Nobody expected the Dallas Cowboys to go undefeated.
They were bound to lose a game at some point and most likely will lose a few more.
But let’s not sugar coat it.
And people are again asking if quarterback Dak Prescott can win games with his arm.
That’s where we are four games into the 2019 season after the Dallas Cowboys saw their three-game winning streak to start the season come to an end in a 12-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints in a playoff-type atmosphere in the frenzied Superdome.
The Cowboys failed to open 4-0 for the first time since 2007. A supposed coronation in prime time to legitimize the team’s Super Bowl hopes didn’t pass the litmus test.
Legions of drunk Cowboys fans who partied, danced and paraded on Bourbon Street on Saturday with owner Jerry Jones returned to the French Quarter after the game with some sobering questions about a franchise that has not sniffed the Super Bowl since 1995.
Has the Cowboys’ high-flying offense finally been exposed after feasting on the likes of the lowly Giants, Redskins and Dolphins start the season?
Do teams now have a book on Moore, who is his first year as a play caller and now has four games worth of tendencies for opponents to study?
The Saints came into the game with the 30th ranked pass defense and had given up 19 pass plays of 20 yards or more in the first three games.
Yet, the Saints shut down a Cowboys offense that Prescott described as unstoppable less than a week ago, following three straight games to open the season with at least 30 points, 400 yards of offense and three double-digit victories.
How did they do it?
They stopped running back Ezekiel Elliott on ground, limiting him to 18 carries for 35 yards. The Saints were more physical and they dominated the Cowboys offensive line.
The Saints defense kept Prescott and the passing game in check, shunning their normal Cover 3 defense for a Cover 2 zone that caught the Cowboys offense by surprise.
On Sunday, he completed 22 of 33 passes for 223 yards with no touchdowns and an interception on the final play of the game.
Prescott entered the game with 13 completions of 20 yards on more, yet on Sunday there were just two. He had a 35-yarder to tight end Blake Jarwin on the team’s lone touchdown drive in the third quarter and a desperation 32-yarder to Randall Cobb to set up the failed hail mary at the end.
Prescott missed a wide-open Cobb in the corner of the end zone, forcing the Cowboys to settle for a field goal in the first quarter.
The Cowboys were also undone by fumbles by Elliott and tight end Jason Witten and two drops by Cobb, prompting Prescott to point to a lack of execution as the source of their problems rather than just being exposed by a Saints team using zone coverage.
“I think this was on us,” Prescott said. “I think this was about our lack of execution. There was a lot left out there, on my part and by the whole offense.”
Elliott was the team’s leading receiver with six receptions for 30 yards, marking the first time all season that running back check downs led the Cowboys in catches.
Amari Cooper had five catches for 48 yards but was flagged twice for offensive pass interference. He said he has never drawn two flags like that in his career. He refused to blame a sprained ankle for being limited by a seemingly average Saints secondary.
Asked if opposing teams might copy the Saints and use a Cover 2 zone to keep the Cowboys in check, Cooper said “not if we exploit it.”
The biggest questions coming out of the Saints game concerns Moore and his seemingly conservative play calling with an unusually high number of runs on first down and a reduced number of play action passes which was exacerbated by the team’s lack of success on the ground all night.
In the first half, Moore called seven runs and just three passes on first down. They averaged 2.1 yards per carry on the runs and 6.7 yards per attempt on the passes.
And then consider that the Cowboys used play action on just 7 of 35 dropbacks (20%) against the Saints, per Pro Football Focus.
Through the first three games, the Cowboys had the second-highest play action rate (39%).
Also consider that Prescott was 6 of 7 for 65 yards on play action against the Saints. Yet, the Cowboys didn’t use it as much as they through the first three weeks, while conservatively running more than ever on first down.
Why did Moore change?
“The Saints had a lot to do with that,” Jones said when asked why the Cowboys were so conservative. “Let’s give them credit. They did a great job. They were due. They won a hard fought game with a good scheme and good coaching.”
What does that say about Cowboys scheme and coaching?
Possibly nothing. Maybe everything.
It’s hard to win in the NFL and the road to the Super Bowl from the NFC still runs through New Orleans with or without Drew Brees. They are tough to beat at home, save when the officials blatantly miss a call in a playoff game.
There is no loss of confidence in the Cowboys locker room. They plan to use the loss to the Saints as a learning experience.
“I feel good about where we’re at,” Witten said. “That’s a good football team. I think this team is gonna be a really good team. The teams that play in January, they’re the ones that continue to get better and learn from it. There’s still a lot of confidence and belief in this team.”
Is there now a book on how to slow the Cowboys offense down too?
Let’s see what the Packers do next Sunday.