EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The noise surrounded the Dallas Cowboys all offseason.
Can Dak Prescott, who threw a league-leading 15 intereceptions in 12 games last season, take care of the football? Can he and his receivers get on the same page?
With that backdrop, consider what the Cowboys did when they stomped into the New York Giants’ home and pummeled them, 40-0.
The Cowboys repeatedly forced and then capitalized off of Giants mistakes, while playing a clean game of their own.
Will 13-of-24 passing for 143 yards and a 6-yard rush be enough for Prescott to lead the Cowboys across the next 16-plus contests? Probably not. But does it tell a story deeper than the 72.0 passer rating or the zero touchdowns he directly accounted for?
On a rainy night in New Jersey, success wasn’t going to come in the form of spectacular completions and aggressive play calls. Both teams had a few — CeeDee Lamb taking a catch-and-run 49 yards; Darren Waller spinning for an airborne 22-yard catch on fourth-and-5 — but they were always going to be the exception rather than the rule.
Giants quarterback Daniel Jones often received snaps in the grass, costing him time against the Cowboys' oncoming rush. Was Giants kicker Graham Gano’s blocked field goal in the first quarter related to the damp conditions? It’s tough to know for sure, but the 58-yard touchdown the Cowboys scored off it just six minutes into the game ultimately proved the turning point in what Waller would later describe as an “avalanche.”
So Prescott’s ability to not throw one of those interceptions that plagued last season is notable. The Cowboys’ ability to not lose a fumble reflects their training. (Running back Tony Pollard did cough up a red-zone fumble in the fourth quarter, but center Tyler Biadasz hurriedly recovered it ahead of where Pollard had been, netting the Cowboys a gain.)
Dallas practiced with rain-soaked footballs during practices leading up to the game. Head coach Mike McCarthy, in his first game calling plays for the Cowboys, instituted what he called a weather plan.
“I don't ever want to say ‘conservative’ — I think you have to be smart in spots there,” McCarthy said. “I thought Dak did an excellent job commanding and being smart in the decision making, particularly because you can see the way the game started there early. After their first drive, the ball, protecting the football was going to be a big challenge tonight.
“Dak and the offense did a really nice job with that.”
Which allowed the Cowboys’ defense to truly unleash.
Micah Parsons: 'We’re the best defense in the National Football League'
The Cowboys have long touted a “rush-and-cover” mindset on defense.
Most of the takeaways they created ultimately reflect team efforts.
Safety Juanyeh Thomas blocked the first-quarter field-goal attempt, while cornerback Noah Igbinoghene returned it for a 58-yard touchdown. Trevon Diggs was credited with a pass breakup for the physical tackle that knocked the ball loose from Giants running back Saquon Barkley; fellow cornerback DaRon Bland then secured the ball and returned it for a touchdown. A later Diggs forced fumble set up safety Israel Mukuamu to recover.
Cowboys have raved about safety depth. But at CB?
*Igbinoghene returns blocked FG for TD
*Trevon Diggs broke up pass to set up INT
*DaRon Bland took that INT for TD
*Stephon Gilmore caught diving INT as Daniel Jones went out of bounds
In under 2 quarterspic.twitter.com/TSQa8kvnY5
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 11, 2023
Even on Stephon Gilmore’s diving interception, Micah Parsons hit Jones as he went out of bounds with 10:55 to play in the second quarter. The Giants quarterback tried to make a play in what he would call “a poor decision in a situation where I was trying to force something that wasn’t there.” Parsons expects to pressure opponents into poor decisions and create just such outcomes.
“I told [Gilmore] he can do whatever he wants as long as I’m on the field,” Parsons said in the postgame locker room, “and I told him he owes me some money because I helped him get an interception.
“I feel like it’s worth $1,000. He agrees. It’s all games and jokes.”
What isn’t games and jokes: the message the Cowboys’ defense sent the NFL as they spearheaded their most resounding shutout in club history and the first 40-plus-point road shutout opener the NFL has seen in 24 years, per ESPN Stats and Info.
The Giants are the only team in the NFL who didn’t put up any points, with one game remaining in Week 1. The San Francisco 49ers posted a similarly impressive 30-7 victory over the Steelers. The Cleveland Browns upset their own division rival in a 24-3 decision against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn earns praise for his ability to scheme players creatively to maximize their skills and versatility. But as much so, his unit played fast and furious. It set the tone, with 27 of Dallas’ 40 points coming from turnover-gifted possessions. This defense came to MetLife ready.
“I think we made the statement which I’ve been trying to make: We’re the best defense in the National Football League,” Parsons said. “When preparation meets execution, I think there’s no one that can beat it.”
As Aaron Rodgers looms, Cowboys know shutout is fleeting
That emphasis on “preparation” will be what fuels the Cowboys. Parsons gave perhaps the most confident assessment of the team’s win, but even he graded his individual performance more moderately than he graded his team’s collective performance. His handwork on rushes? Could be better, Parsons told Yahoo Sports. His finish? “We gotta get cleaned up.” He ultimately determined he played “OK.”
“I came out healthy, I’m feeling good, and I get to go against Aaron Rodgers next week,” Parsons said. “I think everything always can become greater within myself and the level I want to play with. I own my mistakes and just try to get better from them.”
The Cowboys host the New York Jets next week, looking to beat Rodgers for the first time since 2016 — and even that season, Rodgers rebounded to eliminate them from the playoffs.
No rain will disrupt the JerryWorld contest. Rodgers’ protection may be shoddy like the Cowboys saw vs. the Giants, but his ability to escape and extend plays supersedes that of Daniel Jones.
The Jets also will arrive with a deeper receiving corps for Dallas’ corners to face, beginning with 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson. And while last season’s rankings reflect only this season’s roster to a degree, the Jets posted the fourth-best scoring defense to the Giants’ 17th-best.
Emerging with a win should require changes in strategy and in caliber of play.
That’s what awaits the Cowboys next, beginning with a chance to watch the Jets live Monday night against the Buffalo Bills. Focus there, Prescott encouraged his teammates, rather than resting too heavily on the 40-point laurels.
“First game,” Prescott said. “That’s y’all’s job to write whatever statement it needs to be. For us, it’s about not getting ahead of ourselves, continuing to stay disciplined … and making sure we use that in our preparation throughout this week. Then moving forward to next week, going home against another New York team, a good team — it’s the NFL. You’ve got to show up week in and week out and be prepared.
“You don’t see a lot of wins like this so we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves on this.”