One game does not make a season, but that has not stopped some observers and analysts from hitting the panic button after watching the Cowboys' 19-3 loss to the Buccaneers. While it was certainly a disappointing start to a season that has so much promise, it is important to view an NFL season as a marathon that requires stamina, endurance, and a flexible plan.
After taking some time to review the Cowboys' season opener, here are some thoughts on the team's performance and their immediate future…
Cooper Rush, you're up!
Coaches frequently stand in front of the team and emphasize the "next man up" philosophy, but few team leaders believe in the talents of the backup quarterback unless he has a proven track record in _real _games.
Rush has shown his teammates that he is more than capable of winning games as a starting quarterback in the league. Last season, he led the Cowboys to a 20-16 win over the Vikings while completing 24 of 40 passes for 325 yards with a pair of scores and an interception. The fifth-year pro dazzled in the win with completions to eight different receivers with Amari Cooper (eight catches, 122 yards, and a score) and CeeDee Lamb (six catches, 112 yards) topping the 100-yard mark.
The strong outing should encourage his teammates to believe in his ability to lead the team to a win if everyone picks up their games. The supporting cast must play at a high level while executing a game plan that plays to Rush's strengths as a player. With clever scheming and better performance from the wideouts and running backs, the veteran backup can certainly lead his team to win. He simply needs his supporting cast to prop him up to get it done.
Where are the playmakers?
When the Cowboys elected to trade away Amari Cooper and promote CeeDee Lamb to the No.1 role, the football world openly questioned whether the team had enough talent to remove an all-star and still flourish as an offensive juggernaut. Although the four-time Pro Bowler frustrated fans and observers with inconsistent production, Cooper posted a pair of 1,000-yard seasons as the designated WR1 and commanded extra attention from opponents attempting to slow down the Cowboys' No.1-ranked offense.
Without Cooper in the lineup, the Cowboys expected Lamb to fill the void as the lead receiver with Michael Gallup and a few unheralded pass catchers stepping in contributor roles following the departure of Cedrick Wilson. The optimism that prompted the bold move has been quickly squashed after seeing a WR corps featuring Lamb, Noah Brown, Dennis Houston, and Simi Fehoko unable to create separation on the perimeter.
The lack of wins against one-on-one coverage not only stymied the Cowboys' passing game, but it made it easy for the Buccaneers to hone in on Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Without a viable threat to defend in the passing game, the Cowboys could not punish the Buccaneers for their aggressive tactics. The putrid output from the WR corps (11 catches, 125 yards) will encourage future opponents to crowd the box and dare the Cowboys to win through the air.
With Dak Prescott out for the next four-to-six weeks due to a thumb injury, the Cowboys need their young wideouts to quickly improve to have any chance of chalking up a win before No.4 returns.
It is time for Kellen Moore to work his magic
The Cowboys' offensive coordinator has been hailed as an offensive wizard by broadcasters and observers after directing the NFL's No.1 ranked offenses in two of his first three seasons on the job. Moore's creativity and ingenuity will be tested over the next month with the offense forced to play with its franchise quarterback while also breaking in a new set of receivers on the perimeter and a reshuffled offensive line at the point of attack.
Although the Cowboys' roster looked good on paper throughout the training camp and the preseason, the offensive lineup appears to lack firepower outside of Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, CeeDee Lamb, and Dalton Schultz. Moore will need to create a plan that keeps them involved while featuring a passing game that ideally suits Rush's game. In addition, the Cowboys must tweak their pass protection plans to protect a rookie left tackle (Tyler Smith) and a hodgepodge of new starters and role players.
With so much turnover throughout the ranks, Moore will need to be creative while remaining simplistic enough to avoid a ton of mental mistakes and execution errors. Whether he institutes more motions and pre-snap shifts to disguise the team's base plays or he adds in a few more concepts to counter some of the looks that the team will certainly encounter as a short-handed squad, the Cowboys' offensive play caller should take this opportunity to dazzle the football world with his creative, yet simple to execute schemes and tactics.
Tyler Smith shows that he belongs
The Cowboys' first-round pick played like a cagey veteran on the edge during his debut at left tackle. Smith battled with great energy and intensity on the blind side. Although his technique needs some work, he did not back down from the challenge and his "dawg" will give him a chance to survive on the island.
Moreover, Smith's aggressiveness and nasty playing style could enable him to grow into the frontline's tone-setter in time. As a 6-foot-5, 324-pounder with violent hands and quick feet, the rookie certainly has the skills to flourish as a road grader on the inside or outside. The move to left tackle could expose his technical flaws early in his career, but if he is resilient and coachable, he could quickly correct his mistakes and become a solid player at the position.
Despite the unexpected move to left tackle prior to Week 1 due to injuries, the Cowboys' top pick displayed enough promise in his debut to retain the job going forward with an eye toward becoming Tyron Smith's long-term replacement when the All-Pro walks away from the game.
Micah Parsons is a problem
It is hard to imagine a defender with a Defensive Rookie of the Year award on his mantle improving significantly in his second season, but Micah Parson is unlike anything that I have seen at the position. The second-year pro is a disruptive force on the field with the size, speed, and strength to overwhelm blockers at the point of attack against the run or pass.
In addition, Parsons is an ultra-instinctive sideline-to-sideline defender with outstanding tackling skills. He runs down ball carriers and receivers like a lion chasing its prey, and there are few players capable of escaping his clutches when he puts his hands on them.
While those skills make him a natural fit at linebacker, Parsons' explosive pass rush maneuvers make it imperative to utilize him as a pass rush specialist on key downs. The second-year pro is simply too fast and powerful for blockers to handle and his knack for knocking the quarterback down separates him from others at the position.
Although the Lawrence Taylor comparisons have been dismissed in the past, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year already looks like a gold jacket candidate at this stage of his career.