This isn’t the clean slate that the Dallas Cowboys were anticipating.
After a 6-10 season that was marred by injuries, the team had hoped that they would be able to get everyone back, and keep them healthy. And to address their many woes on defense, the Cowboys added 16 new players through the draft and free agency.
But life doesn’t work on an expected schedule and the NFL has always served as a cruel reminder that players are disposable commodities who can come and go on a weekly basis.
So here sit the Cowboys (0-1) heading into a Week 2 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers (1-0) with as many as six starters unavailable to play.
Since a surprisingly strong and uplifting performance in a 31-29 season opening loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they have lost receiver Michael Gallup (calf) and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (fractured foot) for several weeks with injuries.
Right tackle La’el Collins is out five games, due to a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Defensive end Randy Gregory tested positive for COVID-19 and will not play against the Chargers.
Safety Donovan Wilson didn’t practice all week after re-aggravating a groin injury. And safety Damontae Kazee showed up on the injury report on Thursday with a thigh injury.
And this doesn’t even include the loss of assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett, who didn’t make the trip after undergoing surgery repair a torn quad tendon suffered during sled in practice on Wednesday, or scary sight of backup tackle Ty Nsekhe being taken to the hospital by ambulance after practice due to heat-related issues on Thursday.
As Prescott so eloquently stated, “It sucks.”
But there is no here-we-go-again mindset on the Cowboys.
“I don’t think so. I don’t feel that way. I don’t get that sense from our players at all,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “The reality of it is, this is how it goes year in and year out. We’re focused on who’s the next guy up, the opportunities. And really from a coaching perspective we just want to make sure we put these guys in position to be successful.
“We’re dialed in to winning this game.”
The Cowboys have had some setbacks.
But buoyed by Prescott and his inspiring play against the Buccaneers — he passed for 403 yards and three touchdowns and showed no signs of rust after not playing in 11 months due to ankle and shoulder injuries — the Cowboys are headed to Los Angeles with winning on their mind.
What will be waiting for them is a Chargers team that looked very impressive in winning their season opener, defeating Washington, 20-16, on the road.
“We know we’ve got to get better with what we have, with this opportunity for guys to step up,” Prescott said.
Said cornerback Travon Diggs: I feel like it’s adversity, you know? Everybody faces a little adversity. It wouldn’t make the season fun if it wasn’t.”
Winning on the road and avoiding the dreaded 0-2 hole
Out of the 258 NFL teams that began a season 0-2 since 1990, only 30 advanced to the postseason (11.6 percent).
Since 1990, the Cowboys have started 0-2 four times: 1993, 2000, 2001 and 2010.
The only time they made the playoffs after starting 0-2 was in 1993, the season in which they closed winning 12 of their next 14 games and won the second of their back-to-back Super Bowl titles in the 1990s.
Of course, the only reason they started 0-2 that year was because they were playing without Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, who was holding out in a contract dispute.
They finished 12-4 in 1993, 5-11 in 2000 and 2001, and 6-10 in 2010.
So if past history is an indication, unless this team has hidden Super Bowl dynasty talent and a returning Hall of Famer as in 1993, getting a win on Sunday is important to any hopes they have of making the playoffs.
The same can be said about winning on the road.
The Cowboys missed the playoffs by one game last season, despite going 6-10.
In addition to the injuries, blame can be placed on a 2-6 road record.
This is the team’s second road game of the season. They are already 0-1.
In addition to their traditional NFC East opponents in Washington, Philadelphia and the New York Giants, a rough slate of road games lie ahead, including matchups at the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints.
The Chargers won’t make it easy.
“I mean, winning on the road is the hardest,” McCarthy said. “It always has been in my experience. It’s their home opener.”
The good news is that the game may not have the traditional feel of a road game.
The Cowboys have a large fan base in Southern California and could have more fans at the game than the Chargers in what will be their first home game in front of fans at SoFi Stadium.
The Chargers moved into the building last year and played in an empty stadium due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are America’s Team,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “We have fans globally, especially in LA. We are looking forward to having our fans out and doing whatever it takes to get a victory.”
Where will pass rush come from?
It goes without saying that the Dallas Cowboys will be hamstrung facing the Chargers and quarterback Justin Herbert on Sunday without their two best pass rushers in DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory and possibly both starting safeties in Donovan Wilson and Damontae Kazee.
The safety position is offset by the presence of former first-round pick Malik Hooker who is expected to step in place of Wilson and Kazee.
But the Cowboys have no proven options to replace Lawrence and Gregory.
And after getting no sacks and giving up 379 yards and four touchdowns to Tom Brady in the season-opening loss to the Buccaneers, getting pressure on Herbert is a must.
Herbert threw a rookie-record 31 touchdown passes last year and had 337 yards and a touchdown in a win over Washington last Sunday.
With Lawrence and Gregory out, the five remaining defensive ends are Tarell Basham, Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae, Azur Kamara and Chauncey Golston. They have combined for 10 sacks in their careers, including 7.5 from Basham.
Lawrence has 45.5 sacks for his career and is a two-time Pro Bowl pick. And Gregory has 10.5 sacks.
Coach Mike McCarthy called Lawrence, “a prime-time player for us.”
The Cowboys will miss not just his pass-rush ability and run stopping.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Lawrence (204) is one of four players since 2017 to generate at least 200 first pressures. Aaron Donald (257), Cameron Jordan (231) and Khalil Mack (215) are the others.
Since 2017, DeMarcus Lawrence has forced 11 turnovers caused by pressure, tied for sixth-most in the NFL in that span.
“His tenacity and energy and he plays with is what you will miss,” McCarthy said.
But the Cowboys have a plan in place for the defensive end position against the Chargers.
Basham and Armstrong will start but there will be a heavy rotation with Anae, Azur and possibly Gholston.
The Cowboys will also use talented rookie first-round pick Micah Parsons, who starts at middle linebacker, as an edge rusher on passing downs.
“He can definitely play on the edge,” Basham said of Parsons. “Naturally athletic, naturally gifted, naturally knows how to rush the passer. I wouldn’t be surprised. Would you?”
And there is no loss of confidence among the Cowboys defenders.
While outside pundits are worried about how the injury-riddled Cowboys are going to match up against the Chargers, Basham is looking forward to a match up he hopes to take advantage of.
“I personally wanted to play against [Chargers OT Bryan Bulaga],” Basham said. “I played against him last year [when he was with the Jets] and I had fun with that. I was hoping to see him again.”