By Dwain Price, NDG Sports Special Contributor
Even with a night to sleep on it, it still was difficult for Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett to tell if all the commotion surrounding the national anthem protests played a role in his team’s poor start Monday night against the Arizona Cardinals.
In response to negative comments made last Friday by President Donald Trump about National Football League players who protest and don’t stand while the national anthem is played, the Cowboys locked arms with each other and knelt down on the sidelines prior to the singing of the national anthem of Monday’s game. Then they promptly stood up – arms still locked – while the national anthem was sung.
From there, the Cowboys looked terribly discombobulated before finally finding their way and regrouping in time to struggle to a hard-fought 28-17 road victory over the Cardinals.
Garrett said at the outset of the game his players didn’t seem distracted by the national anthem flap.
“But again, you have to go out there and play,” Garrett said. “And (the Cards) did a good job moving the football, making the plays they needed to early on in the game to sustain drives, and we did not.
“But I really thought our team did a good job just staying dialed in, staying locked in, putting the previous plays behind them and just focused on what we needed to do to get it going offensively and make some stops defensively. And also, the momentum of the game shifted in the second quarter and we started playing the kind of football we wanted to play.”
An 8-yard touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott with 4:57 remaining in the game put the Cowboys up by 11 and sealed things. However, before the game flipped in the Cowboys’ favor, they looked like the same team that was destroyed last week in Denver when they were ambushed by the Broncos, 42-17.
By the end of the first quarter against Arizona, the Cowboys ran just plays for three yards and had the ball for only one minute and 54 seconds. By contrast, the Cards had accumulated 140 yards on 21 plays and possessed the ball for 13 minutes and six seconds.
Despite all of this, Arizona only took a 7-0 lead into the second quarter. In the meantime, the game turned for the Cowboys in the second quarter when the Cards first had a TD nullified by a holding penalty, then Phil Dawson missed a 36-yard field goal.
“We talk a lot about momentum, but momentum is earned and you earn your momentum by executing,” Garrett said. “When they’re executing, the way you stop their momentum is you execute and do your job.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott tied the game at 7-7 late in the second quarter when he took a read-option for 10 yards and flipped into the end zone. Prescott also tossed a 15-yard TD to Dez Bryant and a 37-yarder to Brice Butler while finishing the night with 13 completions in 18 attempts for 183 yards.
Garrett praised the patience Prescott exhibited as the Cowboys ran their record to 2-1.
“It’s challenging because in a game like that when (the Cards) have the ball in that initial drive and go right down and score, and you come out and you have a three-and-out and they go again and they have another long drive,” Garrett said. “You look up at the clock and you say, ‘Wait, we’re into the second quarter, we’re midway through the second quarter, we’ve run six plays?’
“As a quarterback sometimes you start getting a little anxious, you start getting a little excited. But I thought our defense did a good job — even though (Arizona) had some success moving the ball — making a critical stop, forcing them to kick a field goal on that second drive. Fortunately, (Dawson) missed the field goal, and getting a stop on the third drive and that gave us a chance offensively to get going.“
Spearheaded by defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys sacked Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer six times. Lawrence picked up three of those sacks and joined Mark Gastineau (1984) and Kevin Greene (1998) as the only players in NFL history with at least two sacks in each of the first three games of a season.
“He’s been battling through things the last couple years and he feels better now,” Garrett said of Lawrence. “He’s certainly getting off the football and he’s playing with a relentless spirit and it’s showing up in his production and that production is contagious.
“He did a good job as that game went on (Monday) night getting around the quarterback and affecting him and certainly sacking him.”
Meanwhile, Elliott bounced back from the worst game of his career by rushing for 80 yards on 22 carries. That came one game after Elliott’s disastrous performance against Denver when he totaled just eight yards rushing on nine carries.
Elliott, of course, is getting used to a newly configured offensive line that has Chaz Green making just his third start at guard and La’el Collins making only his third start at tackle.
“I think you’re always striving to work together to get more comfortable together,” Garrett said. “He just needs to run the plays — everybody just needs to do their job.
“But there’s no question there’s a familiarity and a continuity to the group up front, those guys together. And also how that group fits with the runner behind them and just how they see things together. You improve by experience and the best experience is game experience.”
Of course, the big mystery entering Monday’s game was what type of display – if any – the Cowboys would make in regards to last Friday’s disparaging remarks by President Trump. And the Cowboys were emphatic with their decision, with owner Jerry Jones and Garrett kneeling down and locking arms with their players.
“The reason that I’m particularly proud of this team and the coaches that coached them is because we all agreed that our players wanted to make a statement about unity and we wanted to make a statement about equality,” Jones said. “They were very much aware that that statement, when made or when attempted to be made, in and a part of the recognition of our flag, can not only lead to criticism but also controversy.”
Elliott noted that the goal was to strike a chord of togetherness and free speech.
“We just wanted to show unity,” Elliott said. “We don’t agree at all what the president said, and we just wanted to show that we weren’t going to be divided by that.’’
After that message was sent by the Cowboys, they struck the right chords and methodically put away the Cardinals. However, afterwards, the national anthem protest was still on their minds.
“It was a team thing,” Bryant said. “I feel like that’s the true definition of unity, and Trump can’t divide this.”