By Dwain Price
Forgive the Dallas Cowboys’ fans if they woke up the morning following the team’s season-opening 20-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams feeling like they’ve seen this movie before.
Too many times over the past several years the Cowboys fans vilified previous head coach Jason Garrett for questionable play-calling that they felt cost their favorite team a chance at pulling out a victory. Well, it happened again – this time with Mike McCarthy making his debut as the Cowboys’ head coach.
With the Cowboys facing a fourth-and-3 from the Rams’ 11 while trailing by three points with less than 12 minutes remaining in the game, McCarthy went for it on fourth down while passing up a shot at kicking a 28-yard field goal that would have tied the game. However, a completed pass from quarterback Dak Prescott to rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb fell one-yard shy of a first down, and the Rams used that defensive momentum to get the Cowboys’ season off on the wrong foot.
So why did McCarthy decide to pass up the chance to tie the game in favor of the risky chance of trying to get a first down?
“The conservative play there is to kick the field goal, but I just felt really good about how we were moving the football,” he said. “You’ve got to trust your players. I want our offensive guys to play wide open – we have that capability.
“I’ll pull back when I feel like it’s in the best interest of the team. I clearly recognized it was a three-point game and we still had a lot of time left. I just felt that it would have been a huge momentum play for us.”
Prescott, who was 25-of-39 for 266 yards and a touchdown, had no qualms about McCarthy putting faith in his team to possibly keep the drive alive with a first down.
“I love the aggressiveness,” Prescott said. “I think that was a point in the game that when we get that first down and we’re able to punch it in the end zone, we’re looking at a whole different ballgame. I think it was a momentum chance. I love the play-call. We just weren’t able to get it.
“Our coach is going to put it in our hands, he expects us to go make those plays, he trusts us to do that. He’s going to call the game aggressive and you’ve got to appreciate that. I know I do as a quarterback and I’m pretty sure the rest of the guys do as an offense. So as a said, it’s up to us to execute better right there and to make sure that play is a first down and we get the momentum going and we try to capitalize and do exactly what coach had in mind there.”
That controversial decision by McCarthy notwithstanding, the Cowboys had one last chance to either force an overtime, or perhaps get out of the Rams’ brand new $5 billion SoFi Stadium with a victory. But a 47-yard pass from Prescott to Michael Gallup that carried to the Rams’ 16-yard line with less than a minute remaining in the game was nullified when Gallup was flagged for offensive pass interference after the referees claimed that he pushed cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
“Just watching it live, it looked like two guys hand-fighting,” McCarthy said. “I thought it was well-executed. I was surprised there was a call there either way.
“We’re very obviously disappointed in the call, particularly at that point in the game. I thought they let both teams play (Sunday), and you just don’t usually see that, particularly in a critical point in the game.”
The loss continued a worrisome trend by the Cowboys, who were 1-6 in one-possession games last season. That was the second-worst record in the NFL in that scenario.
In a game that was played with no fans in the stands due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Cowboys quickly fell behind 7-0 before a 19-yard scoring strike from Prescott to running back Ezekiel Elliott tied the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter.
Elliott also had a one-yard TD burst with 17 seconds left in the second quarter that put the Cowboys ahead, 14-13, at halftime. Thus, he became the first player in the Cowboys’ 61-yard history to have both a rushing and receiving touchdown in the franchise’s season opener.
Overall, Elliott rushed 22 times for 96 yards and had three receptions for 31 yards, and Amari Copper caught 10 passes for 81 yards. Meanwhile, quarterback Jared Goff and the Rams’ offensive attack bludgeoned the Cowboys’ defense for 422 yards, and were a very efficient 9-of-17 on third down plays.
By contrast, the Cowboys were just 3-of-12 on third down plays and collected 380 total yards.
“I thought we started a little sluggish at the beginning of the game defensively with a couple of pre-snap penalties,” McCarthy said. “We knew coming in here they do an excellent job, are well experienced with playing cadence football and certainly particularly situational cadence football. So we definitely need to improve from that.”
In addition to the loss, the Cowboys also lost linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and tight end Blake Jarwin to injuries. Vander Esch will have surgery to repair a fractured clavicle, while Jarwin suffered a knee injury on a non-contact play.
“It’s tough to see guys, particularly some of your key guys, get hurt starting the season that way,” McCarthy said. “But we’ll obviously rebound from that.”