This past weekend, I – as if the irrefutably clever lyrical content of Carrie Underwood’s inarguable masterwork, “Sunday Night Football Theme,” sprang zealously from my own id – had, in fact, been waiting all day for Sunday night. I absolutely love when the Cowboys draw the Sunday Night Extravaganza™. There’s something about the build of anticipation over the course of the six-and-a-half-hour slate of football leading up that, by game time, resolves nicely into a heart-thumping fever of unchecked anxiety that I find both familiar and comforting. Had I been paying attention, the earlier undercard games might have portended potential dangers to come. Week 4 presented an absolute pick ’em league-devastating NFL day filled with inexplicable upsets and optic fiber-thin victories by but a few of the favored teams. Unlike the Patriots and the Chiefs – who managed to overcome their own insurgent underdogs – the Dallas Cowboys grievously fell to the gilded white-donning New Orleans Saints, a team that without a doubt has the most obnoxious fan chant in all of football. I’d sooner the Eagles win five straight Super Bowls than to hear “Who Dat?” ever again.
When predicting the Cowboys’ games during the preseason – by virtue of being played in perhaps the most difficult road stadium in the NFL and the assumption that Drew Brees would be under center – I had marked an “L” next to this one on the schedule, so in the cosmic view, it’s not really changed my feelings for the Cowboys’ potential this year. I still count them in the top two or three teams in the NFC, and it’s probable they’ll still hit their Week 8 bye with a 5-2, or even a 6-1, record.
What is disappointing is that many believed this game against the Saints to be the young season’s first real challenge, and the Cowboys just didn’t seem up to it. All the more frustrating is that the game was as ripe to bursting for the plucking. Despite being the highest paid backup QB in the league ($7.25M/year), Teddy Bridgewater is far from the type of signal-caller that is capable of carrying a team to victory on his own like the future HOFer he has replaced. Aside from boasting a top-three player at both running back and wide receiver in Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, there’s not much firepower in the Big Easy for a backup QB to rely on. As a result, the Dallas defense had their best game so far, allowing only 265 yards of offense, and were able to hold the Saints without a touchdown, giving up just four field goals.
Sadly, their highly vaunted offense, by way of costly penalties and heinous turnovers, picked an inopportune night to take off and managed just 10 points themselves. In many ways, it was a mirror image of the Cowboys’ 13-10 victory over these same Saints last season. Like the Cowboys before them, the Saints’ pass rush had Dak rattled, giving him little time to get comfortable and make good throws. And like in the prior matchup, costly turnovers denied a better road team the win.
Perhaps most distressing was the sudden regression in offensive scheme. For whatever reason, the Cowboys largely turned away from the shifty pre-snap motion and deceptive play action that had been so successful through the first three games of the season and instead settled for intermediate throws and stubbornly running Zeke Elliott into a wall up the middle time and again for one- and two-yard gains. It was as if the Scooby-Doo gang removed the mask of fresh OC phenom Kellen Moore to reveal the hubristic visage of Scott Linehan come to have his revenge on the unsuspecting Cowboys faithful.
I really can’t account for the sudden about-face. The talent was subpar, but the first three games proved a novel recipe for hitting offensive pay dirt this year has been based on throwing the ball down the field, which then helped to set up the run, not vice-versa. The vacuum left by vertical threat Michael Gallup (torn meniscus) is yawning, and no one seems able to fill it. With the injury bug taking another big bite – All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith suffered a high-ankle sprain – to keep the Saints game from becoming a trend, the depth on this team is going to have to step it up. More importantly, so will this coaching staff.