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“Don’t panic.”

These immortal words grace the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the fictional space travel manual in Douglas Adams’ archetypal comedy sci-fi novel series of the same name. Not only is Adams’ masterwork mandatory reading for any would-be adolescent cool kid, but the deceptively simple first bit of counsel in The Guide is sage advice. Two little words with so much freedom in their meaning. Just saying them to yourself has an immediate calming effect. Suddenly the weight of whatever difficulty you may be faced with may be measurably lighter. 

The phrase was sure put to good use on Sunday. It was a perpetual refrain in my mind as the Dallas Cowboys put forth maybe their worst effort in any game that I can recall in several years, getting destroyed in a 42-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. 

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I make it a goal to maintain a certain base level of pragmatism in my Cowboys fandom. I try not to get too high on the successes or too low on the failures. But I’ve got to admit, this one has me more than a bit shaken. It’s only Week 2, but is my nose already detecting the musty whiff of the proverbial wolf at the door? Is it possible that this team is not as good as we thought they were?

The irony of that question is not lost on me. Just a week ago I wrote about the Cowboys absolute dominance over the Giants in their season opener. Dak didn’t have his best game going in the first half, but he pulled it together, and the Cowboys ultimately looked much like 2016 version 2.0 in a fairly easy win. Going into Sunday’s game, Vegas had Dallas favored by two and a half points. Not a small feat for a road team playing in a stadium that boasts one of the league’s few true home field advantages. Deafening crowds, the oxygen-starved mile-high air, it’s hard to win in Denver. 

I anticipated a fairly low scoring game, knowing well the Broncos stout defense — just two years removed from a Super Bowl — that commands a wrecking ball pass rush, backed up by a vice-grip secondary, but I was unsure of their offense. They have elite weapons at receiver in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and a shifty running back in CJ Anderson, but are quarterbacked by the forgettable Trevor Siemian. 

It would be a battle of strength on strength, I thought. The Cowboys’ top tier offense, led by newly (and likely temporarily) amnestied Ezekiel Elliott, against the Broncos’ league-best (?) defense. Based on last week’s lockdown of the Giants, I like the Dallas defense’s chances to hold Denver to a score just manageable to overcome, something like a 20-17 victory. 

Obviously, I was mistaken. 

Siemian looked like a normal-size-headed Peyton Manning materializing right out of a Nationwide commercial to lead his former team on a massacre of particularly slippery-footed Dallas defensive backs. I couldn’t keep track of the number of times a slight juke by a Denver wide out would send a Cowboys defender sprawling like a newborn baby deer. And Anderson churned off yards in chunks. They drove the length of the field and put points on the board by 7’s repeatedly.

The Dallas offense fared no better. Instead of being “fed,” Zeke was starved to death, left to pout in a dejected heap on the sideline. Receivers struggled for a sliver of separation, and the O-line seemingly couldn’t block a toddler with couch pillows for hands. 

Then there was Dak. For the second straight game, the now legendary poise and confidence that made a fourth-round project quarterback into rookie of the year was absent at game’s start. He looked panicked and wild eyed as he tried to audible at the line of scrimmage, doing his best to shout over the Denver crowd. He was forced to flee for his life from a screaming Denver pass rush all afternoon. When he had a chance to get rid of the ball before being dragged down to the turf, many of his passes were way off the mark. Unlike in the Giants game, he was never able to settle himself here. He did make a few positive plays — he threw touchdown passes to Dez Bryant and Jason Witten — but he also had two interceptions, one of them a pick-six, returned 103 yards by famed eye-poker Aqib Talib. 

And it’s Dak that has me the most worried. It’s only two games (really a game and a half), but so far this season he does not look like the same quarterback. The accuracy and sound decision-making that were his calling card last year have mysteriously been replaced by jumpy impulse and imprecision. In short, he looks like a fourth-round project quarterback. I’m doing my best not to dislocate my patella by knee-jerking, but it is concerning.

I’m certainly not ready to punch the Predator self-destruct wrist bomb on Dak or the season. It was a terrible game, but it still counts as only one loss. The Super Bowl favorite New England Patriots opened their season with a similarly underwhelming performance against the Kansas City Chiefs, and consequently the Cowboys share a 1-1 record with them. And Dallas sits (in a three-way tie) atop the NFC East. They could very well put a large portion of my fear to bed this week by handling their business against a reeling Cardinals team in Arizona on Monday Night Football.

Until then, I’ll continue to repeat it. “Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t …”

There are many pearls of wisdom to be found in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, including “the answer to life, the universe, and everything.” That answer, of course, is 42.

Coincidentally the exact number of points scored by the Broncos. 

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