DALLAS — The Cowboys offense produced 232 total yards Sunday in their 16-8 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Quarterback Dak Prescott completed 19-of-29 for 170 yards and running back Ezekiel Elliott rushed for just 69 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. It was not the type of performance anyone expected the two to have in game one.
One of the reasons some have cited for the poor performance was the lack of preseason snaps the Dallas first-team offense had together.
If the third game of preseason is the "dress rehearsal," fans patiently waited for the first-team offense the way the audience at the Palace Hotel Ballroom in The Blues Brothers waited on Joliet Jake and Elwood. The audience got Cab Calloway while the crowd at AT&T Stadium got Cooper Rush. The Blues Brothers did show up eventually while Cowboys fans are still waiting on the offense.
Is the lack of preseason snaps to blame? Hall-of-Fame Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman thinks so.
"I wasn't implying that it was isolated to Dallas," Aikman said on "The Musers" on 1310 The Ticket Tuesday when clarifying his comments during the NFL on FOX broadcast about a lack of preseason reps contributing to sloppy play. "That's across the league. All the games have been sloppy. And yet I think if you point to guys like Khalil Mack or Earl Thomas, defensive players, it's a whole different ballgame than if you're talking about quarterbacks and wide receivers. You just don't practice on the practice field and show up in a game and expect to be able to execute at a high level."
It is an interesting take, but consider that the Los Angeles Rams similarly did not dress their first team offense for the "dress rehearsal" versus the Houston Texans. Commanding boy genius Sean McVay's offense under center on that day was backup quarterback Sean Mannion. The only contact stud running back Todd Gurley had was slapping hands with Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins during pregame warm-ups.
Yet the Rams had no trouble putting away the Oakland Raiders Monday night 33-13. Starter Jared Goff completed 18-of-33 for 233 yards and two touchdowns, and Gurley broke the century mark rushing with 20 carries for 108 yards. The dearth of preseason snaps didn't appear to be a problem with the Rams.
Even if it were the problem, the philosophy of the Cowboys organization is such that they are willing to risk rustiness in Week 1 for availability throughout the rest of the year as opposed to having a key player suffer a big injury in an exhibition game.
"I think generally because of the way we're doing preseason, which is limiting contact throughout the league as a rule, limiting the number of practices throughout the league, practices that really create continuity, which is padded practices that have some contact in them with full team makeup, full rosters out on the field at the same time," owner, president, and general manager Jerry Jones said with "Shan & RJ" on 105.3 The Fan Tuesday.
"I think all of those things take its toll on preparation, on continuity, but I think it's made up for -- I really do -- think it's made up for availability," said Jones.
So if lack of preseason snaps isn't the problem, then what could it be?
"We were doing a good job of making mistakes and stopping the opportunity to run what we wanted to run," Jones said. "In other words, our mistakes dictated us having to really adjust what we might have been doing in going down the field. Now, that really is kind of a generic statement."
It is, but it isn't. The offense is built around being able to run the football, because it takes the defenders, puts them in the box to stop the run, and the passing lanes are opened up.
Dallas had a 10-yard penalty or a sack on their first four drives, which ultimately led to punting the ball away. Tony Romo isn't quarterbacking the offense anymore. When the Cowboys get behind the chains, it effectively kills the drive.
The Cowboys seemed to put it all together in their first drive of the second half. Starting from their own 8-yard line, Prescott found receiver Allen Hurns for 20 yards and had a 17-yard dash two plays later. Dallas had a first-and-10 at their 47-yard line, and just blew it when Prescott didn't connect with tight end Geoff Swaim on third-and-3 from the Panthers' 46.
If a drive like that is the first drive of the game for Dallas, score 0-0, no pressure, it would be somewhat of a confidence builder because of the way they moved the ball. Since there was added urgency down 8-0, it was emblematic of the offensive woes.
Dallas had another good drive on their next possession, the one that ended with kicker Brett Maher missing a 47-yard field goal. What made the drive good was Tavon Austin's punt return to the Dallas 45. The missed field goal aside, what killed the Cowboys drive was another 10-yard penalty that put the Cowboys behind the chains just outside the red zone, forcing them to settle for the chance at three points.
On the Cowboys' lone scoring drive, they stacked together an 11-play, 75-yard drive. Folks talked a lot before the game about what the identity of the team was heading into a post-Jason Witten and Dez Bryant Week 1. Sustained drives has always been their identity: run the football, melt clock. Dallas achieved those goals, and converted a key third-and-7 with Prescott using his legs to pick up nine yards. There were no penalties to overcome. There were no sacks. Dallas played fundamentally sound football and managed to put points on the board; they looked like themselves.
Said Jones: "I felt at any time I looked at particular match-ups out there when I watched the game. I looked for what we're doing. I didn't see Dak having any issues with what he was doing, what he was doing relative to looking downfield. I saw a behind-the-chains Dak and that can compromise any quarterback."
The final two drives of the game featured behind-the-chains Dak, and also everything that was terrible about the offense the previous series with penalties and sacks. The onus then was on Prescott to have to win the game with his arm. When that happens, the third-year field general gets easily exposed for his lack of near-Hall of Fame talent that fans have grown used to around these parts since 2006.
Not every defense is going to shut down the Cowboys run as the Panthers did, and the Cowboys won't have a majority of their drives marred with penalties and sacks this season. The offense may be outdated in today's scheme-em-up NFL, which kind of puts a ceiling on how far they can go with their current identity in the playoffs. But the offense is talented enough to win games and keep Dallas competitive.
Do you feel like the Cowboys will turn it around against the New York Giants in Week 2 or are they doomed to a repeat performance? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.