The Chargers Will Tell Us Who the Cowboys Really Are

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The Cowboys played well enough in their first game to defeat the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Whether you take that as a positive or negative reflects the expectations you had heading into this season.

If you thought the team would struggle or that Dak Prescott would be a different player because of his injured ankle and shoulder, then you likely feel good about the close loss. It was a road game played without Zack Martin—the best player on the offensive line—to help protect Dak from one of the league’s best defenses. As for Prescott himself, he played great, and his accuracy and timing presumably will improve further the more he practices. And Cowboys fans can always take solace in the fact that referees should have penalized Chris Goodwin for offensive pass interference on a play that, with 18 seconds left, moved the Buccaneers safely inside field-goal range.

But if you’ve been jaded by the Cowboys’ recent history, then the opening-week loss feels too familiar, even if they were the underdogs. You remember this isn’t the first time Cowboys’ play-calling turned conservative, protecting three points instead of actively trying to get seven. Or that it’s always something early in the game—the opening drive stalling when Dak and CeeDee Lamb were out of sync, Greg Zuerlein’s missed extra point and field goal in the second quarter—that ends up hurting in the end. That the Cowboys had a four-to-one turnover ratio, fewer than half the Buccaneers’ penalty yards, an almost nine-minute advantage in time of possession, and they still lost the game.

But the truth is, no matter how irrationally optimistic you are or how much each close loss stings, this team was never going to end the season undefeated. And so a close loss to what might be the best team in the conference is far from damning. A better gauge for how good or bad this team is will be this Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Individual NFL seasons don’t exist in a vacuum. What teams did over the previous season or two matters. It’s the basis for how we judge if a team has improved or gotten worse. It’s how we’ll get a better understanding of where this season’s going, since the Cowboys have made young quarterbacks look quite good the last two seasons. 

In 2019, Sam Darnold, Mitch Trubisky, Carson Wentz, and Jared Goff all looked like Pro Bowlers when they played Dallas, even though each of their respective teams—the Jets, Bears, Eagles, and Rams—have since moved on from them. Last year, Kyle Allen, Brandon Allen (no relation), and Daniel Jones each played well against Dallas even though the first two are seemingly destined to become career backups, and no one knows if the third is any good.

Now the Cowboys face another young quarterback, Justin Herbert, last year’s offensive rookie of the year. Besides being a neat freak whose quiet temperament got disturbed when he saw a teammate try to leave a shopping cart in the middle of a parking lot, Herbert holds the NFL rookie records for passing and total touchdowns. He is better than the young quarterbacks who’ve played well against the Cowboys in the last two seasons. And how the Cowboys’ defense plays against him will tell us more about who they are than how they played against Tom Brady.

Helping Herbert will be Austin Ekeler, the running back who can catch as well as he runs. In the past few seasons, this type of versatile back has been particularly troublesome for the Cowboys linebackers in coverage. At receiver, Keenan Allen has been a Pro Bowler in four consecutive seasons. If Trevon Diggs can cover Allen like he did Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, it’ll not only help the passing defense but also show that the Cowboys have a young cornerback who is quickly emerging as one of the league’s best. 

Short of falling behind early by double digits and having to rely on Dak to throw 50 times—which they’re prone to do—the Cowboys’ offense will be fine. And since Zuerlein, recovering from back surgery, didn’t kick during preseason, the hope is he, too, will be as reliable as last season, when he made nearly 83 percent of his field goals. After all, he did still make a pressure-packed 48-yard field goal against the Bucs that should have been the game winner. 

The defense, however, remains the unanswered question. I suspect they’ll be this team’s major unknown throughout the season. And that the best fans can hope for is that the Cowboys will have a bend-but-don’t-break defense, which might be good enough. As NFL offenses have evolved and rules have changed to further their advantages, Super Bowl-winning teams don’t necessarily need to have great defenses. A competent defense is enough; one that may give up plenty of yards but every few drives forces a three-and-out. A defense that forces turnovers. Something like how the Cowboys’ defense played last Thursday.

It’s unrealistic to expect this defense to go from one of the worst in the league last year—especially during the first third of the season—to one of the best this year. What is realistic is for them to play like they did against the Buccaneers, even if they don’t force as many turnovers. What is realistic, for the team overall, is to expect to beat a team like the Chargers, who just beat the Cowboys’ rivals, Washington. Not that the Chargers are a bad team; in fact, counting last season, they’ve won five consecutive games. Still, coming into the season, oddsmakers expected the Chargers would be a team that hovers around winning just as many games as they lose. And if the Cowboys are really the type of team that probably should have beat the Bucs on the road, these are the sort of games they must win.  

Win or lose, Sunday will give us a better understanding of what the Cowboys’ opening game loss meant. If they win — and especially if the defense can keep Herbert to just an average game — then perhaps that side of the ball has improved. If they lose, it still won’t mean the season is over, especially with their easy schedule and playing in what’s likely the worst division in the NFL. But it will mean that two games into the season, the Cowboys’ illusions of grandeur will begin to shade toward delusions. Depending on how the Cowboys play against the Chargers, we’ll know if we can start saying, “Relax, it’s a long season,” or, “Oh, no, this may become a long season.”