In what turned out to be a tough night for the Cowboys, the reigning NFC East champs opened the season with a 19-3 loss at home to Tampa Bay.
Along with the loss on the scoreboard, the Cowboys were bit by the injury bug at some key positions, losing two quarterbacks in the loss.
For head coach Mike McCarthy, the injury is just something every team deals with.
“It’s football, it really is,” McCarthy said. “I’ve lost my starting quarterback before. It’s unfortunate. … Like anything, injuries are part of it. Dak is our quarterback. He is one of our top leaders and our franchise quarterback. But it is week one and speaking to him … he will still be a part of it. But yeah, it is part of the challenge.”
Originally thought to be a six-to-eight-week timetable for a return, it is now believed that Prescott could be back in as little as four weeks.
Until then, the Cowboys turn the job over the Cooper Rush. And the hope is that his familiarity with the offense makes it an easy adjustment.
“Certainly, Dak and Cooper are different players, and like any two players, they are going to have different strengths and weaknesses,” said Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. “We have played with Coop. He has been around here for a long time. He certainly knows the system well. So, hopefully, the transition can go as smoothly as possible.”
Rush, who finished Sunday’s game under center, has made one start in his Cowboys career. That came last season in Minnesota, where the Central Michigan grad completed 24 of 40 passes for 325 yards and a 20-16 win.
“That’s the job of the backup,” Rush said. “You have to go in; you have to make things click as if (Dak) was in there. I will draw on my experience from last year.”
Before Prescott went down, the Cowboys lost their quarterback of the defense when safety Jayron Kearse went out with a leg injury with just under five minutes to go in the third quarter.
Kearse, who makes all the calls for the defense, pulled up lame while trying to chase down Bucs running back Leonard Fournette on a short gain.
So, who will step in for Kearse?
“It won’t be with one man, that is for sure,” said Quinn, about who will take over at strong safety.
The Cowboys will have to turn to multiple players to replace all Kearse does for the defense. That means Israel Mukuamu and Markquese Bell will join starters Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson in splitting up Kearse’s duties on the defense’s back end.
“I’m certain we will miss JK, and I am certain that we will miss Dak,” Quinn said. “Their impact goes beyond just what they are as a ball player. They are leaders to other guys. But also, both of them are gonna be back.”
The Cowboys will also be without left guard Connor McGovern, who was injured on the game’s first drive.
Penalties, good and bad
The Cowboys were penalized 10 times for 73 yards in the loss to Tampa Bay.
Four of those penalties came before the snap on offense, including three false starts on right tackle Terrence Steele.
“The pre-snap penalties, we definitely need to get rid of those,” McCarthy said. “There is just no place for them.”
Steele was making his first start as the primary right tackle, joined left tackle Tyler Smith and left guards Connor McGovern and Matt Farniok on the revamped offensive line. They joined veteran right guard Zack Martin and center Tyler Biadasz in what has become one of the more suspect lines in the NFL.
“It is a very frustrating and disappointing aspect of ours,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore added. “We had four pre-snaps that were all under our control. … All the pre-snap, all the silly stuff, we can’t have any of that. We are talking about it. We have to hold ourselves accountable. If people can’t figure it out, we have to find guys who can.”
While the offense saw plenty of yellow flags, the defense was not penalized despite playing tight coverage and an aggressive style.
“I know some combative (penalties) will happen from time to time, but what I was pleased about was the poise and no pre-snap (penalties),” Quinn said. “We knew how much we needed to create takeoff and get off the ball to affect the quarterback. So, having that kind of discipline, that was a real factor.”
The Cowboys’ offense never really got on track Sunday night, putting together just one scoring drive in the loss to Tampa Bay.
Most of those drive-stalling problems can be attributed to the team’s success on third down.
“The biggest challenge was when we didn’t convert third downs,” said head coach Mike McCarthy. “I’ve done the same thing. You get done with the game, and you look at the statistics, the numbers, and runs verse passes, all those things. The biggest negative for us was third down. It is hard to get 30 rushes in a game when you are just 25% converting on third down.
“We had some excellent third down conversions on some longer distances, but from a down and distance challenge, the ones we didn’t hit were definitely there.”
That opening drive, consisting of 14 plays, saw the Cowboys convert on two of three third-down situations. The offense would convert on just one more third down and two fourth downs on the final nine drives of the game.
But offensive coordinator Kellen Moore wasn’t as concerned as McCarthy.
“It was really a unique situation there,” Moore said. “All of our conversions were really long ones, and we missed … what you would view as the third and manageables. The long yard ones, if you can steal a couple of those once in a while, that is awesome. But we just have to do a better job of executing.”
McCarthy in wrong company
With the loss on Sunday night, head coach Mike McCarthy has lost three straight season openers to begin his tenure with the Cowboys.
“Let’s be clear, I am disappointed we lost the game,” McCarthy said. “I am disappointed that we didn’t go out and take advantage of an incredible home crowd. The whole evening was set up for what you look forward to when you start off your season. But this is not about a position. I have to do a better job. We have to be better.”
McCarthy, who lost to the Rams to open the season in 2021 and to the Buccaneers in 2021 and 2022, joins Dave Campo as the only other coach in team history to lose his first three season openers.
From 2000 to 2002, Campo’s Cowboys lost season openers to Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Houston.
The Cowboys quarterback room will stay at three, with just Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, and Will Grier, for the time being.
Prescott’s injury means there will be just two healthy QBs on the roster when the Cowboys hit the field on Sunday afternoon to take on the Cincinnati Bengals.
Rush elevates to the starter, while Grier will be the primary backup.
“When you are in those back-up QB rolls, and you get elevated up level, so to speak, you are gonna get more opportunities, so you have to be prepared,” Moore said. “Fortunately, this is coming into the second year for Will in the system at this place. We do have a comfort level in that and hopefully, he can continue to grow as well.”
Despite saying they are ready to roll with Rush and Grier, there are options on the open market for the Cowboys with veterans like Cam Newton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Colin Kaepernick.
But, while owner and general manager Jerry Jones continue to look at all options, the coaches are preparing Rush to start.
“First and foremost, we have to get Coop ready,” Moore said. “That’s the priority and the focus.”