The Dallas Cowboys are 1-1 after a road victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. That’s good!
But what else did they accomplish? Let’s investigate:
Proved that, sometimes, bad processes lead to good results ✔
Remember last week? Of course you do. But I’m not talking about the result or the debatable non-offensive pass inference call on Tampa Bay receiver Chris Godwin.
No, I’m referring to Mike McCarthy’s lamentable decision to trot out the embattled Greg Zuerlein for a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter rather than let Dak Prescott, who had spent the better part of four hours gutting the defending Super Bowl champions, take a shot at a touchdown. That Zuerlein made the kick was almost immaterial. As our Dan Morse explained, the process was bad, and that process ultimately cost Dallas a shot at the win.
Ten days later, the Cowboys found themselves in a similar position, inheriting the ball at their 13 yard line with 3:45 remaining in a tied game. Once again, Dallas had more than enough time to play for a touchdown and put Los Angeles on its heels. Once again, McCarthy played for the field goal instead, his team moseying up the field with runs and short passes. It was baffling clock management—although the worst of it was probably caused by a clock malfunction inside the stadium—that put the onus on Zuerlein to drill a 56-yarder to avoid overtime.
Gregory The Legory—we’re making this a thing—drilled it and, to his credit, probably would have drilled it from at least 60 yards out. But, again, process: why put all the chips on a kicker fresh off back surgery, who left seven points on the board just one week earlier, delivering on a high-difficulty attempt?
This probably shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and so today, the Cowboys celebrate. As they should. The NFL is a brutally difficult league, kickers are people, too, and Zuerlein performed admirably. But it’s hard not to wonder whether this reaffirms a flawed line of thinking that costs Dallas down the line versus taking it for what it was: a great result that could have been achieved via a smarter strategy.
Established the run ✔
The Cowboys’ first play from scrimmage was a run.
So was their first touchdown, on a drive in which nine of Dallas’ 15 plays were on the ground.
Also the second touchdown, which capped off four runs in seven plays (plus a Prescott dump-off to Tony Pollard).
By the end of the first quarter, the Cowboys had already exceeded their rushing yards from Week 1’s loss at Tampa Bay. By the end of the game, they’d racked up 198 yards on 31 attempts—four more than the number of passes Prescott threw.
Dallas running as often as it did wasn’t terribly interesting in and of itself; that was widely expected after offensive coordinator Kellen Moore barely entertained the thought in Week 1. It’s how the Cowboys ran that matters. Three years ago, this sort of rushing split unequivocally would have meant “Feed Zeke.” In 2021, it’s family dining, from Elliott (16 carries for 71 yards) to Tony Pollard (13 for 109) to even CeeDee Lamb, who took a handoff in shotgun 13 yards up the middle. You can take this as an indictment of Elliott’s role relative to his contract—there’s certainly evidence to support that position—or you can instead credit Pollard’s skill for forcing his way into a legitimate role in the offense. Probably parts of both; Dan will dive more into it later this morning.
Regardless of what form it takes, though, the relevant takeaway is Moore’s ability to win using a strong ground game—even with his offensive line down a key starter in La’el Collins—one week after orchestrating an aerial masterpiece. The challenge, if Dallas intends to make a deep playoff run this year, will be to combine a measure of each in the same game.
Played a home game in Los Angeles ✔
I mean, look at this crowd:
Sofi Stadium after the Trevon Diggs INT. This is a Cowboys home game. pic.twitter.com/aZ74QeTuDK
— Hookah Doncic (@MasterTes) September 19, 2021
Between that and playing in a space-age stadium boasting a gargantuan video board—you might not be surprised to learn that Dallas-based HKS, the firm that designed Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, also dreamt up AT&T Stadium—the Cowboys just played the most hospitable road game they’ll experience all season.
Got off to a strong start ✔
Fun fact: this was the first time in 21 games the Cowboys scored a touchdown on their opening drive, which was tied for the longest active drought in the NFL.
It looked like this:
— NFL (@NFL) September 19, 2021
Not the most obvious way to stop the skid, but then again, this was hardly the sort of offense you’d expect to move so slowly off the blocks, either
Capitalized on Micah Parsons’ versatility ✔
The murmurs began when Randy Gregory tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, and they amplified into something far more urgent once DeMarcus Lawrence broke his foot during a practice drill on Wednesday: how the hell were the Cowboys going to rush the passer?
The answer, for much of the game, turned out to be Micah Parsons, their first-round rookie linebacker, lining up at Lawrence’s left end spot. This wasn’t as stunning as it may seem; Parsons profiled as a defensive end coming out of high school, and those pass-rushing instincts remain one of his very best skills. Dallas also possesses the bodies at linebacker to spare him—presuming Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith played to the high end of their talent after being used sparingly in Week 1.
So onto the edge went Parsons, and to generally stellar results. Make no mistake, there were growing pains, none more glaring than a nullified offside call on a crucial 3rd-and-13 that would have given Los Angeles free yards had Justin Herbert not found Mike Williams wide open for a first down.
But Parsons spent the bulk of the afternoon terrorizing Chargers right tackle Storm Norton—A+ name, it should be noted—with moves like this…
— Daniel Fitzgerald (@nflpicksfitz) September 19, 2021
— Alex King (@AKing_Evals) September 19, 2021
Before delivering the coup de grace on second-and-goal late in the fourth quarter with Dallas clinging to a 17-14 lead:
Micah Parsons' first career sack: vs. Justin Herbert, for 18-yard loss
Chargers settle for FG. Tie game at 17 with 3:58 to play.pic.twitter.com/A93eJMzwnw
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 19, 2021
It was arguably the most impactful defensive play in an afternoon full of them. All told, Parsons finished with eight quarterback pressures, which Pro Football Focus reports is the most for a rookie since 2019.
This experiment doesn’t work without plenty of help behind him. Vander Esch notched a sack and threw up a celebratory wolf howl that conjured memories of his outstanding rookie season, while the much-maligned Smith generally played well in space and made a key third-down pass breakup on a ball intended for Cowboy killer Jared Cook—either you recognize that name already, or you absolutely should not Google “Jared Cook Aaron Rodgers Cowboys”—that forced Los Angeles to settle for field goal early in the third quarter. All three of Dallas’ free-agent additions at safety made plays, too.
But all of that was ancillary compared to what Parsons—a rookie playing a position he hadn’t tried since high school and doing it on the road in just his second NFL game—did against a team that ought to be in the AFC playoff picture. Roberto José Andrade Franco will have more on him tomorrow, but for now, just know the Penn State product is unlike anyone we’ve seen in the front seven in years.
Avoided tempting fate ✔
Behold, the following:
A noteworthy stat: 258 teams have started a season 0-2 since 1990.
• Only 30 out of the 258 (11.6%) ended up turning it around and making the playoffs.
• Only 15 (5.8%) won their division after starting 0-2.
• Only 3 teams (1.2%) won the Super Bowl after starting 0-2.
— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) September 19, 2021
Context matters: the NFL added a 17th game to the schedule this year, along with an additional playoff slot in each conference, while the NFC East was historically awful last year and could well be again in 2021. The Cowboys’ season may well have turned out just fine had they lost Sunday (just as, for that matter, it could still end terribly even though they won). Still, an 0-2 start would have whittled away any margin for error heading into the Monday night game versus Philadelphia—a winnable game, certainly, but also eminently losable for a team that hasn’t taken well to pressure over the past two years.
Or, should I say, hadn’t. What Dallas achieved on Sunday—the result, irrespective of how they got it and how they should have—was important. It was a road win that genuinely meant something: a victory over a good team with a depleted roster at Mike McCarthy’s disposal. How often had the Cowboys played down to their circumstances, overwhelmed by the attrition or the opposing quarterback or the environment or parts of each? How often had the very players who surprised most in Los Angeles—Vander Esch, Smith, and the bargain-bin safeties—cost Dallas key games instead of, across the board, played their roles to help win them? Conversely, how often had they avoided those pitfalls without leaning on Dak Prescott’s brilliance to bail everyone else out?
On Sunday, the Cowboys proved they possess the mettle to win on the road and do it in a manner well outside their comfort zone. The Chargers wanted Dallas to run the ball, and they salivated at the prospect of their backup right tackle squaring off against a rookie while the Cowboys’ took on Joey Bosa, arguably the most frightening pass rusher alive. It didn’t matter. Dallas won anyway, and now they won’t encounter a 2020 playoff team until November 21st at Kansas City.
It’s on the Cowboys to capitalize and handle business as a favorite. Every bad team—and Dallas was a bad team for the past two years—must learn how to avoid complacency once it’s good again. That’s a hard-earned skill. But the Cowboys are only in position to learn it because they did much harder work in Los Angeles. That counts for plenty.