The talk for the Dallas Cowboys this season was about whether they could finally make a deep playoff run after a disappointing loss in a wild-card game last season continued a 26-season streak of not making it past the divisional round.
There was some concern over the trading away of receiver Amari Cooper. But Dallas had the most potent offense in the league last season, scoring 530 points, and quarterback Dak Prescott had thrown for 37 touchdowns. At the very least, Dallas looked like the favorite to win the N.F.C. East.
Then came Week 1. Making the playoffs at all seems a little far-fetched after Tom Brady, 45, and running back Leonard Fournette schooled the Cowboys defense, and the Dallas offense never came close to a touchdown in a 19-3 home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Worse, Prescott fractured his thumb when it hit a defender while he was throwing a fourth quarter pass. He will miss several weeks for surgery, the team said; multiple media reports put the estimate at six to eight weeks.
“I’ve hit my hand on helmets or bodies a lot in my career,” Prescott said after the game. “Never really had anything, maybe a jammed finger. I actually thought that’s what it was. The next play I realized I couldn’t grip the ball.”
It was enough for the more fatalistic Cowboy fans to declare the season over already.
After a dull first half, which ended with Tampa ahead, 4-1, in field goals (and 12-3 in points), Brady got first his touchdown pass of the year in the third quarter, which provided the final margin of victory. That Fournette got 21 carries for 127 yards, including 40 yards on the drive that led to the touchdown, showed that Tampa was confident it had the game in hand nearly the whole time.
The ageless Brady finished 18 of 27 for 212 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Without Cooper to throw to, Prescott struggled, finishing 14 of 29 for 134 yards and an interception. Last season’s top offense never got on track: Ezekiel Elliott ran for 52 yards, and Prescott didn’t throw a completion longer than 22 yards.
The Cowboys’ backup quarterback is Cooper Rush, a fifth-year player who was undrafted out of Central Michigan. He had his first career start last season filling in for Prescott and led the team to a win over the Vikings, but to call him untested would be an understatement.
Cowboys fans who sounded off on message boards were glum even before the news of Prescott’s injury, taking themselves to task for getting their hopes up, and blaming the receiving corps, and that perennial scapegoat, Coach Mike McCarthy.
“It’s a long journey; this is Week 1,” McCarthy gamely said after the game. As for the catastrophic performance, he had a relatively sunny take: “Offensively, our rhythm was up and down.”
Looking forward, he said, “We’ll definitely rally around Cooper.”
When news of Prescott’s injury filtered out, fans started calling for picking up or trading for a variety of quarterbacks, while the more cynical among them began talking about drafting one next year with a pick that could now be pretty high up in the first round.
Meanwhile, the other three teams in the N.F.C. East all won — yes, even the Giants! That leaves Dallas in an unexpected spot for what might be awhile: last place.
Next up for Dallas: Joe Burrow and the Bengals, who will be eager for victory after a frustrating loss to the Steelers.