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Patrick’s POV: Injury bug bites Dallas Cowboys during Week 1 loss in Los Angeles

In the season’s first week, the Dallas Cowboys saw starters Blake Jarwin and Leighton Vander Esch go down with injuries that could prove costly.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys tight end Blake Jarwin (89) catches during NFL football practice in Frisco, Texas, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys didn’t start off the 2020 NFL season in the manner in which they had hoped. With a new coaching staff led by new head coach Mike McCarthy, and an upgraded roster, the Cowboys were expected to come out of the gate and show why this was the year to believe that they are finally contenders for more than just a possible playoff berth.

Instead, Dallas was felled 20-17 by the Los Angeles Rams in a game where too much went wrong and not enough went right for the Cowboys. Worse yet, Dallas also succumbed to some injuries that could impact the team’s ability to rebound going forward.

Now that there has been time to digest the season opener, there are ample areas for improvement. First up, the pass protection wasn’t the same caliber as in year’s past. The retirement of Travis Frederick will continue to make the offensive line a work in progress, it appears.

While Joe Looney is more than adequate as a starter at the position, there is a drop-off in talent. That is what happens when you go from a former first-round draft selection and All-Pro center to a former fourth-round selection who was signed to provide depth. The majority of Looney’s starting experience came in 2018 when Frederick missed the entire year.

But Looney is fine compared to the biggest question, which comes on the right side of the offensive line at right tackle. In a last-minute decision, an undrafted free agent rookie from Texas Tech was named starter.

Terence Steele’s debut didn’t start out terribly but, as the game went on and the pass rush got dialed up, the inexperience started showing up in his game. Once the game got into the latter part of the contest, the Cowboys were stuck playing Steele with an injury to expected starter Cameron Erving on special teams. Dallas now needs to spend the next several days figuring out who will give them the best chance to win at RT while La’el Collins recovers.

While the Erving absence exposed a depth weakness for Dallas, it wasn’t the biggest injury of the night for the Cowboys. Fans have been waiting for Blake Jarwin to get his moment to shine and for the tight end position to be modernized. After Jason Witten’s Hall of Fame career ended in Dallas, Jarwin was handed the job and was expected to do big things.

Jarwin even signed a three-year deal to be the new weapon in the middle of the field for Kellen Moore’s offense. That lasted all of one quarter or so into the 2020 season as Jarwin left the game during Dallas’ third offensive drive. 

Now that it has been confirmed that Jarwin tore his ACL and will miss the remainder of the year, it’s back to the drawing board at the position.

As far as the depth chart at tight end behind Jarwin goes, Blake Bell is more of the blocker and Dalton Schultz will likely take Jarwin's snaps. Indeed, it was Schultz that was called upon on Sunday when Jarwin went down.

The big issue for Schultz is that he hasn’t shown the consistency to catch the football. He was targeted four times and only came away with one catch. The others clanged off his hands. Undrafted rookie Sean McKeon will likely be activated and he will take over as the third tight end. The Cowboys could look to go with a “light end” with wideout Noah Brown playing closer to the line or they could opt for more sets with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard being targeted out of the back field.

Jarwin wasn’t the final jolting loss on Sunday, either. Dallas also lost starting middle linebacker Leighton Vander Esch once again. After missing out on much of the second half of last season with a neck issue that required surgery, Vander Esch now has a broken collarbone that will cause him to miss 6 to 8 weeks.

The Cowboys were counting on Vander Esch to restabilize the middle of the defense in his third season. A Pro Bowl performer in his rookie season, Vander Esh was expected to be the quarterback of the defense while setting the tone and calling the plays. Now Dallas will need to figure out a linebacker situation that has quickly turned dire.

Sean Lee is already on the injured reserve list and Luke Gifford has had his own injury concerns as well. Jaylon Smith didn’t look his best in coverage and now they need a middle linebacker for a good chunk of the season. If the Cowboys can’t find one on the open market, it might be time to start looking around the league for some depth in a trade.

However the Cowboys ultimately handle the loss of these two starters, the reality is that the depth of the team is already being tested. Dallas won’t have much time to figure things out as they will be back on the field taking on the Atlanta Falcons in the home opener Sunday.

Do you think the Dallas Cowboys will be able to weather the injuries and bounce back in Week 2? Share your thoughts with Patrick on Twitter @PatSportsGuy.