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Spagnola: Worse Than Getting Kicked To The Curb

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Bad enough the Cowboys got kicked to the curb in the 2022 season opener.

Buccaneers 19, Cowboys 3.

Bad enough for the first time since the 2001 season opener, quarterback Quincy Carter's NFL rookie debut, that the Cowboys were unable to score a touchdown in the first game of the season, and scoring just three points, the fewest in an opener since getting shut out in the 1989 one, 28-0, by the New Orleans Saints in the NFL debuts of Jerry Jones, Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman.

Bad enough that last year's tackle leader Jayron Kearse was leaving the locker room on crutches (knee), that starting left guard Connor McGovern left the field seven plays into the game and consequently left the locker room afterward in a walking boot with an apparent high ankle sprain.

Bad enough the Cowboys defense held Tampa Bay, last year's No. 2 NFL offense, to just 19 points – four field goals and a touchdown – and quarterback Tom Brady to only 212 yards passing, yet lost the season opener for the fifth time in the past seven seasons and to Brady now all seven times they've faced him.

But then they got kicked in the groin.

Dak Prescott, with roughly six minutes left in the game, slammed his throwing hand into that of Bucs' linebacker Shaq Barrett, suffering a fracture below the thumb, the lowest blow imaginable in a season opener and sending him to the operating room possibly as soon as Monday and expected to sideline him most likely for six to eight weeks since a fractured bone usually takes six weeks to heal.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called the injury "daunting," going on to say, "It just reminds me that this game, like life, is usually pretty daunting."

Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy called it "a significant injury."

Dak, wearing a hand brace, tried to put a good face on his second significant injury in his last 22 games, saying, "It's disappointing. … Injuries just happen, can't necessarily control it."

But you know what? It just sucks.

The Cowboys already were up to their ears in adversity to start a season, already knowing they were going to begin without wide receiver Michal Gallup for the first several games; without veteran wide receiver James Washington for at least the month of September; and without Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith for three to four months with that torn hamstring.

But now this.

In all likelihood following the expected surgery, Dak is headed to injured reserve, which would mean at least out a mandatory four weeks, causing the Cowboys to start juggling their roster one game into the season. Remember, the Cowboys got cute managing their 53-man roster and 16-man practice squad by placing backup quarterbacks Cooper Rush and Will Grier on the practice squad. They were counting on the maximum of three weekly callups for as many as two players each game to spare a roster spot or two on the 53 for young players. They also did the same with kicker Brett Maher, elevating him to the game-day 48-man roster from the practice squad.

But here is a caveat. To call up those two players teams must have at least eight offensive linemen active for the game, and the Cowboys only had eight healthy offensive linemen on the 53 to start with. If McGovern indeed has a high ankle sprain, that could be a four-week ordeal, necessitating Jason Peters expedited ramp up to potentially start at guard. The Cowboys finished with last year's seventh-round draft choice Matt Farniok playing guard the rest of the game, meaning they didn't have a backup center on the bench.

Without Dak, and knowing they can elevate Maher only two more times, they will at least have to now sign Rush, the projected starter who relieved Dak late in the fourth quarter, to the 53-man roster and then elevate Grier to at least the 48-man game-day roster for backup purposes. But again, only can do so three times. And think about this: Since teams no longer are allowed to protect practice squad players, someone could come along and money whip Grier into leaving. His choice.

"Obviously, I got a little more work to do coming out of this game than I would like, but that's our business," McCarthy said, meaning on and off the field.

The work multiplied 10-fold with 6:27 left in the game. On second and 10 at the Cowboys' 36-yard line, Dak drops back to pass, and as he was following through on what turned out to be a 13-yard toss to Noah Brown, his right hand struck Barrett's, who had been bearing down on him. Dak stayed in for one more play, barely able to lob a screen pass to Ezekiel Elliott on the next play.

But after that, with like 5:49 left in the game, Dak came trotting off the field, kind of shaking his hand and then showing it to McCarthy, saying, "I can't grip the ball."

On came Rush, off went Prescott into the locker room.

"It's just unfortunate," Dak said. "I am going to miss some time and not be there for my team. That's what hurts more than anything, especially after the start we just put out there. I wouldn't be able to respond and not necessarily having the opportunity to do so for several weeks."

The idea coming into this game with a young offensive line and wide receiver corps was to play complementary football, meaning rely heavily on their defense. And to some extent, the defense held up its end of the bargain. Hey, with 8:07 left in the third quarter the Cowboys had held Tampa Bay to just four field goals. And in the end, they held Brady to only one touchdown.

The Cowboys could live with that, even though the defense still struggled against the run, the Bucs finishing with 152 yards rushing, led by Leonard Fournette's 127. The Cowboys also struggled with giving up big plays. At halftime, trailing 12-3, the Bucs had totaled 219 yards on 34 plays. But they had gained 128 of those yards on just five plays – setting up three of the first half field goals, with the fourth coming after an interception.

Remember, big plays were a problem last year, and by halftime the Brady-led offense had bitten off chunks of 48 yards, 24, 20, 19 and 17. By game's end, Tampa Bay had seven plays of at least 17 yards.

Another carryover from last year was penalties. The Cowboys finished with 10 for 73 yards. But here was the problem: After driving that first possession for a Maher 51-yard field goal, the Cowboys incurred at least one penalty over their next six possessions.

And as for their next nine full possessions in the game after the opening drive – then one half-ending kneel down – only two times did a drive finish on Tampa Bay's side of the 50, both in the fourth quarter.

For a relatively young offense, young offensive line, the last thing the Cowboys needed was to keep getting behind the chains.

"We had untimely penalties, the pre-snap penalties," McCarthy said. "They had a good plan of making us go the long way offensively; you've got to be able to sustain drives and stay in favorable down and distances. We weren't able to do that consistently."

Consequently, too many times the Bucs had Dak in quite unfavorable down and distances, able to pin their ears back and come after him with blitzes and some defensive line hijinks. Eight times the Cowboys faced third-and-7 or more and only three times did they convert, two of those during the first drive.

And it sure didn't help that not only did the Cowboys have to start their backup left tackle, rookie Tyler Smith, but then during that first possession backup center/guard Farniok had to come in to play guard next to him. Communication at times was a problem.

On top of that, starting right tackle Terence Steele predictably struggled with Tampa Bay veteran defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, the Bucs totaling four sacks and eight QB hurries, and far too many times since the Cowboys couldn't stretch the field – or didn't have time to – Dak was throwing into too many tight windows.

Not only did Prescott leave the game with a hand injury requiring surgery, but his stat line was one of his worst, 14 for 29, 134 yards, two sacks, one interception and a QB rating of 47.2, his lowest since putting up a 30.4 in 2017 against Philadelphia.

And because of their offensive struggles, the Cowboys squandered an opportunity to win this game. Hey, before the game if someone asked would you take holding Brady and the Bucs to 19 points, the answer would have been absolutely.

But an offense with question marks hovering overhead since the start of training camp had no response to a veteran Tampa Bay defense betting against the Cowboys ability to consistently move the ball downfield without any big plays. And the Cowboys had only two plays of at least 17 yards, both in the fourth quarter and one of those on the first play of Dak's final possession.

So, they begin the season 0-1, same as their next opponent, Cincinnati, opening with a 23-20 overtime loss to Pittsburgh, with quarterback Joe Burrow getting sacked seven times, hit another 11 times and getting intercepted a career-high four times.

"The reality is we've got a lot of work to do," McCarthy said. "We'll come out of this, (and) as far as our record is, we won't go undefeated this year."

Yep, 0-1, that's for sure, but now worse, without Dak indefinitely.

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