The Dallas Cowboys, even with their record below .500, took their shot at the NFC East title when they traded a first-round draft pick to the Oakland Raiders for wide receiver Amari Cooper. It seemed to make sense. The Cowboys desperately needed a No. 1 wideout, and the division race was wide open, with the first-place Washington Redskins looking less than overpowering and the Philadelphia Eagles sorting through issues.
But it doesn’t matter how wide open the division race is if you’re not winning.
Cooper made his debut for the Cowboys in Monday night’s game at home against the Tennessee Titans. He had some decent moments, giving the Cowboys an early lead with a first-quarter touchdown catch. But it wasn’t enough. Not even close. The Dallas offense continued to sputter badly. And the Cowboys reached the midway point of their season in a desperate state after losing to the Titans, 28-14.
“Really disappointing,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters after the game. “We certainly didn’t see this coming.”
The Cowboys (3-5) are two games behind the Redskins and a game in back of the Eagles. That’s not so daunting.
But the Cowboys aren’t playing well, as their record suggests. They’ve lost two straight and three of four games. They fell to the Redskins at FedEx Field just before their bye week, and just before completing the Cooper trade. With the bye week to rest and prepare, with time to work Cooper into the offense, they delivered a clunker Monday.
“It’s really not good enough,” Coach Jason Garrett said at his postgame news conference. “We had some early opportunities that we didn’t cash in on…. Ultimately they did more to win the game than we did.”
The biggest issues are on offense. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns, the four-yarder to Cooper in the first quarter and a 23-yarder to wide receiver Allen Hurns in the final minute of the first half that tied the game at 14. Prescott also had two costly turnovers, throwing a first-quarter interception in the end zone when the Cowboys could have added to their lead and losing a third-quarter fumble that led to Tennessee’s go-ahead touchdown.
Prescott has become a turnover-prone quarterback, which was not the case during his superb rookie season in 2016 when he and tailback Ezekiel Elliott led the Cowboys to the top seed in the NFC playoffs. But Prescott, Elliott and the Cowboys have not recaptured that magic from their rookie year, when their postseason ended with a loss at home to the Green Bay Packers but the future nevertheless seemed so promising.
Last season came undone when Elliott missed six games while serving his suspension under the NFL’s personal conduct policy, delayed for half the season as he and the NFL Players Association fought the penalty in court. This year, the Cowboys figured having Elliott back in the lineup for a full season would lead to success. It hasn’t. Tight end Jason Witten retired to ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth. The Cowboys cut ties with wide receiver Dez Bryant. Prescott has not been able to get the passing game revved up.
The Cowboys failed to generate much of a running game Monday, as Elliott was limited to 61 rushing yards on 17 carries. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan fell into his familiar patterns. The Cowboys would run the ball on first down and not gain many yards. From there, Prescott would face pass-rush pressure by the Titans. The results weren’t good.
The Cowboys were shut out in the second half. Cooper finished with five catches for 58 yards. It wasn’t a bad debut. But the Cowboys will need more for giving up a first-round draft choice to seem justified.
The Dallas defense has been good this season, and it benefited Monday from two early turnovers by the Titans. But Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota settled down from there and played pretty well, running for a touchdown and throwing for two others. Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee limped off the field with a hamstring injury. The Titans became the first team to score more than 24 points against the Cowboys this season.
The speculation undoubtedly will increase that the Cowboys are about to fire Garrett or Linehan, or both. But that type of talk is common, and it hasn’t happened yet. Jones told reporters Monday night that he would not consider an in-season coaching change. Jones has been extremely patient with Garrett, with some within the league speculating it’s because Garrett allows Jones to have so much say into how the team operates on the field.
The Cowboys play at Philadelphia on Sunday night. That begins a five-game stretch in which they face the Atlanta Falcons on the road, then have three straight home games against the Redskins (on Thanksgiving), the New Orleans Saints and the Eagles. By the time that stretch ends, the Cowboys could be back in contention in the NFC East.
Or the competitive portion of their season could be done, and all that would be left would be contemplating the futures in Dallas of Garrett and Prescott and wondering why the Cowboys traded away their first-round draft choice on what they should have suspected was a lost cause.
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