The Tony Romo-less Dallas Cowboys are off to an 0-1 start in 2016 after falling to the New York Giants on Sunday, 20-19. Terrance Williams has been pegged as the goat for the loss after he opted to stay in bounds on the final play, but there were several plays outside of that one that cost Dallas a win – plays that should have been made. Despite the heartbreaking (and very Cowboy-esque) loss, Dallas is still a team to watch in the NFC. Even without Romo, the Cowboys are contenders to win the East, and Sunday proved that narrative to be accurate. Here are five reasons the Cowboys are much better than they were against the Giants, and why there’s plenty of room for hope in 2016.
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY SportsErich Schlegel
Dak Prescott is the real deal
The Cowboys may not have Tony Romo, but Prescott is legit. No, he wasn’t as outstanding as he was in the preseason, but what quarterback is? The regular season is a different animal, but Prescott hardly froze in the spotlight. He looked poised, patient and experienced in the pocket, playing as if he’d been in the league for five years. Sure, he only completed 55.6 percent of his passes and averaged 5.0 yards per attempt, but that wasn’t entirely his fault. Cole Beasely dropped a walk-in touchdown and Dez Bryant was inches from a spectacular TD in the back of the end zone. Prescott wasn’t outstanding, but he absolutely wasn’t Matt Cassel or Brandon Weeden – and that’s most certainly a compliment. He’s the real deal who can make all the throws and will be an NFL quarterback for the next decade.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY SportsJoe Nicholson
Ezekiel Elliott was just average
Elliott, the Cowboys’ second prized rookie, didn’t rush for 250 yards and four touchdowns as some fans (jokingly) expected him to. In fact, he didn’t even rush for 75 yards. In his NFL debut, Elliott racked up 51 yards on 20 carries with one touchdown in a performance that he called “average.” That would be an accurate depiction of his first career game, but there’s no reason to call him a bust or doubt the No. 4 overall pick just yet. Emmitt Smith averaged 1.6 yards per carry in his first two career starts, and he turned out to be just fine. Elliott will get his touches in Dallas’ run-centric offense and will rush for 100-plus yards regularly this season – Sunday was likely the worst we’ll see of Zeke in 2016. Add in Alfred Morris as his backup and the Cowboys are going to have a top-notch running game.
Dez Bryant had little impact on the game
Dez Bryant, one of the best receivers in football, had one reception for eight yards. He was targeted five times in the game and was almost nowhere to be found. His lack of production wasn’t the result of his not getting open, or that the Giants were shutting him down. The coaching staff, for whatever reason, utilized him as a deep threat far too often, which led Prescott to look underneath to Cole Beasley and Jason Witten. Going forward, Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett will likely get Bryant more involved much earlier with crossing routes and quick slants. Those routes were mostly run by Beasley and Witten, but neither of them has the explosiveness of Bryant. Translation: a seven-yard reception by Beasley could easily be a 25-yard catch-and-run for Bryant. Expect a huge game from Bryant next week.
Getty ImagesTom Pennington
They dominated the Giants for the most part
If I were to tell you the Cowboys beat the Giants in time of possession (36:43), had more first downs (24 to 18), interceptions (one to zero) and sacks (two to zero), you’d probably say Dallas won that game, right? Well, the Cowboys lost despite dominating in all of those areas of the game. Dallas even outgained New York with 328 yards of offense and converted on 58 percent of third downs. Where the Cowboys lost was red zone efficiency (33 percent) and big plays (5.0 yards per pass play). If Beasley doesn't drop a surefire touchdown over the middle early on, or if Terrance Williams runs out of bounds on the final play, we may be talking about a Dallas win today. Neither happened and both proved to be crucial plays in the game. The Cowboys certainly could have won this game, and probably would have, if a few plays had fallen their way.
Getty ImagesRonald Martinez
There are shades of 2014 in this team
The Cowboys went 12-4 in 2014 and were a Dez Bryant-non-catch from playing the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game. The formula with that team was simple: Hold the ball on offense with a relentless ground game and field a bend-don’t-break defense that forces turnovers. Sunday’s game against the Giants featured both of those elements. Eli Manning threw a horrendous interception and was sacked twice, while he totaled only 207 passing yards on the day. Dallas even held Odell Beckham to four catches for 73 yards – 45 of which came on one play – keeping him out of the end zone for the third straight matchup. On offense, the Cowboys ran the ball 30 times for 101 yards, which isn’t an astronomically high number, but it allowed Dallas to keep New York off the field. If the Cowboys can force turnovers regularly and keep opposing quarterbacks on the sideline, they’ll be in good shape – just as they were in 2014. This is a team that can definitely hang with just about any club in the NFC.