We long for NFL openers for the clarity they bring. Over the course of the season, catastrophic injuries can occur, talent can emerge and schemes can evolve. But by and large, once the team takes the field for actual football, the cards are flipped over, and we get to glumly stare at them for the next four months.
But yesterday’s Cowboys remain a mystery to me, like someone swapped some Uno cards into the deck. The strength of this team was supposed to be the running game: an absurdly gifted running back behind the stoutest line in the league, with Dez Bryant stretching the field through the occasional long bomb. The front office doubled down on the running game, betting that it could keep the Cowboys defense off the field until they get some key players back from drug suspensions or the opposing quarterbacks all retire (whichever happens to come first). The first game of the season was a to be a matter of testing whether this dominant running game would be enough to win games, not whether it would work at all.
Dallas did manage to hold on to the ball for more than twenty-two minutes of the first thirty, but that was by virtue of short passes distributed to players not named Bryant. Ezekiel Elliott did score a touchdown, but will have to get better at advancing the ball past the line of scrimmage before he can start carrying the franchise around as well. He might need to adjust to the speed of NFL defenders (especially after being held out so much during the preseason). Or it might be that Giants committed over a hundred million dollars of guaranteed money in the offseason to countering the Cowboys’ strengths and dedicated their entire game plan to taking Elliott and Bryant out of the picture. Or maybe he’s the next Trent Richardson. Who knows? Emmitt Smith managed two yards during his debut, and he now has more rushing yards than anybody else. So we might have to content ourselves with not knowing what Elliott is for awhile.
It will probably be awhile before we know what Dak Prescott is either, but I think we feel a little better about that than we could have hoped. After vowing that things would be different than last year, in which we lost eleven games without Romo because we couldn’t throw long passes or hold onto a lead in the fourth quarter . . . we have now lost another game without Romo because we couldn’t throw any long passes or hold onto a lead in the fourth quarter. But I get the sense that Linehan can do more with Dak than he could with any of Tony’s replacements last year. The things that Dak didn’t try seemed less a result of bumping up against his ceiling than finding the footing on his floor. He didn’t have any long completions, but he did take some shots downfield. He didn’t have any interceptions. He can’t be held responsible for Terrance Williams forgetting the location of the sideline.
One thing has become clear to me – Jason Garret needs to change his approach. It might seem counter-intuitive, but he can’t keep playing as conservatively as he does with the defense that he has. He did that the entirety of last year and it worked just well enough for the Cowboys to barely lose a lot of games. If Jerry is going to gamble on the offense, then Jason does too. He needs to try letting his offense go for it on third and fourth downs instead of believing that his defense can stop their opponents on those later downs. They can’t, especially in the latter part of the game when even the rotational players are tired, and they can no longer substitute energy for speed and skill. The losses might become more lopsided, but they might seem less inevitable.
Finally, even though there is no need for clarification on this subject, I’d like to say that Dan Bailey is a really good kicker. In this new era where the extra point isn’t a sure thing, maybe that is what can get me through this loss-poisoned first week of professional football.