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NFL reset: Team rankings, the Cowboys’ woes and the Broncos’ gaffe

Cooper Rush is the Cowboys’ quarterback by necessity, with Dak Prescott injured. (Michael Ainsworth/AP)
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The prospects for quarterback Dak Prescott to make a relatively quick return improved Tuesday. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a radio interview that Prescott could play within the team’s next four games.

But don’t get carried away with too much optimism. The Cowboys now must try to get by with Cooper Rush and Will Grier as their quarterback options, and the grim reality remains that it took less than one full game for their circumstances to become dire.

Prescott underwent surgery Monday on his right thumb, which he injured late in Sunday night’s 19-3 season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jones said Tuesday during his weekly appearance on 105.3 The Fan that the Cowboys won’t place Prescott on the injured reserve list, which would require the two-time Pro Bowler to miss at least four games.

The initial estimates were that Prescott could be sidelined as long as eight weeks. But Jones said Tuesday that Prescott “has a real chance to be back out there throwing the ball pretty quick.” He added: “That’s not being an optimist. The proof is that we got a good surgery, got good technique and feel better about it than we did Sunday night.”

Rush is in line to make his second NFL start this Sunday when the Cowboys host the Cincinnati Bengals at AT&T Stadium. There was some speculation that Dallas could try to trade for San Francisco 49ers backup Jimmy Garoppolo, but the 49ers might not be particularly motivated to part with Garoppolo, given the struggles of new starter Trey Lance in Sunday’s loss to the Chicago Bears. Garoppolo has a no-trade clause in his contract and thus would have to approve any deal, meaning he’d have to believe being in Dallas would benefit him heading into free agency next spring.

Jones said the Cowboys had no potential trade “in the mill,” adding: “It’s unlikely that you’d have a veteran quarterback that could get back in here and be ready to play as well as [Rush and Grier] can play, even if you thought you might have a talent advantage.”

But the fact remains that the Cowboys sputtered on offense in the opener even before Prescott got hurt. Their offensive line is without one of its mainstays, injured left tackle Tyron Smith. The team’s wide receivers were ineffective against the Buccaneers.

If the Cowboys are going to get by, they’ll have to lean on their running game with tailbacks Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard and a defense led by second-year pass rusher Micah Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs.

“It can be looking very dark … for you,” Jones said. “And then it can reverse on you in an instant. It can go positive in an instant. We’ve got a lot of really top football players, and we’ve got an outstanding group that’s coaching them up, in my view.”

The Cowboys are trying to become the first team to repeat as the NFC East champ since the Philadelphia Eagles won four straight titles between 2001 and 2004. This already was regarded as a produce-or-else season — requiring playoff success — for Coach Mike McCarthy, with Sean Payton available as a coaching free agent after he stepped aside in New Orleans following last season. The obstacles suddenly have become even more formidable in McCarthy’s third season with the Cowboys.

“We have to play better,” Jones said. “We had a better training camp than that [Sunday’s loss] showed, in my mind.”

Top five teams

1. Bills
They were dominant in the opening-night victory over the Rams and have an extra-long prep time for Monday night’s meeting with the Titans.
2. Chiefs
Tyreek Hill wasn’t missed as the offense clicked against the Cardinals.
3. Buccaneers
Tom Brady was decent in the triumph over the Cowboys. Nothing great. The defense led the way.
4. Chargers
The Chargers have arrived. They dismissed the Raiders in the opener and have a big opportunity Thursday night in Kansas City.
5. Eagles
They are a solid favorite now in the NFC East, with the Cowboys’ woes.

Hackett’s end-of-game gaffe

The blunder Denver Broncos Coach Nathaniel Hackett committed Monday night obscured a productive opening weekend for the NFL’s 10 new head coaches, who had a Week 1 record of 6-3-1.

That included victories by the Buccaneers’ Todd Bowles, the Saints’ Dennis Allen, the Bears’ Matt Eberflus, the Miami Dolphins’ Mike McDaniel, the New York Giants’ Brian Daboll and the Minnesota Vikings’ Kevin O’Connell, along with a tie by the Houston Texans’ Lovie Smith. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Doug Pederson and the Las Vegas Raiders’ Josh McDaniels joined Hackett in losing their season openers.

Hackett might have been on the winning side if not for his gaffe in the final minute of the Broncos’ 17-16 defeat. In quarterback Russell Wilson’s return to Seattle, Hackett allowed the clock to run down and went to kicker Brandon McManus for a failed 64-yard field goal attempt, rather than using a timeout and entrusting Wilson with a fourth-and-five attempt from the Seattle 46-yard line.

There was virtually no defense for Hackett’s decision. Traditional coaching common sense said to show trust in the new franchise quarterback. Analytics also dictated leaving Wilson and the offense on the field on fourth down would’ve been the correct choice.

Next Gen Stats estimated McManus had a 14.2 percent chance to make the field goal, and the Broncos had a 42.1 percent chance to convert on fourth and five. A conversion even with only 20 seconds remaining and two timeouts left would have given Denver a 66.2 percent chance of scoring three or more points.

Hackett acknowledged his mistake Tuesday, saying at a news conference: “Looking back at it, we definitely should have gone for it.”

Bottom five teams

28. Falcons
They made things interesting against the Saints. But they’re still the Falcons.
29. Panthers
That’s eight straight losses, dating back to last season. How much more patience will David Tepper have with Matt Rhule?
30. Lions
They made things interesting against the Eagles. But they’re still the Lions.
31. Jets
Robert Saleh said he’s “taking receipts” of those who mock the Jets. That is going to be a full-time job itself and a really, really tall stack of receipts.
32. Jaguars
They made things interesting against the Commanders. But they’re still the Jaguars.

Amazon’s Thursday nights

The NFL begins its streaming-only gamble of Thursday night games this week. Amazon Prime will carry the Chargers-Chiefs game.

The league is the unrivaled king of television viewership. During the 2021 regular season, NFL games ranked as the top 16, 48 of the top 50 and 91 of the top 100 most-viewed telecasts on TV. That was reflected in the league’s most recent broadcasting deals, worth more than $110 billion in rights fees over 11 years.

But the NFL and team owners also decided as part of those deals to give Amazon the exclusive national rights to carry the Thursday night games. They are willing to endure any short-term pain from a potential drop in viewership this season for what they think will be the long-term gain of tapping into the content-consumption habits of younger fans.

Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief media and business officer, was asked at the annual league meeting last spring what level of viewership this season on Amazon would constitute a success.

“I don’t think we have a number,” Rolapp said then. “We’re averaging 15 [or] 16 million, now, I think, on ‘Thursday Night Football.’ But we also know that the league has been here before … when a package was created, I think in the late ’80s, for ESPN. I don’t know where pay TV was [then]. It was probably in half the households in this country. There was clearly a drop-off in that viewership. We may see that. If you ask the Amazon folks, their goal is not to have a drop-off. I don’t know where we’ll end up. But we understand that.

“I’m less worried about the reach of Amazon Prime. I’m more worried about how many of our fans actually know that that’s where ‘Thursday Night Football’ is. I think it’s an awareness issue more than a reach issue. But I know Amazon is hard at work, trying to figure out how to do that. I think the reason we picked them is because of the broad reach of Prime platforms. … Their ability to reach people, I think, is as good as we’ve seen in anybody in digital.”

The games also will be televised in the local markets of the teams involved. Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.