ARLINGTON, Texas — With his surgery-bound right hand hanging at his side and his words pointed forward seemingly out of habit, Dak Prescott asked for the one thing that will be in short supply for the Dallas Cowboys.
“This is game one,” Prescott said following a costly 19-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Let’s not hit the panic [button] as if we just can’t do anything on offense. We have a great coaching staff. They’ll get back in there and they’ll find the things that we did well.”
Far be it for anyone to tell Prescott how he should feel — after all, it’s his broken hand and his banged up start to the season after he had surgery on Monday— but even under the most optimistic circumstances, it’s time for panic among Dallas fans, Cowboys ownership and most certainly for head coach Mike McCarthy, who was already on awkward footing before the season in front of him got exponentially steeper Sunday night.
When Sunday started for Dallas, it was already a story of attrition. There were questions about cheaply parting ways with wideout Amari Cooper and right tackle La’el Collins. There was a lack of quality depth at receiver and along the offensive line. There were questions about the running back rotation and the continued oddity of team owner Jerry Jones seeing the offense as functioning through Ezekiel Elliott. And if all of that wasn’t enough to raise concern, there was the preseason injury to anchor left tackle Tyron Smith, which made it feel like anxiety around the team had peaked.
Then came Sunday night. And a cruel reminder of recent history.
As it turns out, things can definitely get worse for the Cowboys. And it can happen as quickly as Prescott smacking his throwing hand into a defender, then suddenly realizing that he can’t grip the football anymore. A development that spirals into watching team COO Stephen Jones exit the Cowboys' locker room clench-jawed and seething, while Jerry Jones waded into a cocoon of reporters to reveal that the start of the season has just gone to hell.
“Dak will be out for a while,” Jerry Jones said. (An ESPN report late Sunday pegged the time frame at 6-8 weeks.) “So, we’ll be dealing with that as well. This was a really tough night for the Cowboys and a really surprising night.”
A few moments later, Prescott’s teammates began hearing the news about their quarterback’s throwing hand, which was injured in the fourth quarter of the loss and will require surgery this week.
“Nah, I didn’t know that,” wideout CeeDee Lamb said when told about Prescott’s injury. “But now I do. Well that sucks.”
As emotions went Sunday night, Lamb’s gut reaction was arguably the most authentic to be found. Maybe because it encapsulated the frustration of what has circled the Cowboys since last season’s playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. A vague eye-roll feeling of “now what” that stitched together an offseason filled with drama (with players and ownership) along with talent drain and a salary cap surplus that is uncharacteristic for the franchise.
Looking back, well that sucks could have been one of the themed T-shirts often seen around the Cowboys' training camps. But perhaps never moreso than Sunday night, when everything seemed to fit that exact refrain.
Prescott might disagree and plead for a retreat from the panic button, but there was already plenty to be concerned about before his injury occurred. Starting with an offensive line that looked like it had plenty of work ahead of it without Tyron Smith holding down the left side. Most especially right tackle Terence Steele, who had multiple costly penalties and generally struggled through much of the night. Extend that to a backfield that might have been serviceable if Elliott hadn’t been needed so much in blocking schemes, to a group of wide receivers that looks entirely average.
If that’s not enough anxiety, throw the game on and pay close attention to Prescott, who wasn’t exactly having a good performance prior to injuring his hand. Now in his seventh season as starter, 2022 already represents the post-honeymoon era of Prescott’s career, in which people should begin asking whether he’s really one of the league’s best dozen or so quarterbacks. He didn’t look like it for much of Sunday night.
You can blame that on the talent around Prescott or the offensive scheme or whatever else. But at some point, he’s bound to become a larger part of the discussion about what is wrong in Dallas. Now with another injury that’s going to take him out of the picture for who knows how long (not to mention him playing at sub-optimal health in 2021), it’s fair for many to be frustrated about his health, too.
This is now all part of the equation in Dallas. It’s hammered into the bedrock of storylines that will reside beneath this team in 2022. Right alongside the fate of McCarthy, the unfamiliar calculus of ownership’s salary-cap plan and the general state of an offense that should be better (or at least far more productive) than it was in Week 1.
For those who weren’t expecting much out of the Cowboys in 2022 — which is not really how the fan base works — things might seem right on schedule. But for those who had thoughts of weathering the talent loss and being carried by Prescott on offense, this probably feels like a catastrophic start. Even before the franchise quarterback exited with an issue that is going to require a surgical fix, you could see the cracks in the offense that had formed in the offseason.
Now it will look worse without Prescott. Much worse. So go ahead and hit the panic button. For the next few weeks, it might be the only thing that functions the way it’s supposed to in Dallas.