No excuses for reeling and COVID-ravaged Dallas Cowboys, they must beat the Saints

·5 min read
Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com

Nothing is ideal about what the Dallas Cowboys have to deal with heading into Thursday night’s game against the Saints in New Orleans.

Yes, they are 7-4, however, they’re riding a two-game losing streak and have lost three of their last four games.

They had hoped that Thursday’s game against the 5-6 Saints would represent the end of their November nightmare. They knew they were going to have a full week to work through issues that became evident with back-to-back losses in five-day span during Thanksgiving week. And they would be buoyed by the return of their top two receivers, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, from COVID-19 and injury.

But that was before the Cowboys’ clubhouse became a cluster of coronavirus, with an outbreak that has sidelined seven coaches, including head coach Mike McCarthy, and two players, led by right tackle Terence Steele.

McCarthy is the third head coach this season to miss a game due to COVID-19, joining Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals and Matt Nagy of the Chicago Bears.

And while Cooper will play on Thursday, he’ll be doing so with just one day of a limited practice under his belt. He had lingering symptoms on Monday and Tuesday, but he practiced Wednesday and was removed from the NFL’s COVID-19 list before the team boarded the plane to New Orleans.

The big questions will be about the number of plays he’ll be able to be in for along with how effective he will be when he’s on the field given how long he’s been away.

The Saints are riding a four-game losing streak and playing with a backup quarterback in Taysom Hill, who has plantar fasciitis.

For a reeling Cowboys team, which has seen it’s once seemingly insurmountable lead in the NFC East dwindle to just two games with six games to go, no one has time for any excuses.

This is not only a game that the Cowboys must win; this is a game the Cowboys have to win.

“It’s very urgent,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “This is a team that’s hungry and that’s pissed off simply about the way that we’ve executed and the way we’ve played. It’s about us looking in the mirror and checking us first and foremost, and that’s what we’ve done. So right now, it’s just about going out there and, as I said, doing everything that we can to heighten our focus, our mindset and our execution come Thursday to make sure that we come out with a victory.”

Prescott said the team will be challenged to play without McCarthy, but they have great confidence in themselves and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who will serve as the interim coach on Thursday night.

Quinn coached the Atlanta Falcons from 2015-20 and took them to the Super Bowl in 2016, making him the obvious choice to replace McCarthy, said team owner Jerry Jones.

“We’re so fortunate to have him and so fortunate to have him as recently as he’s head coached and been on the sideline,” Jones said. “He should be able to handle what he needs to do as defensive coordinator right there on the sideline. He was the obvious choice there for Mike to make. The team really believes in him.”

Cowboys’ key to victory

The key for the Cowboys Thursday, however, will be more about Prescott and offense, which has lost its swagger over the last month.

The biggest dropoff has been in the running game, which has averaged 3.2 yards per carry over the last four games after averaging 5.0 yards a carry during their six-game winning streak.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott, who has been slowed by a knee injury since October, has 149 rushing yards in the last four games, the lowest four-game total of his career. It’s also the first time he has gone four straight games without topping 51 yards.

He had a combined 18 carries for 57 yards in back-to-back losses to the Kansas City Chiefs (nine carries, 32 yards) and the Las Vegas Raiders (nine carries, 25 yards).

And now the Cowboys face the Saints without offensive line coach Joe Philbin and assistant offensive line coach Jeff Blasko, who are both out with COVID-19. Tight ends coach Lunda Wells has taken on those duties in their absence.

It doesn’t help that the Saints rank third in the NFL against the run, surrendering an average of 92 yards per game and a league-best 3.4 yards per rush. However, the Saints have given up a combined 355 yards rushing in their last two games against the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills.

All the Cowboys know is that they have to run the ball better so that their offense can operate at its maximum efficiency.

“Running the football has to be important to us,” Elliott said. “I think it helps this offense. I think we’re a better football team when we can run it well.”

The Raiders took advantage of the absences of Cooper and Lamb and keyed in on the run.

The Cowboys hope the return of their receivers will open up the passing game for Prescott by punishing defenses that opt to crowd the line of scrimmage.

This is the first game since the season opener that Prescott will have his top three receivers in Cooper, Lamb and Michael Gallup on the field.

“We all know that’s complementary,” Jones said. “You don’t need to hear how your success in your passing game, your early success, your plays down the field, how that fundamentally impacts that running game. So, it’s a coordinated effort. I just think overall just from the standpoint of working together that we got a better chance to play offense.”

“But I know this,” Jones added. “I think we’ll go in there with our ears pinned back. I think we’ll go in there with everybody recognizing how much this game means and play well offensively.”

Just win. No excuses.

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