Rivalries are the very basis of competitive sport and without such historic opponents, there very well could be nothing to comparatively report. When age-old rivals compete, fevered fans (with narrative-supporting exceptions) only care about who held the fort.
While the NFL’s 100th season began (arguably but not technically) with the latest edition of its oldest rivalry – an NFC North slugfest between the Bears and the Packers (the results of which were not primetime best) – the league’s week-one schedule also included a similar NFC East fan favorite between two organizations that almost always make a game of it.
“America’s Team” hosted the New York “Football” Giants who (even with their litany of well-documented issues) managed a deceptive show of defiance before losing 35-17 to Dallas and fetching familiar tissues.
“What exactly do you mean by deceptive?” you ask (with a hint of unwillingness – in the face of such a great Dallas victory – to be at all receptive). “The Tortured Cowboys Fan” shall quickly explain with little strain.
While Giants’ QB Eli Manning has demonstrated multiple ways of messing up crucial plays – during his struggle to properly steer in the twilight of his career – he surprisingly threw for 306 yards (albeit with but one touchdown) on 30-44 passing with a QBR of 95.5 (giving a glimmer of hope to a dwindling number of loyal supporters that his days as a starting quarterback remain reasonably alive). Draft-delivered improvements across New York’s offensive line helped prevent “Marinelli’s Men” from having more on which to dine.
New York’s own stud running back Saquon Barkley overcame a near-fatal early-game fumble to gain 120 yards on 11 carries without another stumble. He had an explosive 59-yard run until Cowboy’s corner Chidobe Awuzie (as if shot from a cannon) ended his fun . . . like Darrell Green chasing down fellow Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett or Eric Dickerson. More on Washington in a minute, as the Cowboys will soon be in it. The “Hot Boyz” otherwise kept the multifaceted player pretty quiet through the air.
Giants’ tight end Evan Engram (enjoying momentary mercy from untimely injury) returned to his recent tradition of excelling against Dallas, gaining 115 yards on 11 of 14 receptions and one touchdown. With the exception of a 43-yard big play blip from receiver Cody Latimer, the rest of New York’s receivers succumbed to the Hot Boyz’ no-fly-zone hammer. Colossally concussed Giants’ receiver Sterling Shepard would stammer onto an unpleasant flight out of town.
While New York was not point-scoring compliant, their total offensive output was, indeed, deceptively defiant (being but 20 yards fewer than the team they tried-and-failed to skewer). The G-Men showed their between-the-endzone production could improve, but they were overwhelmed by Dak's new groove.
Accuracy, Not Dakuracy
On the flip side, a delightfully Dak-driven victory allowed an imperfect-yet-adequate defensive performance to quietly slide. While he would mix in a few “behind-the-back” passes in the first quarter, Prescott was all accuracy with nary a hint of further “Dakuracy.” and his 158.3 was served to order. He threw for a whopping 405 yards and four touchdowns on 25-32 attempts, suffered zero sacks (in the absence of that since-traded guy named “Snacks”), sacrificed zero turnovers (to any opportunistic secondary rovers), and his PERFECT QBR of 158.3 was practically served to order. He would also tote the rock four times for 12 yards more (including a timely 8-yard scamper to help push the Giants further out the door).
Such accuracy (due to a combination of play-call misdirection with better field vision to solve past indecision) fulfilled targets o’ plenty. Second-year thoroughbred Michael Gallup went 7/7 for 158 yards with a long of 62. New York hardly knew what to do. Second-year Cowboy Amari Cooper went 6/9 for 106 yards, with a long of 45, and his own score. But wait! There was more! Fabulous free agent pickup Randall Cobb reminded everyone why he is just right for the former role of Cole (Beasley), going 4/5 for 69 yards, with a long of 25, and one touchdown pretty easily. Blake Jarwin (ongoing participant in “Tight End Survivor”) went 3/3 for 39 yards, with a long of 28 (reminiscent of his last performance against the Giants so great), resulting in another seven.
Though Jason Witten (triumphantly returning from the booth to display his truth) went a mere 3/4 for 15 yards, Prescott’s second scoring pass of the day ensured “The Judge” was dealt better cards, and the AT&T Stadium crowd roared like they had reached heaven.
Running Game Coming Into Frame?
Ezekiel Elliott (following his successful clash over cash) had 53 yards on 13 carries, including the Dallas' last touchdown of their pass-heavy day on a punishing, leaning, stretching 10-yard run into the end zone. Still – after having missed the entire preseason – his touches were purposely limited (no matter his chiseled Cabo chassis), with rookie running back sensation Tony Pollard being thrown a 50% bone to make it temporarily even. The assumption, the hope, and the (arrogant?) expectation – by everyone with skin in the Cowboys’ running game – is that Zeke and his understudy will soon come (more successfully) into frame.
Which Came First?
“Cowboys Nation” lost its collective mind with Dak Prescott’s week one presentation. The myopic minority (?) has already anointed him the best quarterback walking the planet and stand ready to tell anyone with a reasonable rebuttal to can-it.
Forget all about Dak’s pending contract extension atonement and focus on how Dallas got here for just a moment. The Cowboys’ offensive play-calling used to be absolutely galling, the absolute worst, but those with reasonable awareness are logically asking “Which came first? Dak’s markedly improved ability and Kellen Moore’s play-calling agility?”
Prescott had previously explained – to practically anyone who would listen – that (as 2018 turned towards the playoffs) he was finally beginning to see the field better and targets were starting to glisten. This was while Scott Linehan was still the play-calling man. Thus, no matter how rigid and unforgiving the play-call, Dak was beginning to see more targets when they were even imperfectly open for the football. By Prescott’s acknowledgment of being able to more clearly see, “all he had to (eventually, increasingly, and successfully) do” was improve his sense of anticipation and willingness to throw the ball where he expected his targets to ultimately be. Prior to witnessing more of that personal growth, a premature (?) stop was applied to the Cowboys’ playoff push, and Linehan was asked to grow.
Fast forward to week-one postgame discussions, where “everyone” (from overcooked diehards to “show me again” curmudgeons) wants to know who is responsible (or what the ratio of responsibility is) for the Dallas offense’s expanded capabilities between the footballer and the play-caller. If cooler heads prevail, no one (on either side of the equation) will have to indulge in a tall production tale.
Jon Kitna has at least improved Dak’s footwork and (for at least one game) positively impacted his aerial mechanics to (indirectly) lessen the fans’ “He’s wide open!” panics. Kellen Moore (the other half of “2K: A New Way To Play”) has clearly (for at least one game) added significant misdirection wrinkles to what remains an old system, yet unless Dak was able to execute those wrinkles, the Cowboys’ offense would continue to be a vanilla victim. While Linehan's vanilla was replaced with Moore's Neapolitan, Prescott successfully scooped all three flavors like a Baskin Robins store captain.
While the league’s 16-game season may be too short for team owners in the NFL, it remains an Arthurian medieval marathon for both players and coaches seemingly cursed by a Morgana Le Fay attrition spell. Prescott – without a doubt – was game-one-fantastic, but he has (at least?) 15 more games this season in which to turn this production trick. 2K (Kellen and Kitna) – without a doubt – made an incredible offensive coaching impact, but they have (at least?) 15 more games this season in which to ensure Dak and the rest of his aerial attack remain untracked. Collaboration is the name of the game, Cowboys Nation. From game to game and opponent to opponent, such teamwork between Dallas’ players and coaches will not always be 50/50, but such an alliance remains a critical necessity.
Which came first? The improved player or the improved play-calling? For at least one game, the Cowboys can no longer be accused of stalling.
Will They Or Won’t They?
While Cowboys Nation might occasionally be more intrigued by uncommon, non-divisional, non-NFC opponents on Dallas’ schedule, the anticipation for their bread-and-butter rivalries miraculously keeps network television ratings full.
The Cowboys-Giants contest was the most-watched week-one game (with 23.9 million viewers to shew away all those “Dallas Sucks” poo-poo’ers). Love ‘em or (venomously) hate ‘em, NFL ratings without Dallas are simply not the same. Bears-Packers and Patriots-Steelers came in second by almost 2 million . . . each. Now, ain’t that a peach. But enough about ratings. Let us move onto another historical rivalry over which (and overconfident) Dallas has often received poor gradings.
“Dallas Week” is all over the Washington D.C. sports talk airwaves. “The Tortured Cowboys Fan” lived there for a few years, and passionate Redskins fans get so worked up, one might think the mere mention of “Dallas” would put them in their graves. Washington could (not-so-ironically) be missing significant pieces of its roster and – as much as their fans regularly and rightfully crap on owner Daniel Snyder – they would be fit to be tied if those players resembled a collective imposter rather than a desperate fighter.
The Redskins (easily as much or sometimes more than the Eagles or the Giants) find a way to control their organizational and player injury pains to make sure Dallas leaves “The District” covered in brutal stains.
Will an always-scrappy Washington defense bring Dak’s dynamic offense back down to Earth . . . or will Dak, his diva-free receivers, and Zeke begin a two-game winning streak by demonstrating more of 2K’s game plan girth?
While the Skins' defense is being forced to function without defensive end Jonathan Allen, tight end Jordan "Deadly When Healthy" Reed, and quite possibly cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar and Fabian Moreau, do Washington’s remaining warm bodies still have enough piss and vinegar in their veins to give Dallas a go?
Will future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson play like he has been fired out of a gun (after he was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career) . . . now that promising-but-injury-prone running back Derrius “Cold As” Guice has been put on (4-6 weeks of knee surgery recovery) ice?
Will Marinelli’s Men remember how they were taken down in D.C. last year by a similarly-undermanned Redskins’ squad? Between what was THEN an unreliable, one-dimensional offense and awful officiating on a special teams penalty that never should have been, OH MY GAWD!
Will journeyman QB Case Keenum (still without terrific offensive tackle Trent “Trade Me” Williams) be allowed to put up more gaudy numbers, or will he and his teammates be turned into offensive bumblers?
Will Dallas put on a point-scoring show for the second week in a row and “beat (more of) the teams you are supposed to beat” . . . or will Washington dig (emotionally) deep, and leave a stunned Cowboys team mumbling “in today’s NFL, it is so hard to compete?”
Will the Cowboys continue making big plays or citing empty clichés?
Will Dallas experience temporary prominence or sustained dominance?
We shall see. We always do.
Follow "The Tortured Cowboys Fan" on Twitter: @emscharf.com.