It is a long season, one that requires the willingness to live in the moment. You cannot start the playoffs in September and you certainly cannot think coasting is ever the disposition to take in this league. We don't know if the Cowboys were guilty of getting ahead of themselves just one game into the regular season because we have no idea what the team's mentality was in its preparation for Sunday's game in Denver. We don't know if they took their opponent as seriously as they should have and had a game plan installed that would have them ready to start on their front foot.
But we do know the results. The result was a severe beatdown of the highest order, to what is considered a fringe playoff contender in the AFC. Being physically manhandled on both sides of the ball in a way which we have seldom seen in these parts the past few years. In fact, the 25-point loss was the most punishing defeat on the scoreboard since similar humiliations in New Orleans in 2013 (by 32), in Philadelphia in 2011 (by 27) and the night Wade Phillips was fired in Green Bay back in 2010 (by 38).
Those games did not receive the same cosmetic treatment this one did, as the Cowboys were able to make the final box score a bit more flattering after the Broncos had extended the drubbing to 35-10 with six minutes to go in the third quarter. From there, the Broncos allowed the Cowboys to grow their absurdly low offensive numbers from 92 yards to 268 (still atrocious, but no longer historically atrocious) and their first down total from six to 16. But the damage was there for all to see. Dallas was never remotely competitive in this game from the opening kickoff, when they meekly surrendered a quick three-and-out series and then allowed Denver to march 78 yards right down the field and punch in the opening touchdown.
The next sequence was more of the same -- Dallas seeing that Denver wanted to crash the line of scrimmage to force it out of running the ball, so the Cowboys never really forced the Broncos to stop the run game. Instead, the Broncos wanted to make Dak Prescott beat them and the Cowboys seemed comfortable with that challenge. And one can hardly blame them, because they went to Pittsburgh and Green Bay last year -- two other environments renowned for being so difficult to find success at if you're the road team with a young quarterback -- and the Cowboys were able to systematically destroy both of those defenses in front of their adoring fans. Why would this be any different?
Perhaps because neither of those teams were able to challenge the Cowboys' defense in the ways this Denver team could. We grant you that this is a new year, and that Denver's defense will need to prove it is still elite now that Wade Phillips and DeMarcus Ware are no longer a part of it, but consider the following:
-- The Broncos were No. 1 in the NFL in passer rating allowed in 2016 (69.7; the league average was 89.3).
-- They were No. 1 in the NFL in completion percentage allowed in 2016 (55.4 percent; the league average was 63 percent).
-- They were No. 1 in the NFL in passer rating allowed when the quarterback was not being pressured (78.3; the league average was 96.9).
-- And they were No. 1 in the NFL in not allowing 20-yard passes (5.8 percent; the league average was 8.7 percent).
So, as we tick down that list, it is easier to understand Prescott's passer rating of 68.6 with a completion percentage of 60 percent and just one 20-yard play (the 28-yard touchdown to Jason Witten well after the game was decided). The Broncos have the personnel in their secondary to match up, get physical and prevent a catch of substance. If they do, they definitely aren't going to allow big runs after the catch because the physical mentality of their defensive backs is right there with Seattle, and similar to those Seahawks, putting pressure on the quarterbacks helps, but it is not mandatory. Even if Prescott gets a clean pocket and time to look, there is just not much to see downfield.
Once you enter the game with this plan of allowing the pass to set up the run, you begin chasing the game upfield as the defense has no real ability to slow the Broncos down. This was certainly not Peyton Manning with all the weapons that helped his Broncos reach two Super Bowls in three seasons, but there was still enough from quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and a very competitive running back in C.J. Anderson. Thomas, Sanders and Anderson all had moments when they humiliated the Cowboys and their efforts to "tackle" them in space, and Dallas gave up explosive plays to each of them. Siemian gained the respect of the Cowboys by repeating throws that often only required one move from the target to test the ability of his defender to stay with him. The answers were harsh and repetitive.
Tackling hurts. We can watch the league every Sunday and see how defensive backs often don't wish to engage in this sort of physical contact when they are undersized and overmatched. Business decisions are contagious, and it certainly didn't seem that the personnel on the field Sunday was capable of putting a stop to the Broncos' threats. That is how this game works. If Nolan Carroll or Byron Jones, or even the great Sean Lee are not going to do better than that when it comes to tackling, then this defense will have no chance. This defense requires a fair amount of conservative positioning combined with all 11 showing the ability to surround the ballcarrier and bring him to the ground. Yesterday was the opposite of Week 1's performance -- likely because the opponent was not so agreeable -- and all it took were some high-percentage throws wide to the flanks, and then the Broncos would make the one guy miss and be off to the races.
The defense was quite poor. That is putting it nicely. It allowed five touchdowns in the first seven drives and the other two were: a drive that stalled when Siemian missed an open Bennie Fowler on third down that was followed by a missed field goal, and the other drive was stopped when DeMarcus Lawrence continued his exceptional early-season play (helps to have another very poor right tackle to face in Menelik Watson, but still) by getting a sack and the strip to help the Cowboys get into the end zone the one time they did before the game was declared over.
There was so much to discuss from Sunday's humiliation that we've made it to this point of the report without even discussing the specifics of the offensive performance beyond Denver's defense just being really good. And make no mistake, Denver has beaten down some very impressive offenses at its place and those teams still went on to have great years and, in some cases, even win the Super Bowl. Denver is a very difficult place to play and in September, you absolutely face the issues of altitude after a soft, modern-day training camp in which the main players hardly get 50 snaps through the entirety of the preseason. So, to then ask for 70-plus snaps in one afternoon when oxygen is thin often greatly swings things for Denver.
But this game also had the special factor of the lightning delay. When you start the game as lethargic and as out of sorts as the Cowboys did this game, you likely don't deserve the football gods to smile down on you and let you to take your rear ends to the locker room to rethink things. But the Cowboys apparently did not think they had issues with their plan.
I would beg to differ.
We used to see this all the time with Jason Garrett's offense. It would have a different game plan for hostile settings, which would often be to run the two-minute drill all day and never even bother trying to establish a run game. There was a time when they were a passive and finesse offense. But, of course, that was before Dallas decided to rebuild the dynasty offensive line of the 1990s. Since assembling this offensive line with first-round picks and a cap number that is already going to be $50 million in 2018 for just the four big-money guys, this coaching staff has remembered to use it. They have understood that circumstances matter for this offense, and that playing the way they want to play requires a conviction to run physically to set up their play-action package. They run the ball and they believe in controlling the game and the clock. They believe their quarterback is good, but they don't want to ask him to leave his comfort zone.
And they can dictate those terms quite a bit. For reasons that are not clear, the Cowboys lost the plot yesterday, and we could easily argue they were outcoached -- even after they had an hour to go in the locker room, huddle up as a brain trust and think it over as the storm passed.
If you recall, the delay occurred with 33 seconds to go in the first quarter and the score still in a fortuitous spot of 7-0 in favor of Denver. Dallas had the ball at the Denver 46, facing a second-and-10. From there, the next 14 snaps and offensive plays were: pass, pass (scramble), run, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass and pass.
That befuddles me to no end.
The worst part was being handed the gift of what amounts to a defensive touchdown, evening the game at 7-7 (somehow, despite how poorly things were going), and then when Denver comes back down and converts a field goal into a touchdown (off that leveraging penalty on Lawrence that is just the worst call of the day), you take over with 5:54 left in the second quarter. Everything is fine. You have tried one way and it didn't work, but now you have the ball, can calmly rediscover your identity and try to tie the game up before halftime. Basic stuff, right?
That is when they came out and decided to start slinging the ball around from shotgun. Poor throw to Dez Bryant on the slant. Quick dump to Terrance Williams. Third-and-4 was the offensive pass interference call on Bryant and third-and-14 was the ball Brice Butler should have caught but did not, which would not have moved the chains, anyway. How they go through that sequence without lining up in a physical formation (under center) to force Denver to prove it can stop the $50 million dollar O-line and Ezekiel Elliott is just as frustrating as it gets.
Oh, speaking of Elliott.
I don't know when Elliott actually hung the moon for the rest of us, but for a 22-year old running back who is standing five yards away to put his hands on his hips and not even flinch as Chris Harris Jr. intercepted a pass, let alone consider helping his teammates chase Harris down, is just the epitome of horrendous. There is no excuse for that, and I hope he is properly humiliated when the team watches film Monday and sees how little he cared to pitch in and help. We all know his authority figures in the organization are very unlikely to light him up for that, but perhaps a teammate or two will let him know that greater players than him didn't find it difficult to keep trying when the day was not going their way. That was very, very poor.
This performance was horrid all around. Two thousand words was not enough to spend time on each aspect. But let's also understand that this is a tough league and it happens to just about every single team in the business.
But hopefully to the guys in the uniforms, the message is clear: You don't just show up and expect to win. In this game, they gave the impression that the Broncos should have been honored to be in the same stadium. Denver slapped the Cowboys around all afternoon and gave them a humiliation they hadn't felt in a long time.
Did they learn anything from that humbling? We shall soon find out.