PHOENIX– The Cowboys looked Saturday like a largely lethargic team ready to return home from a long camp.
It's not that the offense couldn't move the football, but it certainly couldn't hold onto it a day after breaking camp in Oxnard, Calif. The Cowboys finished with five turnovers in the first half, including two fumbles by the starting offense and a third on special teams, in a 12-7 loss at Arizona.
"Six total for the game," head coach Jason Garrett said of the turnovers. "Obviously, you can't win football games like that. We'll go through them play by play. You can give them credit on each of those plays, but obviously you have to take care of the football."
The mistakes were more reminiscent of a team at the beginning of training camp, rather than one at its end. Some could blame the early and extended camp and fatigue for the mental miscues and lack of ball security, but don't count Garrett and owner/general manager Jerry Jones in that group.
"We've been practicing in ideal conditions, ideal weather," Jones said. "They may want to get home. They've been away for almost 30 days, but that shouldn't a factor here either. I don't attribute anything physical other than just a combination of just focusing on what kind of hole you dig when you have these turnovers."
Jones described the turnovers as demoralizing and Garrett said they were inexcusable, but the head coach didn't see a lack of effort. If the Cowboys were a tired group thinking more about the plane ride back home to Dallas for the first time in a month than the game at hand, Garrett didn't notice it.
"I thought we played hard," Garrett said. "We just did things that winning football teams don't do. We gave the ball to them six times in the ball game. That stuff kills you. It's a preseason game, you get that, and it's a good moment for us to teach as coaches the importance of these things."
The Cowboys' starting defense continued a trend of dominance at the beginning of games, forcing a three-and-out to start the matchup. Dallas' preseason opponents now have two fumbles and a three-and-out in their first offensive possession of the game.
On the other side, though, the Cowboys' fumbles came early and often, which was unusual for a team that only fumbled once in the previous two games. They became contagious after Dwayne Harris, who led all receivers with six catches for 57 yards, coughed the ball up on the first punt return of the game.
That made it two straight games the Cowboys gave the ball up on a punt return, and it was followed soon after in the second quarter with two straight offensive fumbles on promising drives.
Running back Lance Dunbar provided exactly what the Cowboys hope he will this year, catching a short pass at midfield and taking it 43 yards to the Cardinals' 7-yard-line. Then came the part he can't have happen, as he finished the play somewhat carelessly, letting the ball fling loose as he stumbled along the sideline after a hit.
"I was trying to keep my balance, and I got caught up in that instead of tucking the ball away," Dunbar said. "You can't let that happen."
The drive began at the Cowboys' own 7-yard line and went 86 yards, starting with a 25-yard catch by Dez Bryant. One drive later, Bryant got involved immediately by catching a third-and-7 pass and going nine yards for the first down.
The rapport continued between Tony Romo and Bryant throughout the drive, but the series came to a close after a 27-yard catch and run by Bryant ended with a fumble as he was dragged down.
"You have to understand that the ball is critical, and regardless of how many more yards you might make, you might make a bigger play, you've got to take care of the rock, and we didn't do that on six different occasions," Garrett said. [embedded_ad]
The fumbles stopped after that, but the interceptions just began.
A long second quarter included two fumbles and two interceptions for the Cowboys, both of which were thrown by Kyle Orton. Garrett said Orton typically sees the field well, but on the first interception he misread a zone coverage.
"On the other one, I think the look was right," Garrett said. "It was a single-high defense. We were trying to throw a seam to Dwayne Harris, and I just think he laid the ball a little bit too much and then the single-high safety came over and made the play. He's typically pretty clean with the ball and has a good understanding of our offense, but those were two bad decisions."
The defense continued to hold throughout the day, keeping the Cardinals out of the end zone despite the six turnovers. Arizona began four drives in Cowboys territory, with only six points off those drives. Linebacker DeVonte Holloman added his second interception of the preseason and had a forced fumble that was called back.
Meanwhile, quarterback Alex Tanney got in a groove in the second half, completing his first 11 passes and tossing a touchdown pass to Gavin Escobar for the rookie tight end's first score of the preseason.
The game was still in reach at the end, despite the turnovers.
"These turnovers were so impactful that I think there's no way to look at this but not having a good night, because we've got to have enough concentration to hold onto the ball," Jones said. "On the other hand, for our defense to put us in a position to be at the end of the game, have a chance to score a touchdown and win the game, means that they did quite a job."
Tanney continued moving the offense down the field, but a third-and-15 pass at midfield with the Cowboys trailing by five points was picked off for the sixth and final turnover.
"He probably wants that last throw back," Romo said, "but he gave us a chance there. The last one he'll look at and want to put it somewhere else, but that's part of playing the position, and like I said earlier, he's going to learn from it and he'll be better for it."