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By hopeful design, the NFL’s mid-September schedule isn’t supposed to be a time for white-knuckling.
But bona fide concern only one game into an NFL season is often overblown, particularly with each previous year having showcased a franchise that sputtered early, only to recover down the stretch (see: the 2019 Tennessee Titans, who lurched to 2-4 by late October, then surged to the AFC title game).
However the one thing that can never be ignored early — the one thing that truly can measure if a team might be running into some lasting trouble — is when an injury report begins to bloat in September. Most especially when that report is filled with vital players.
This is why the Dallas Cowboys have to be feeling at least a tinge of anxiety only one game into the season. With the sudden neck concerns for anchor left tackle Tyron Smith, the injury report is quickly turning into a disaster. And in a pandemic season where the first month is expected to be vital for establishing chemistry, Dallas is going to spend at least part of it just trying to hold things together.
As it stands, the injury situation in Dallas is already ugly. Consider:
Expected defensive line starter Gerald McCoy was lost for the season with a knee injury in training camp.
Starting tight end Blake Jarwin was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 1.
Starting linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was placed on injured reserve for an undetermined time after suffering a broken clavicle in Week 1.
Starting offensive tackle La’el Collins is on injured reserve with a hip issue until at least Week 4.
Starting cornerback Anthony Brown went on injured reserve on Friday with a rib injury, and cannot practice or play for at least 21 days.
Key rotational linebacker Sean Lee is out until at least mid-October after hernia surgery.
Now, add in Smith’s ambiguous neck injury — which forced him out of practice Thursday and Friday — and that’s seven starters or key rotational players who are either done for the season or out for a period of time. None of which accounts for No. 1 wideout (and serial injury report addition) Amari Cooper already having some limited practices with a foot issue. Even in a league where injuries are part of the landscape, that’s a lot only one week into a season.
If the schedule was kind, that might mitigate some of these concerns. But the Cowboys dropped a winnable opener on the road against the Los Angeles Rams, only to head into this Sunday’s game against an Atlanta Falcons team that absolutely has the offensive proficiency to win a shootout.
And Week 3? Well, don’t look now, but it’s a road game against a Seattle Seahawks team that may be the NFL’s Super Bowl favorite. And lest anyone forget, it’s the same Seahawks team that peeled safety Jamal Adams off the New York Jets. Adams wrecked Atlanta in Week 1 and will be facing Dallas for the first time since not getting his wish of having the Cowboys make a play for him on the trade market a few months ago.
To recap: Dallas opened 0-1 in frustrating fashion and now is facing a top-tier offense in a Week 2 trap game, while limping in with a multitude of serious injury concerns and a Week 3 game that looks difficult, to say the least.
As rare as it is to experience a “need to win” scenario in Week 2, this might actually qualify. Particularly for an expectation-saddled franchise like Dallas, where new coach Mike McCarthy joked on a Friday radio appearance that recent griping about his pre-snap motions on offense was “a great criticism to deal with after one week of playing.”
Frankly, McCarthy had it only half right when earlier this week he told reporters: “At the end of the day, our honeymoon is over. It’s time to win games.”
Indeed, Dallas needs to win games — quickly. But where it concerns the fan base, there never was a honeymoon for the new head coach. That kind of thing won’t be a reality for a Cowboys coach until after he at least reaches a Super Bowl.
And make no mistake, McCarthy is going to feel the heat quickly if this team falters against the Falcons. Given the state of Atlanta’s secondary and Dallas’ considerable offensive skill position talent, this is a game the Cowboys should win — even without filling up AT&T Stadium on Sunday. The betting lines agree, too, with Dallas holding strong as a 4-point favorite late in the week, per BetMGM.
Falling short in this scenario and setting up an 0-2 hole heading to Seattle in Week 3 would jump-start all manner of nitpicking. From what McCarthy might be doing wrong, to the functionality of the offensive play-calling, to how team owner Jerry Jones is feeling and much more … rinsed and repeated vigorously.
A win Sunday would change that. But a loss to Atlanta will draw nothing less than an extension of what the Dallas roster has been feeling for the better part of a month: significant pain.
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