans had been begging Garret to make for the better part of a decade. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the Rams’ safety came up to make a huge tackle on CeeDee Lamb, and the Cowboys fell short. Despite the disappointing result, the decision making process was aggressive and will eventually pay dividends.

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The “not-so-good”

The Defense

While they gave up only 20 points, don’t mistake the Cowboys’ defensive performance as “good”. They were on their heels from the very start. It looked like their first game in months (which it was), while the Rams’ offense looked like a well-oiled machine.

Screen passes continually netted the Rams first downs and chunk plays. The defense didn’t force a punt until late in the third quarter. They got one turnover which should have been called back on a penalty. Overall, it was an uninspiring performance.

Familiar frustrations on offense

If Cowboys fans are used to seeing the defense give an decent but not great performance, they’re even more used to seeing the offense underperform despite the level of talent. That story didn’t change on Sunday. With “three No. 1 receivers” and Ezekiel Elliot in the backfield, 17 points is atrocious.

The worst part might be that all the players seemed to look the part. Cooper had 10 catches for 81 yards, Gallup looked great the whole night and consistently beat Jalen Ramsey in coverage, and CeeDee Lamb made an immediate contribution.

So what went wrong? Like the last decade, the Cowboys’ offense seemed unable to refrain from shooting themselves in the foot time and time again. Two penalties negated two huge plays by Gallup and stopped two drives in their tracks. Dalton Schultz dropped two passes, one a critical play that eventually led to the failed fourth and three attempt. The offensive line looked un-coordinated, literally tripped over each other’s feet at one point:

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All of these are small mistakes which lead to huge differences in the outcome of games. And just like the last 10 years, they seemed to affect Dallas more than their opponent.

The injury bug hits hard

One of the worst takeaways from the Cowboys’ week one loss was the staggering amount of injuries. Breakout-candidate Blake Jarwin tore his ACL and is out for the year, leaving the tight end position depleted. Leighton Vander-Esch fractured his collarbone and is out six to eight weeks. Starting right tackle La’el Collins will be out for at least two more weeks. And of course, Gerald McCoy was ruled out for the year a few weeks ago as well. All four players were to play big roles in the Cowboys’ season, and their absence was missed on Sunday.

Time to panic?

Yes.

Ok, probably not. This game went about as bad as it could have possibly gone for the Cowboys, yet they were able to finish within three points of what looks to be a very good team. Among all the disappointment and uncertainty are small nuggets of optimism that the Cowboys can build on the positives and make a playoff run. After all, the last three times the Cowboys lost in week one, they made the playoffs each time.

So no, don’t run around sowing panic and discord just yet. It takes more than a month of practice for players and coaches to get up to speed, especially with an entirely new coaching staff. We as fans have to give the benefit of the doubt and let the season unfold before declaring it a complete bust. The Cowboys still have time to right the ship and make a case as legitimate contenders.

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