FRISCO, Texas – Here's a handful of observations from our vantage point from the studios at The Star, where I watched this season-opening loss play out.
Here are my notes:
· I said in the buildup to the game that I was concerned about the Cowboys' ability to consistently run the ball against this Panthers defensive front. It appeared that Kawann Short and Dontari Poe had their moments, but the bigger issue was getting a hat on Luke Kuechly to somewhat slow him down. This is where they missed a guy like Travis Frederick, who can cut the defense in half with his second-level ability.
· I said this in out post game show: I am looking forward to studying the tape and figuring out if Dak Prescott was holding the ball because his receivers were not separating -- or was Prescott just not seeing the field as well as he needed to? There were some throws that he just flat missed, where guys were open but he just couldn't get it to them. I was also surprised that Scott Linehan didn't take a shot down the field against rookie Donte Jackson, who has a history of not playing double moves well. If you remember, Jackson drew an interference call later in the game for being too aggressive. Maybe Prescott didn't have an enough time, but there should have been a shot or two.
· Count me as surprised at how much Cam Newton ran the ball in the first half of this game. Under Mike Shula the element of a Newton run was always part of the plan, but with Norv Turner now calling the plays, I thought it was going to be something of the past in order to preserve Newton's health. My focus was on stopping Christian McCaffrey and for the most part I think this defense did just that. But it was Newton's runs that were back-breaking plays to keep drives going in the first half. The defense did a much better job of adjusting to not allow Newton to beat them with his legs.
· I have to disagree with Troy Aikman when he said that the Panthers had speed at wide receiver. I never thought that they would be able to run away from the Cowboys corners, and as the game went along they didn't. I like what I saw from Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown. They looked comfortable in the way they played these receivers and didn't allow those big chunk plays to a group that has the capability of making those.
· In my Final Thoughts notebook before the game, I said to keep an eye on the defensive end rotation and that it wasn't a given that Randy Gregory was going to be the primary defensive end when Tyrone Crawford kicked inside. Gregory did see some snaps on the edge, but it was Taco Charlton that got the early work at the spot -- and for the most part appeared to play well. He has always been a good run defender that lacked pass rush skills, but in this game, he was able to put some nice combinations together in both areas and did a much better job of finishing plays.
· This wasn't one of Sean Lee's best games and I guarantee when he sat down in his seat on the flight home after studying the tape, he'd be the first to admit it. Lee is to the Cowboys what Kuechly is to the Panthers -- two players that are big-time run/hit linebackers. You notice them play after play, and in this game what you noticed was Kuechly making more tackles. Lee wasn't his normal self when it came to reading the scheme and finishing the plays. It appeared that he was fooled a couple of different snaps with the ball handling from Cam Newton and he didn't make those open field, wrap-up tackles that we've all grown accustomed to. The silver lining here is that even though Lee didn't play his best, his teammates did and you can't always say that.
· I had plenty of questions about the interior of the Cowboys defensive line and how the rotation would play -- but give Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins and Daniel Ross a lot of credit. When an offense is running a lot of plays, that tends to be the group that gets worn down physically, but that didn't happen to this group. Woods, Collins and Ross were just as good up front as Poe and Short were for the Panthers. If you would have said that would have been the case going into the game, I would not have believed you.
· I am not going to sit here and say that Dan Bailey would have hit that field goal, but Brett Maher's miss was huge. Not only did the offense lose potential points, but the Panthers took advantage of the field position and drove for points themselves. Make that kick, play defense to get off the field and take your chances that the offense might have found a little momentum. Instead, it was a nine-point swing that they just couldn't afford at the time.
· I am interested to see what happened on the big punt return by Damiere Byrd that flipped field position for the Panthers and led to their first score. It appeared that the middle of the coverage unit opened up with Jeff Heath getting blocked and Jourdan Lewis getting held. Chris Jones had done an outstanding job of hanging the ball, but Byrd showed some great courage to field the ball and attack right where he needed to.
· It was good to see Cole Beasley back in the mix from a production standpoint. It appeared that Linehan was able to move him around where the Panthers couldn't get a real gauge on him. Beasley played both inside and outside, and that helped him get away from those coverage schemes where defensive coordinators work to cover him. If they continue to get the ball in his hands 7 to 8 times a game we're going to see a more Dak Friendly offense.
· It's a shame that Randy Gregory got injured during the game. With the way that the defensive line was playing as a unit, I truly believe that he would have ended up with one or two sacks. With the condition of this Panthers offensive line having both Gregory and Lawrence coming off the edge along with Taco Charlton could have potentially created some turnovers in the pocket that could have been the difference of this game. They were able to get to Newton, but they ust needed a guy like Gregory swatting at the ball.
· I get on Jason Garrett all the time about not knowing the condition of his team when it comes to game management. There are times to go for it because you know your defense can't make a stop and then other times where they're playing great, so give them a chance to win the game. With the amount of time left in the game, the number of timeouts they had left (3), plus a two-minute warning -- there was really no excuse of Garrett trying to convert that fourth down play. Pin their offense with Chris Jones and let your defense go to work. For the majority of the game they had shut the Panthers down and would have likely done it again with the chance of getting the ball back near midfield or having Tavon Austin making a big return, because the Panthers were going to have to block to protect the punt. Instead, the offense was left with one timeout and the prospect of traveling 80 yards for the tying score and little time.