To play the QB, or to not play the QB? That was the question facing Jason Garrett and his coaching staff.
Although this Sunday night affair against the Arizona Cardinals was the traditional dress rehearsal game of the preseason, when the starters normally play through the first half, the Cowboys elected to keep their quarterback, Dak Prescott, comfortably on the bench. Also taking a seat was running back Ezekiel Elliott, who it appears will not see any action during this exhibition schedule.
Without them, the Cowboys offense was anemic, as the Cardinals ran away with a 27-3 victory. Cooper Rush instead received the first action behind center, but in his two quarters of play, Dallas managed only 111 yards of offense and just 24 rushing yards. For his part, Rush completed 11-of-17 passes for 93 yards and a 39.2 passer rating.
Of course, the reason why Prescott and Elliott didn't play was one of caution. With their three Pro Bowl linemen – Zack Martin, Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith – held out as well, the Cowboys saw only two of their five expected starting big men up front appear in this game: right offensive tackle La'el Collins and rookie left guard Connor Williams. Martin is nursing an injured knee, Frederick is receiving treatments for his Guillain-Barre syndrome and the veteran Smith was just getting some rest. Garrett didn't want to risk his stars behind a line of backups.
Unfortunately, what all those starters saw from the sideline wasn't pretty. The Cowboys turned the ball over three times alone in the first quarter, then coughed it up again just 11 seconds into the second frame. The first two of those came courtesy of the punt return unit. On the Cardinals' first punt of the game, return man Lance Lenoir collided with blocker Byron Jones, leaving Arizona's Dennis Gardeck to scoop up the prize.
The visitors missed a 55-yard field goal attempt after that blunder, but when the Cardinals were then forced to punt yet again, this time Lenoir gift-wrapped Arizona the seven points. Having to race backward to field the booming punt, the return man tried to catch it at his own 10-yard line, only to muff the attempt. The ball then bounced into the end zone where it was recovered by Trent Sherfield for the score.
Two plays into their next possession, the Cowboys found themselves down 14-0. Rush wanted to throw a quick out to wide receiver Tavon Austin, but Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson jumped the route, hauled in the pass and raced untouched across the goal line. Dallas then kept up the offensive futility when Rod Smith fumbled on the team's next series, although the Cowboys defense continued to stay strong and kept Arizona from adding to its total.
But once the starting defense began to call it a night midway through the second quarter, the Cardinals tacked on a 42-yard field goal on their next series, their lead up to 17-0.
The Cowboys appeared to have finally found some offensive footing when they marched from their own 43-yard line to the Cardinals' 15. But on third-and-5 with 41 seconds left in the second quarter, Rush tried to connect with rookie wideout Michael Gallup in the end zone, only to have Arizona safety Budda Baker leap in front for the interception, ending the Dallas threat.
At least the Cowboys looked good on the defensive side of the ball, as Arizona collected just 105 yards of offense in the first half, including a paltry 36 passing yards thanks to a secondary that continues to inspire hope. Randy Gregory, in particular, also stood out from his defensive end position, recording a sack, two quarterback hurries and a tackle for loss.
However, once Cardinals running back T.J. Logan ripped off a 59-yard run right up the middle for a touchdown on Arizona's first possession of the third quarter, there wasn't much left to decide in this game other than whether the Cowboys could simply get on the board.
Well, after the Cardinals tacked on a 54-yard field goal with under two minutes remaining, the Cowboys were able to respond with a 45-yard field goal by Brett Maher with only 19 seconds left. But it was far too little, too late.
Rookie Mike White had his best performance of the preseason at quarterback, totaling 157 yards on 17-of-22 passing for a 77.3 rating, but the Cowboys fumbled the ball twice more in the second half and White tossed an interception of his own to sabotage any hopes of actually reaching the end zone. In all, Dallas totaled eight turnovers on the night, while punting just six times.
With the loss, Dallas saw its exhibition record drop to 0-3. The Cowboys will next play their final game of the preseason schedule this Thursday, Aug. 30, when they head south to take on their in-state rivals, the Houston Texans.