By Dwain Price
In their first game without quarterback Dak Prescott since he entered the NFL in 2016 as a wide-eyed rookie out of Mississippi State, the Dallas Cowboys looked very unimpressive and mostly uninspired.
Playing on the big Monday Night Football stage, the Cowboys staged their worst performance ever at home since AT&T Stadium opened in 2009 en route to getting embarrassed by the Arizona Cardinals, 38-10. The Cowboys turned the ball over four times, fell behind 21-0 in the second quarter and just never really had a meaningful pep in their step all night long.
The four turnovers led to 21 points by the Cardinals. That means the Cowboys -74 points off turnovers differential this season is the worst by any team in the NFL over the past 20 years.
“We’re the worst in the league taking care of the football,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re not taking it away, and we’re giving up more points than anybody in the league off of turnovers.
“It’s frustrating to see the pattern here — five of the six games this year. So we’ve got to continue to work at it.”
The Cowboys will continue working at it without Prescott, whose 2020 season ended prematurely when he suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle during last week’s win over the New York Giants. Andy Dalton was expected to be a capable backup to Prescott, but Dalton was just 34-of-54 for 266 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions against the Cardinals.
Dalton also was sacked three times as the Cowboys’ injured offensive line took a beating.
“We’re hurting ourselves with the turnovers and we’ve got to get this fixed,” Dalton said. “It’s been a trend this year, especially early in games, and that’s affected how we’ve been able to play.
“We haven’t been able to run our full offense and run it how it should be running just because we’re getting down in these games just because we are turning the ball over.”
A pair of first-half fumbles by running back Ezekiel Elliott exacerbated the situation and put the Cowboys back on their collective heels. Elliott’s fumbles – it’s the first he’s lost two fumbles in a game in the NFL – led to two Arizona touchdowns and a 14-0 lead for the Cardinals.
From there, it was all downhill for the Cowboys.
“I started the game off with two fumbles – gave the ball away,” Elliott said. “And that gave them all the momentum that they needed to go and take off.
“I want to say I’m sorry. This one’s on me and I need to be better for this team.”
The game turned out to be a triumphant homecoming for Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, who led Allen High School to three consecutive state championships in games played inside AT&T Stadium. Murray dazzled Monday’s crowd of 25,174 with his quickness and with his unique play-making abilities.
Murray completed 9-of-24 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns, and also ran 10 times for 74 yards and a touchdown. It was Murray’s 80-yard scoring strike to Christian Kirk that put Arizona up, 21-0, with 4:43 remaining before halftime, and it was his one-yard scamper around the left side that padded the Cardinals’ lead to 28-3 midway through the third quarter.
“We really need to get off the field on third down,” said linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who was playing for the first time since fracturing his collarbone on opening day against the Los Angeles Rams. “We had them in third-and-long for so many times.
“Just getting off the field on third down, I think that’s going to take a huge step on our defense. Just tightening up our coverage, don’t let anybody behind us. There’s not really any excuses for that.”
Vander Esch said it mattered not that the Cowboys’ offense has often put the defense in some very difficult spots with their bushel of turnovers.
“We’ve got to take pride in defense, and about going out there and having our offense’s back, regardless of what the situation is,” he said. “Whether they get good field position or they punt the ball down to the two-yard line, or whether they turn the ball over on the two-yard line on their end.
“We’ve got to have the mindset that we’re going to go out there – and we’ve got to take pride in that as a defense – that we’re going to go out there and we’re going to stop them no matter what. Everybody’s got to have that pride, that sense of urgency, that conviction that no matter where the ball’s at on the field we’re going to get the job done.”
The Cowboys were able to get the job done and secure their only touchdown with 2:48 remaining in the game when Dalton fired a one-yard pass to Amari Cooper to bring Dallas within 31-10 of the Cardinals. But while Arizona was simply trying to run the clock out, running back Kenyan Drake managed to gallop 69 yards off tackle for a touchdown a mere 23 seconds later.
It’s the fifth straight game the Cowboys have allowed at least 34 points.
“I felt like the preparation coming into the game was probably our best so far this year,” McCarthy said. “But obviously that doesn’t account for anything, particularly after a performance like (Monday).
“I have continued issues with ball security on my football team. It’s something I personally take a lot of pride in, and how it reflects why you play the game of football, and I’m not getting it done right now.”
With Prescott sidelined, Elliott was expected to step up and lead the way for the Cowboys. For that to happen, he knows he has to perform better than he did against the Cardinals.
“I’m supposed to be a guy this team can rely on, I’m supposed to be a guy that this team can lean on when times get rough, and I just wasn’t that (Monday),” Elliott said. “I got us started off to a terrible start.
“The defense was playing well, but I killed our momentum – two fumbles. I can’t do that. I can’t. It’s not acceptable, and I need to figure it out.”
Despite their transgressions, the Cowboys still lead the NFC East with a dismal 2-4 record going into Sunday’s 12-noon kickoff at Washington. It’s the first time a team with a losing record has led its division through Week 6 of the NFL season since 1970.
“I feel like we’re good mentally, but that’s not really for me to say,” Vander Esch said. “I don’t know how all of the other guys feel, really.
“I think the energy is good, I think we’ve had good energy every single week. We just got to clean stuff up and play one snap at a time, one week at a time. We’ve got to be 1-0 in the week that we’re playing. Nothing else matters.”