ARLINGTON, Texas – The consensus throughout the preseason was that a dominant Dallas offense would need its subpar defense to make as few mistakes as possible to win games in 2014.
In Sunday's 28-17 loss to San Francisco, the roles reversed – offering a glimpse of how bad things can get if the Cowboys offense is the group making mistakes. Starting from the second play of the game, when the 49ers returned a DeMarco Murray fumble 35 yards for a touchdown, nearly everything went wrong in creating a hole that few teams could hope to climb out of.
"Those are the difference-making plays in the game right from the outset. They forced us to dig out of a hole the rest of the game," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.
"They're too good a football team – they've been in the NFC Championship game the last three years – so you cannot do that any week in the NFL, certainly against a team like that."
The Cowboys turned the ball over four total times on the afternoon, headlined by three Tony Romo interceptions in the first half – one of which was returned 48 yards by San Francisco safety Eric Reid to the Dallas two-yard line.
"The biggest issue in this game, simple game, you can't give a team like that four opportunities by giving the ball away," Garrett said. "Obviously, one of them resulted in a touchdown."
Those miscues helped the 49ers to a 14-3 lead after just four offensive plays, and the hits kept coming. Romo threw his second interception on first down at the San Francisco five-yard line, and his third gave the 49ers great field position for a short drive that would lead to a 28-3 lead.
"Tony's done a really good job of that in recent years – taking care of the ball. He didn't do a good job of that today," Garrett said.
This game comes on the heels of one of Romo's most efficient seasons in 2013. Romo threw just 10 interceptions in 15 starts last season but now has three after one game in 2014. This is the 11th time in his career he has thrown three or more picks in a game, and it's the first time since the Cowboys' season-ending loss to Washington on Dec. 30, 2012.
"It comes down to two or three throws, and at the quarterback position you can be exact on 15 throws and if the 16th one is bad, you probably didn't play that well," Romo said. "You've got to get to the level where at the first half, you're not giving the other team the ball."
Even Dwayne Harris, arguably the NFL's best return man in 2013, tried to get in on the act with a muffed punt at the start of the third quarter – a fumble he eventually recovered. The setbacks reminded Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones of another matchup against San Francisco – albeit one with higher stakes.
"It was almost as bad as we had against San Francisco in the NFC championship, when we were down 21 points in just a real early period of time. So I know it can happen to good players, too," Jones said. "It's a heck of a challenge to come back from that."
All of that combined to offset what was a relatively successful day for the Dallas defense. The Cowboys limited Colin Kaepernick and his group to just 316 total yards on the day. The 49ers did average six yards per play, and they did convert on 54 percent of their third downs, but they sustained just two full-field scoring drives.
San Francisco also finished the afternoon with just 21 offensive points – a stat the Cowboys likely would have gladly accepted before kickoff.
"I've got to give my defensive group a hat off. They came out and they played real hard, played smart," said Jeremy Mincey. "They drove on us for that series, and then, after we settled down, we started playing some Cowboys football."
Mincey and his pass rush didn't manage a sack, but they did pressure Kaepernick, while the starting linebacker trio of Rolando McClain, Justin Durant and [embedded_ad]
Bruce Carter led the team in tackling.
Jones acknowledged that the early deficit changed the makeup of the game from what he expected, but the defensive performance gave him some hope going forward – provided there's improved play by the offense.
"We're not good enough – we are not good enough – to come back from that kind of start. We won't be coming back from many starts like that," he said. "Now, I did get encouraged to some degree by what I saw defensively after we had gotten down. That's encouraging, and I've got to believe and feel like we can play better than we played overall offensively."