One-armed Knife Sharpener
- Apr 7, 2013
By Bob Sturm Nov 22, 2021
They had a real opportunity. The NFL had tuned in to see this Cowboys team everyone had been talking up. If they are what they are said to be, this will be a chance to make a real statement in a place where the world will take notice. Very few teams will go into a pulsating Arrowhead Stadium when the weather has turned and end the day on top. If this Dallas team — especially one without several significant pieces that will be returning soon — is able to go into and defeat the team everyone knows will most likely be still standing at the end of January, well, then the Cowboys will no longer be able to fly somewhere under the radar.
This could have been the Cowboys’ coming-out party in 2021. This could have elevated them as the new team to beat and the new regime clearly better than those that recently came before it. And yes, this could have been the day Dak Prescott could quiet his remaining critics and establish himself as an NFL MVP as he stood tall on the same field as the league’s current best player.
It sure didn’t go that way.
In a game where Dallas finished second in almost every regard and category on the field, it was a tough pill to swallow as they got demoralized and beaten by the Kansas City Chiefs, 19-9. In many ways, that score will be surprising to those expecting a shootout, but the margin should probably not be. Dallas lost by double-digits and for the most part, that felt about right.
The Cowboys had chances to make statements because they had chances to measure up against a team that hasn’t looked itself for a time this season. But, there should be no more mistakes made. Kansas City is a clear and obvious favorite to be the AFC’s Super Bowl representative yet again. The Chiefs have difference-making players in their primes on both sides of the ball. They made plays that made the difference Sunday, just like they do most every week.
Reports and rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated, as NFL developments often are at this time of the year. But, let’s be clear to anyone who isn’t convinced: Slumps in early October do not mean much to the true contenders in this league. They know that those slumps are but blips on the radar and given this isn’t college football, a 3-4 start can be corrected with a month of wins — as the Chiefs have put together. They know that they just have to get in the playoffs with their roster in one piece and they will fancy their chances against anybody, anywhere.
As you also know, this isn’t a Chiefs column, nor are you likely to be a Kansas City enthusiast.
This was about this version of the Dallas Cowboys walking into a foreign port and pushing the hosts around. The idea? That the Cowboys would be able to stand in the middle of the ring and exchange blows with the champs and smile the way they did in Tampa in Week 1. Win, lose or draw, that was about stepping into a hostile situation and not blinking. It was about sending the message that when we meet again, we will be ready to make one more play — even if we have to knock over some of your furniture to do it.
Unfortunately, this one did not feel like that one did. This one felt like there were 60 minutes of battles and skirmishes and while Dallas certainly was not humiliated, it was put in its place.
First on offense, Dallas could not pass protect to save its life. The Cowboys allowed five sacks — it felt like more. We know there was no Tyron Smith, which is a reality that the Cowboys are used to living in these days. He is so great at what he does that the risk of trying to find someone better who can start all the games, all the time, would be a search that would be difficult to pull off successfully. So, the Cowboys live in a world where they sort of expect a month without him along the way. But, without Smith, the idea of walking into a road stadium and not allowing your offensive line to be compromised gets tough, real fast. Then, through bad timing and luck, Dallas makes the switch at left guard from Connor Williams to Connor McGovern — probably because it believed Smith would be back for this game. Once he was not, the Cowboys probably decided to stick with their plan because of the morale factors involved for all parties, but Terence Steele next to McGovern would be a place on the white board that Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would be circling to attack (as would anyone in their right mind).
The problem, of course, wasn’t that the weak links were on Prescott’s left side, it was that the right side had significant problems, too. Zack Martin was beaten by Chris Jones for a sack and La’el Collins had way more problems than you would ever want from a guy counted on that much. Basically, the entire line struggled badly against the awesome Jones, Frank Clark and the rest of their buddies so much that the blitzing was mostly a supplement to the fact that their front was able to beat up Dallas’ front. Once that happens, the game becomes very difficult for the visitors.
How difficult? Since 2006, Dallas has allowed five sacks 18 times. It will not surprise anyone that the Cowboys are now 2-16 in those situations with one win in 2012 (home vs. Cleveland) and the other is the famous win over the unbeaten Saints in 2018 (also at home). The last time Dallas won a road game allowing that many sacks was 2005 when it won at Carolina with Drew Bledsoe being pretty well beaten up on Christmas Eve in Charlotte, but winning, 24-20.
Tony Pollard (Denny Medley / USA Today)
The Cowboys were not really close to breaking that streak Sunday. They will see decent production in the ground game, but almost all of it was on a gadget play where Tony Pollard broke off 31 yards. Otherwise, the game on the ground was 15 runs for 51 yards (3.4 ypc) and when you cannot do that and you cannot protect your QB for very long, then Prescott either made magic happen under duress or you had almost no offensive production to speak of.
The latter turned out to be the truth.
Prescott had a rough start to his game and the thing about these games is that sometimes if it takes you a while to get going and regain your normal composure, the train has already left the station and now you are running after it all day to just catch up. It becomes an exhausting battle because the stadium is loud, the players are a little rattled, the body starts to feel it and you feel like the entire field is up a hill.
We don’t know how hitting Michael Gallup on that first play where he is open down the sidelines might have changed the entire vibe, but it could have been significant to send a message to both sidelines and the stadium that the road team was ready right off the bus. But the throw was missed. Two plays later, Prescott placed a throw right on Noah Brown past the sticks (who is only playing because Amari Cooper is back in Dallas) and he didn’t catch a throw that he has to catch.
This would be a theme all day. It brought back thoughts of Denver a few weeks ago (aside from the loud stadium part). The Cowboys’ receivers look rattled by the physical play of the defensive backs, Prescott feels the pressure, and the passing game is thrown off its normal levels of comfort. Dallas is wasting series after series and Kansas City is jumping on the Cowboys defense for three series (two of which needed full, lengthy drives and the other was the beneficiary of Clark’s strip-sack of Prescott) and the Chiefs end their first three drives with a touchdown, field goal, touchdown sequence to go up 16-3 before the game had really settled in.
And honestly, that is sometimes all it takes. The damage is done, the stadium’s fire has been stoked, and now Dallas has to climb back into a game where it has already had its confidence and swagger taken. Any thoughts that they would mosey in and send a quick message that there would be a street fight for three hours felt feeble at that point.
There is no question that Dallas received positive efforts from members of the defense once it steadied the ship. Micah Parsons continues to demonstrate why he is the defensive MVP and his strip-sack put Dallas in a very strong spot as the first half was winding down.
Dallas had a nice call on for a screen to Ezekiel Elliott on the first play from the Chiefs’ 42, but the Cowboys didn’t get the safety blocked (and Elliott didn’t make him miss) and it only went for five yards (instead of 30-40). Then, a quick pass to Dalton Schultz and a slant to CeeDee Lamb nets a fresh set of downs, but this is where the Cowboys look so worried about leaving time for Patrick Mahomes that they don’t take a timeout.
Like it felt all day, the ticking clock, the blitzes, and the voices at Arrowhead all seemed to make Prescott hurry up when Dallas needed his calm, composed self. The Chiefs did not blitz on this first-and-10 from the 28 with 21 seconds left in the half, but Prescott determined very early that he was going to throw the go route to Lamb and try to make a play that could send Dallas into halftime only down by six points.
Was it the wind? Was it the day? Who knows, but the ball was under-thrown and in one instant, Chiefs corner (and former Cowboys camp body) Charvarius Ward not only takes the ball but then tumbles on top of Lamb that results in the star receiver’s head bouncing off the grass resulting in a concussion.
He was lost for the remainder of the game and joined Smith, Cooper, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory as top-10 members of the roster who would not be factoring into this fight.
Those are excuses, of course, but also reasons. Kansas City was without a piece or two (Lucas Niang at right tackle might have put up a better fight against Parsons), but the Chiefs have had most of their team intact during this period when Dallas hasn’t had its whole complement hardly at all. Of course, that is the sport.
Attrition is a huge part of this entire challenge and journey and there are a dozen teams that have a sob story to tell, but the games keep coming in short order. You need a little luck and the ability to play without them — which Dallas just did in its big win in Minnesota.
But, Sunday was a real chance for everyone to see this top offensive machine with its MVP QB and its sure-to-be head coach coordinating for now. Its steely Lombardi Trophy-winning current head coach with his experienced hand at the helm and its defense that has befuddled so many could take its turn dealing with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
The chance was not taken well enough. As we said, opportunities were presented, but the Cowboys finished second in too many battles to win. If Kansas City needed to score 30 points, it probably would have demonstrated more adventure in the second half, but it put the game in a meat grinder and properly did what was necessary to keep building confidence in this four-game win streak. Kansas City’s goal was to put the Cowboys in a trailing position and apply discomfort to see if they had the answers.
They did not.
Mike McCarthy, Kellen Moore, Dan Quinn, Prescott, Elliott and most all will leave with some lumps. You don’t need to spend much time on #CowboysTwitter or this comments section to see that most everyone this side of young Parsons will take some blame.
The good news is this team is in a great position and has lost three games with two of them on the road at the two Super Bowl teams from last February. In both cases, they fought valiantly and have a puncher’s chance to find a different outcome if they get their pieces together.
The bad news is that for now, doubts will remain. Dallas has a nice start to the season, but this isn’t the first time that it has built optimism only to see it disappear along with the warm weather.
They have 72 hours to drag what is left of this beaten-up team to deal with the Raiders. Short week and a response will be needed in a very big way.