It's not the start Mike McCarthy and the Dallas Cowboys envisioned, but it's also not one they weren't prepared to see. Yes, they lost to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 1 at SoFi Stadium but, all told, it took a lot for them to lose by three points. With no April 6 start date to the offseason program -- as originally scheduled -- no rookie minicamp, no mandatory minicamp, no preseason games and an abbreviated training camp, McCarthy and his newly installed coaching staff didn't get their first in-person look at their players until basically August, and there was much to sort out with little time to make it happen.
So if you thought players looked a bit out of sorts in LA, it's because most of them were, but the season is far from over.
"I think overall, just to give you a raw assessment of our football team, frankly we look like a football team that played its first game last night in some areas, and in other areas I thought we did a lot of good things," McCarthy told media on Monday via Zoom conference. "We have a grading index that we've put a lot of time into. So, we're closer than you may think we are, but at the end of the day our honeymoon is over. It's time to win games, and that's our focus.
"We needed to do better. The offense was third down on both sides of the ball. The third-down win percentage definitely factored into the outcome of the game."
New installs on both sides of the ball combined with newly-added personnel to make for an awkward start, and these aren't issues Sean McVay had to contend with as he enters his fourth year with the Rams. Color it with whatever Crayola you'd like, but it's best to try to remain inside the lines here, because there's as much justification to criticize the Cowboys play in the season opener as there is reason to factor in all the variables leading to the loss. That includes the role of NFL officiating to both help give the Rams an early lead, and to ultimately seal the casket shut late in the fourth quarter on a and made him "sick" when he went back and watched the tape.
All told, from the perspective of things the Cowboys controlled, Week 1 was essentially a preseason game -- a consummation of the football marriage between McCarthy and Dallas. Having though, McCarthy isn't looking for Week 2 to be a repeat of the opener, especially not in his first game as Cowboys coach in AT&T Stadium.
And speaking of the third down percentage, the Cowboys struggled en route to going three for 12 on third down (25 percent). That also helped swing the final outcome in favor of McVay's bunch, as did three drops by Dallas targets, two of which came from backup tight end Dalton Schultz on critical plays.
"I thought their offense was very efficient on first and second down, and frankly we could have been more efficient on first and second down," McCarthy noted. "So, I mean, when you look at the third down breakdowns, just by the down and distance categories where we were and where the Rams were. As far as the attempts, they outperformed us in efficiency on D-and-D. But the reality, too, is that our defense created a high number of third downs."
He's correct. The Cowboys forced 17 third downs, but then allowed nine conversions.
"That also points to the fact that our guys are fighting, scrapping, and, so, the energy and the attitude and all of those things was there," McCarthy said. "We were not very clean at certain parts of the game, and we needed to improve on that. But the other part of it, there were some very clean parts of the game. I thought our defense got better as the game went on, and offensively we did some good things being down there with the time of possession in the first half and going in right before the half -- hitting the touchdown and going up 14-13.
"And then coming back out I thought we established a really good drive and was expecting points on that opening drive. I think those are the momentum points of the game you look to hit, and as a coach you're trying to create those big-play opportunities and look for those big momentum swings."
Being more efficient on third down (which also means catching passes from Dak Prescott that were on the money) will help the Cowboys extend drives, and the latter was sorely needed in LA -- the Rams winning the time of possession battle by more than 11 minutes. It wasn't all bad for the Cowboys though, holding the Rams to only 20 officiating-aided points and only two for five in the red zone.
Prescott looked crisp with his throws and unlike years past, used his legs to tear off big yardage when the opportunity presented itself. Ezekiel Elliott was every bit the dominant back he's capable of being (127 yards from scrimmage, one rushing TD, one receiving TD) and rookie first-round pick CeeDee Lamb showed flashes of what's to come. On the defensive side of the ball, rookie second-round pick Trevon Diggs nearly reeled in his first career interception and had a chance at another if not for a perfect throw and catch by the Rams, and defensive end Aldon Smith made it known he's going to be a force for the Cowboys in 2020,.
Smith's dominance also led to the team's first interception of the season by way of Chidobe Awuzie, and Goff left the game having thrown for zero touchdowns -- despite questions entering the game regarding the safety unit in Dallas.
"The thing I'm most impressed with is the fact that we came out in our first live action and won the turnover ratio," said McCarthy. "A lot of good things there production wise, but we'll definitely improve off of last night's game."
Again, it took a whole lot for the Rams to win by just three points on their own field, including a missed field goal by Greg Zuerlein and a fourth down call that fell just inches of swinging momentum back to the Cowboys. There is much to insist Dallas improve upon heading into Week 2, and that includes searching, and it's more than fair to objectively point out their failings where it applies.
Still, if they can look that off-center and still be in position to win on the road, it does hint at how dangerous they can be once they're firing on all cylinders. McCarthy says the honeymoon is over, now let's see what happens when it's time to start paying bills.