It’s three straight wins for Dallas as the Cowboys flattened the Carolina Panthers in AT&T Stadium. Here’s what happened along the way.
Bullied a high-performing defense
Sam Darnold’s resurgence was the fun Panthers storyline heading into this game, but their defense was the meaningful one. The Panthers arrived in Dallas ranking first league-wide in rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed, total yards allowed, and sacks, while ranking second in points per game allowed. Their opponents — the Jets, Texans, Saints — were among the NFL’s dregs, which merited some eyebrow raising when looking at those stats. But, still, great defenses smother inferior offenses, and the Panthers did everything they could through three weeks to prove they were exactly that.
And then, in Week 4, they got massacred.
The raw numbers tell that story. The Cowboys scored 36 points — six more than Carolina allowed through three games. They scored five touchdowns, or one more than the Panthers had previously conceded. Ezekiel Elliott, playing his best game in at least two years, and probably longer, barreled his way to 143 rushing yards — eight more than that vaunted run defense had allowed all year.
But it wasn’t what Dallas did so much as how they did it. Jake wrote Thursday that the Cowboys offense operates like the NFL’s choose-your-own-adventure book: their opponent picks which way they want to be carved up, and then the Cowboys oblige. Sunday provided a tough test. Be it existing injury (Michael Gallup), mid-game injury (Amari Cooper), or general ineffectiveness (CeeDee Lamb), Dallas’ vaunted wide receiver trio — arguably the best in the NFL — gave Carolina less to worry about than any Dallas opponent to date. One year ago, playing without Gallup and milking just five total receptions, 82 yards, and a single touchdown from Cooper and Lamb would guarantee defeat.
The 2021 Cowboys merely shrugged. A rough day for the starting receivers just meant more room for Elliott and Tony Pollard (10 carries for 67 yards) on the ground. It let Prescott pepper his tight ends, Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin, for seven total receptions plus a pair of scores (Dan will have more on them late this morning on StrongSide). For the second consecutive week, second-string Cedrick Wilson — by way of a spin move ripped out of a Madden trailer — was the receiver delivering the knockout blow.
The final score belies the dominance that only comes when a unit is as versatile as it is talented. The Cowboys offense is stout.
Dak Prescott Is Good at His Job, Exhibit A:
This was so heads-up from Dak Prescott.
— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) October 3, 2021
And Exhibit B:
Dak Prescott had the key play on that 70 yard drive, 62 of which came on the ground was this 15 yard run by Dak on 1st & 20 that got the Cowboys back on schedule pic.twitter.com/Nr563dED06
— Kevin Gray Jr. (@KevinGraySports) October 3, 2021
Both of those exhibits were presented in the first quarter, along with a 21-yard scramble on a busted pass play that confirmed, yet again, that his surgically repaired ankle is just fine.
This offense is terrifying enough when everything is going to script. But Prescott’s situational awareness — one of his best attributes since the moment he arrived in the NFL — turns defenses’ best-laid plans to dust.
Continued to experiment with Micah Parsons’ role
Earlier this week, the rookie sensation was asked about his position: linebacker, where he excelled at Penn State and figured to play in Dallas, or end, the position where he wreaked havoc in the Cowboys’ previous two games against the Chargers and Eagles.
His answer: “It really shouldn’t matter. You look at [the Los Angeles Rams’ Jalen] Ramsey, he played outside corner. Now he’s playing nickel. If you’re a dog, you’re going to be a dog. It shouldn’t matter where you are on the field. You should have unbelievable effort and tenacity.”
As if to prove that point, the Cowboys tweaked his role once again on Sunday, lining him up … well, pretty much everywhere.
here's micah's positional breakdown from yesterday. this is just insane! pic.twitter.com/bg6O6A2o8V
— Jake Kemp (@NotJackKemp) October 4, 2021
The bulk of his snaps, however, came at linebacker on early downs before sending him after the quarterback as a standup rusher on passing downs. It was a blend of everything we’d seen through three weeks and, once again, Parsons wreaked havoc going downhill, setting up fellow rookies Chauncey Golston and Osa Odighizuwa for a sack in the third quarter on a blitz before tacking on one of his own early in the fourth quarter.
1⃣1⃣ Micah Parsons sack! pic.twitter.com/YjLlndt4x4
— Dallas Cowboys Collaboration (@mailman_phil) September 28, 2021
The big-picture view through four weeks?
You can go ahead and pencil in Micah Parsons in as DROY. Only question is if he stays healthy. That kid is a beast wherever you put him.
— Stephen White (@sgw94) October 3, 2021
Made a strong case against paying Michael Gallup
Don’t get it twisted: the Colorado State product is very, very good.
So good, in fact, that while he is firmly Dallas’ third wide receiver at this juncture, I’d posit he’d be one of the two best on no fewer than 19 other teams. (If you’re keeping score: Buffalo, Miami, New England, both New York teams, Baltimore, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Arizona. @ me at your leisure.)
At least a handful of those teams figure to make Gallup a strong offer when his rookie contract expires after the season, which ordinarily would put the Cowboys in a pickle because, again, Michael Gallup is very, very good, and NFL teams generally want to keep the very, very good players they’ve drafted around.
Except this is no ordinary offense, and Sunday was an infomercial for why Dallas needs to let him walk. This was as close to a muted performance as the passing attack is likely to get with a healthy Prescott in charge, and the Cowboys still notched four of their five touchdowns through the air. When you’re that prolific, there’s no justification to commit serious cap space to a third receiver, especially not when that third receiver in question will likely command No. 2 money given the offers sure to roll in next year.
Gallup is a blast to watch, and he’ll make plenty more plays this season once he returns from injured reserve. Just prepare yourself to watch him do his thing in another NFL city in 2022. That’s best for all parties involved.
Taught us to a new phrase
Show of hands: who here has heard of “player management” as a mid-game excuse for why a star player is sidelined?
Yeah, me neither.
This was nothing short of bizarre and gave off the vibe of a hastily assembled crisis management strategy, a neon “NOTHING TO SEE HERE” sign blinking over and over as Carolina hit a rhythm while Trevon Diggs was standing on the sideline. Sure enough, Diggs confirmed after the game that “player management” was code for “minor back injury.”
His absence mostly served to underscore the superb work he did when he was on the field … and, damn, was it superb. His two interceptions made him the second Cowboy in history to pick off a pass in each of the team’s first four games of the season, meaning that his improbable push for 17 in 17 is still alive and well.
The second one was especially impressive:
TREVON DIGGS AGAIN
— PFF (@PFF) October 3, 2021
He’s special. Roberto will have more on him tomorrow on StrongSide.
Reminded us that they’ll be searching for a new offensive coordinator next year
3rd-and-1 at the 2:00 warning, and you need one first down to ice the game. What do you dial up? Kellen Moore chose this:
Cowboys with the Zeke to Pollard Option play to ice the game. pic.twitter.com/4COediwrDb
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) October 3, 2021
It’s my job to analyze this stuff, and that’s the only reason I’m not just typing “LOL WUT” and calling it a day. It was as close to whimsical as we get in the brutal, calculating NFL, and it was deployed at precisely the right moment.
Because of course it was. So many Moore masterstrokes are, to the point that he has acquired an air of infallibility as a play caller — at the tender age of 33. Every coordinator has his stumbles, and Moore will, too, before the season ends. But there is no pitfall capable of derailing the inevitable: Kellen Moore will be an NFL head coach next year. There are simply too many replaceable men with too little imagination in leadership roles to pass him up.
Moore is the NFL’s future. But, for this season, he remains a major cog in the Cowboys’ wonderful present.