The Dallas Cowboys opened their 2020 season with a narrow 20-17 road loss to the Los Angeles Rams. While the loss itself was hardly a stunner, the way Dallas lost was the real surprise. Despite all the change expected with Mike McCarthy’s arrival, this first look at the “new” Cowboys was reminiscent of past years under Jason Garrett.
In fact, some of the key reasons why Dallas lost last night’s game might not have happened under Garrett’s watch.
Before we dig in any deeper, I want to acknowledge that this was a uniquely challenging Week 1 game given the lack of offseason work and preseason games due to COVID-19. The Rams were at home and had the continuity advantage with Sean McVay entering his fourth season as their coach.
And remember, despite Dallas’ big win over them last season, Los Angeles did have a 9-7 record in 2019 compared to the Cowboys’ 8-8 finish. So there was no great reason to assume that Dallas was the better team going into last night.
Injuries certainly didn’t help. Losing Leighton Vander Esch early was a practical and emotional blow, and then Blake Jarwin’s exit in the 2nd quarter wasn’t much better. With Dallas already missing La’el Collins, Sean Lee, and Jourdan Lewis going into the game, the fight was definitely tilted in the Rams’ favor.
But even before either Vander Esch or Jarwin went out the Cowboys never looked like they were firing on all cylinders. The Rams moved the ball with ease on their opening drive and then Dallas’ offense had no juice early on.
It felt very much like so many season openers I remember from the Jason Garrett era, and many other highly-anticipated games as well. The slow start and the appearance of poor pre-game preparation; digging the early hole and making life harder on yourself the rest of the way.
Same old Cowboys; same old results.
While I was one of the last people to finally turn on Garrett as Dallas’ head coach, I was ready for the team move on from Jason after last season. So please don’t take what I’m about to say as some kind of sour grapes or “told you so,” because I still think the Cowboys made the right choice in firing him and in hiring Mike McCarthy.
That said, there were a couple of key misfires and mistakes in last night’s loss that might not have happened if Jason Garrett was still here.
You know where I’m going with this first one; McCarthy’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-3 early the in the 4th Quarter. With Dallas down 20-17 and having struggled offensively the whole night, Mike decided to get aggressive rather than let Greg Zuerlein tie the game on what would’ve been just a 28-yard field goal.
The result was a two-yard pass to CeeDee Lamb that ruined the Cowboys’ trip to the redzone . While the defense was able force a punt and give Dallas another chance to tie or win the game, the far better opportunity to do it had already been squandered.
We can argue all day about how Lamb, Dak Prescott, and whoever else executed the play itself. But had McCarthy just taken the field goal, the entire complexion of the last 11 minutes of the game may have been different.
The more conservative Jason Garrett would’ve probably taken the three points at that moment. And sure, this is a mix of hindsight and speculation here, but maybe the end result of the game would’ve also been different.
The other issue I had last night, and really from the start of training camp, was Greg Zuerlein as Dallas’ new kicker. While he’s a big name at the position and a one-time Pro Bowler in 2017, Zuerlein was one of the poorer kickers in the NFL last season.
One of the key moves in McCarthy’s overhaul of Dallas’ coaching staff was bringing in John Fassel as Special Team Coordinator. This was a welcome change after two years of poor special teams play under Keith O’Quinn.
Fassel was the Rams’ special teams coach for many years before joining the Cowboys and Zuerlein was his kicker for most of that time. So no, it wasn’t a shock when that relationship led to Zuerlein following Fassel to Dallas.
What was a surprise was that the Cowboys didn’t even allow Kai Forbath, who went 10-for-10 last year after replacing Brett Maher, to compete with Zuerlein in training camp. They just handed the job to Greg “The Leg” based on reputation and, no doubt, Fassel’s influence.
That meant Zuerlein’s field goals throughout the month of August came without any real threat of someone else taking the job. Sure, if he’d been missing kicks left and right the Cowboys might’ve had to make a move. But the clear and present danger of another kicker in camp wasn’t there to make Greg sweat.
Last night, playing against his former team, were the first true pressure kicks of Greg Zuerlein season. He missed his first one, albeit a 53-yarder, and then barely made a 33-yarder later in the game.
Maybe I’m assuming too much here but I don’t think Jason Garrett’s Cowboys would’ve just handed the kicker job to Greg Zuerlein the way Mike McCarthy and John Fassel did. After all, this is the same regime that dumped Dan Bailey in 2018 after Brett Maher won the job in camp.
Granted, part of the decision with Zuerlein and Forbath had to do with only having 80 roster spots in camp this year compared to the usual 90. But given how important the kicking job is to wins and losses, as we saw last night, I think we easily could’ve had one less tight end in camp to facilitate a true competition.
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Again, this isn’t a proclamation of regret over the firing of Jason Garrett or the hiring of Mike McCarthy. It was just one bad week and, to be fair, the Cowboys were just a weak offensive pass interference call away from potentially tying and winning the game despite their injuries and the unique challenges of this Week 1 matchup.
But that said, we didn’t see much of anything that make the 2020 Cowboys looks different on offense or defense from the last several years. That 4th-down decision was about the only thing that really made it look like we have a new head coach, and that could’ve been what ultimately cost Dallas the game.
Let’s hope that Mike McCarthy starts proving he’s an upgrade next week against the Falcons.