SportsPulse: Lorenzo Reyes and Trysta Krick give us insight on some hard to predict games heading into the weekend.
That was Dak Prescott’s response to the contention from Giants safety Landon Collins that a key to beating the Cowboys will be shutting down Ezekiel Elliott and putting the game in the hands of the struggling quarterback.
Makes sense. Elliott is the best weapon, but Prescott is the face of a sputtering offense that produced just eight points in an uninspiring loss at Carolina – fewest for the Cowboys in a season opener since 2010.
But there’s a much bigger-picture challenge facing Dallas as it tries to avoid the dreaded 0-2 start.
It may be a bit early in the season for a “must-win” game, but that’s precisely the case as Dallas takes the AT&T Stadium stage in prime time on Sunday night.
You know the deal. An 0-2 start is like a death sentence on the season in the NFL. In the 10 previous seasons, teams are 9-of-120 for making the playoffs after starting 0-2, according to The Toronto Sun.
The last time the Cowboys started 0-2?
That’s another marker from 2010, as 0-2 turned into 1-7…which cost Wade Phillips his job.
Jason Garrett, who replaced Phillips as Cowboys coach, wound up with a path to a promotion after the last 0-2 start in Dallas. Yet in making the playoffs just twice in seven years, another 0-2 start for the Cowboys could set the tone for conditions that might wear out Jerry Jones’ patience with Garrett.
Granted, Jones has been very supportive of Garrett, especially publicly. Jones was close to Garrett’s late father, Jim, a former Cowboys scout, and groomed his coach for this role.
When training camp opened in July, Jones was adamant in declaring that this wasn’t a “make-or-break” season for Garrett.
Away from the podium after that declaration, though, Jones told USA TODAY Sports when I asked about his patience in the coach, “Just because I show that kind of stick with Jason does not mean as we are strategizing, that it looks like he is in the family portrait forever. That’s not the way it works.”
While Dallas is still the NFL’s best TV draw (averaging an NFL-high 23.3 million viewers for the opener at Carolina), the Scott Linehan-coordinated offense looks like a mess. Or bad TV. Sure, Jason Witten surprisingly retired and the Cowboys released Dez Bryant. The O-line is without anchor center Travis Frederick, out indefinitely while treating an autoimmune disease.
Yet other issues are so glaring. There’s no proven, go-to receiver on the squad to stretch the field. And after so much talk during the offseason about building a “Dak-friendly” offense, that could be interpreted by opposing defenses as a “friendly Dak” offense when facing too many third-and-longs.
Prescott has passed for 200 yards just twice in nine games, dating to the middle of last season. Getting Elliott in the mix for a full season should help, but if the receivers don’t separate and if Prescott misses with the type of ugly throws demonstrated at Carolina…
Add to that the observation from Troy Aikman during the Fox broadcast: “I’m not seeing any creativity.”
In Dallas, those words from a Cowboys legend cut deep. And should concern the Dallas brain trust.
Yes, the challenge is on in more ways than one.
Other items of interest as Week 2 rolls on…
Who’s hot: Aaron Rodgers. The legend grows. This happens when you spark a second-half rally from a 20-point deficit on one leg, as A-Rod accomplished against the Bears. Just classic. Rodgers (3 TDs, zero picks) seemed so through as he was carted off with what turned out to be a sprained MCL in his left knee. What’s the encore act? The defending NFC North champion Vikings are coming to Lambeau Field with their fabulous defense. Green Bay’s 2017 season was derailed by a fractured collarbone Rodgers suffered at Minnesota, when Anthony Barr drilled him into the turf. Rodgers hasn’t practiced all week. What a setup. Asked if he needs to practice in order to play, he replied with one word: “Nope.” We’ll see if Rodgers can indeed walk on water, as Vikings coach Mike Zimmer put it in maintaining that he expects to see No. 12.
Pressure’s on: Germain Ifedi. After allowing Von Miller to vault to the top of the NFL leaderboard with three sacks, look who’s next for the Seahawks’ right tackle: Khalil Mack. Coach Pete Carroll insisted that Ifedi wasn’t totally to blame for Miller’s sacks. And there was danger all around, with Russell Wilson dropped six times. But when Mack – coming off a monster debut at Green Bay – plays in a Bears uniform at an electric Soldier Field for the first time on Monday night, Ifedi will be typically positioned as Wilson’s first line of defense. It won’t get much easier the next week, with the Mack assignment followed by a matchup against DeMarcus Lawrence.
Key matchup: Rob Gronkowski vs. Jalen Ramsey. This won’t be an every-down matchup when New England visits Jacksonville for a rematch of the AFC title game tilt. Yet it’s likely the all-pro tight end and all-pro cornerback will face off in multiple situations, as was the case in January. And prospects are juiced by Ramsey’s public dismissal of Gronkowski as merely “average.” Add Gronk to the list of those who might draw extra motivation from facing Ramsey, who definitely has the skill set of backing up his words…and no fear of playing with fire.
Next man up: Damontae Kazee. Rather than signing a veteran off the market (hello, Eric Reid?) after losing safety Keanu Neal to a torn ACL, the Falcons have tremendous faith in last year’s fifth-round pick from San Diego State. Coach Dan Quinn maintains that Kazee might have made the biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2 than any player on his roster. They’ll need it as the Panthers roll into town for an NFC South showdown. Neal was the heart of the defense, with that loss compounded by the foot injury that sent middle linebacker Deion Jones to IR. So for all of the problems the Matt Ryan-centric offense has had in converting red zone positioning into TDs under coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the D is extremely vulnerable in middle of the field as Jones and Neal ranked 1-2 on the Falcons last season for tackles, combining for 172 stops.
Rookie watch: Josh Allen. The Bills might have preferred to break in their first-round pick slowly. But they’ve been left with no choice now, after the boneheaded decision to trade AJ McCarron to the Raiders while keeping Nathan Peterman (career passing rating, 25.7). When Allen makes his first NFL start against the Chargers, he’ll discover that an NFL regular-season game is faster than the preseason, which was faster than the Mountain West Conference. One thing to like: Allen has a rocket for an arm, one reason Jim Kelly thrived amid the wicked winds in Buffalo. One thing to question: How fast can Allen process what he sees from an NFL defensive scheme?
If the playoffs were today… Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson would give Washington the type of deep backfield tandem that teams love when trying to make a deep run in January. The R’s will take the NFL’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack into Sunday’s game against the Colts at FedEx Field after ripping up the Cardinals for 182 yards, with Peterson gaining 96 yards on 26 carries. And Thompson (128 yards from scrimmage) leads the team with six receptions. Of course, we’re a long way from January…and the week-to-week recovery of the 33-year-old Peterson could be a subplot all season. Still, it’s a good start as Washington seeks its first 2-0 start since 2011, which turned into a 5-11 finish under Mike Shanahan.
Stomach for an upset: Dolphins at Jets. The impressive debut of rookie quarterback Sam Darnold undoubtedly fuels buzz for Jets faithful. He went into the Lions den and slayed the beast of opening on the road. But calling him “Broadway Sam?” That’s a bit much. Darnold surely looked like a walking, talking franchise quarterback in the rout at Detroit. Besides the pick-six on his first NFL throw, there was much poise and a lot of good decisions in reading the defense. But chances are that, even on his home turf as a three-point favorite, he’ll get a stiffer test from a Miami defense also thinking of a 2-0 start.
Did you notice? After much consternation during the preseason, just one penalty league-wide was called in Week 1 for a violation of the new helmet rule. Even so, flags for roughing the passer were very much in vogue with 15-such calls – including the Myles Garrett case that the NFL subsequently admitted wasn’t a late hit — compared to seven in Week 1 last year. And no one felt the sting of this emphasis like Saints D-tackle David Onyemata, fined $40,108 for two roughing-the-passer penalties. Onyemata, a third-year pro, has a base salary of $630,000, which equates to $39,375 per game – leaving him in a paycheck hole.
Stat’s the fact: After sparking the NFL’s biggest upset last weekend with a 417-yard assault on the Saints — when he averaged a whopping 14.89 yards per attempt and ignited debate about whether Jameis Winston will automatically get his starting job back with the Bucs after a three-game suspension — Ryan Fitzpatrick leads the league with a 156.3 passer rating and perfect 158.3 fourth-quarter rating. He’s tied for the lead with four TD passes and a 149.3 mark on third downs. Fun while it lasted? On Sunday, “Fitzmagic” runs into Philadelphia’s gifted D-line.