JARRETT BELL

Dak Prescott's injury is final straw for Cowboys' playoff hopes. Yes, already. | Opinion

Dak Prescott's injury is too much to overcome for a Cowboys' team that is already facing a litany of other woes.

Jarrett Bell
USA TODAY

DALLAS – Doomsday is here again.

It’s too bad that we’re not talking about a return to the signature defenses that were once fielded by the Dallas Cowboys. With quarterback Dak Prescott’s fractured throwing hand added to a litany of woes that already made the Cowboys so suspect to pose as a contender, this is sky-is-falling Doomsday.

Face it, Cowboys Nation. The season is shot. Already.

That’s not a Week 1 overreaction. It’s a Week 1 reality check.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Devin White (45) and defensive tackle Willington Previlon (94) sack Dallas Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush (10) during the second half at AT&T Stadium.

Prescott underwent surgery on his thumb Monday. He is expected to be sidelined for up to four weeks, per Jerry Jones, the impatient owner who updated the original projection of six to eight weeks Tuesday, leaving Cooper Rush to run an offense that was already a weakened imitation of last year’s outfit. On Sunday night, it showed up to get pulverized by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the embarrassing season opener.

Don’t hit the panic button? That was Prescott’s message when he met with reporters following the 19-3 loss. It would have been just as appropriate to beg for mercy.

Remember the last time Prescott suffered a significant injury? That happened in Week 5 of the 2020 campaign when Prescott was lost for the season with a fractured ankle. The Cowboys finished 6-10, including losing their first four games after Prescott's injury, and Andy Dalton went 4-5 during his time starting.  

It might be even worse this time around. I mean, the unproven Rush, even with his red hair, is no Dalton.

Maybe Rush, a fifth-year vet, will shock the world. The Cowboys company line – trumpeted by Jones, coach Mike McCarthy and then some – is that Rush knows the system inside-out. Maybe so. But saving this season is such a tall task.

McCarthy, on the hot seat before the season began, can’t afford to wallow in misery. Prescott’s injury may not buy the coach any more time. Remember, Jones canned Wade Phillips in the midst of a 2010 season that was derailed by Tony Romo’s broken clavicle.

Then again, McCarthy has something to draw on from his tenure as Green Bay Packers coach. The 2013 campaign was poised to go up in smoke at midseason when Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone. McCarthy turned to Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn until Rodgers made it back in late December. And the Packers wound up finishing 8-7-1 to win the NFC North crown.

That bit of history is one reason why McCarthy was defiant on the day after Prescott went down. Say what to the naysayers?

“I just say this: You’ve got to stick to the journey,” McCarthy told reporters on Monday. “Our theme this year is resilience. We knew we were going to have challenges. You can’t get to where you want to go without them. We got a bunch in Week 1.”

McCarthy was challenged to turn the Cowboys into the first team to repeat as NFC East champs since the Philadelphia Eagles in 2004. Now the Eagles look even more like the team to beat in the division, while the Cowboys claimed last place as the only NFC East team to lose its opener.

For as much as the Cowboys sing the praises of Rush, they owe it to themselves to land a viable veteran alternative. There’s never much out there in street free agents, but why not kick the tires on Cam Newton? Beyond that, it would make sense to call the San Francisco 49ers and make a play for Jimmy Garoppolo – although the 49ers should be reluctant to deal him now, given the spotty starting debut by Trey Lance – and it is worth calling the Miami Dolphins to inquire about Teddy Bridgewater. It can’t hurt to ask.

In the meantime, McCarthy and Dallas’ whiz-kid offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore, have much work to do beyond trying to fill Prescott’s shoes. While Prescott hardly looked like one of the league’s best quarterbacks in the primetime opener, the bigger picture had to be just as discouraging for Cowboys loyalists. What happened to the juggernaut that led the NFL in yardage and scoring last season? That was then. At the moment, it looks a lot like subtraction by subtraction.

Gone are savvy, deep threat receiver Amari Cooper and right tackle La’el Collins. The grizzled left tackle, Tyron Smith, is on injured reserve again with a torn hamstring, the latest setback that has become part of the pattern in the latter stages of his career.

That left Dallas with first-round rookie Tyler Smith at left tackle and a developmental third-year right tackle in Terence Steele – who committed four of the Cowboys’ 10 penalties on Sunday night. Another blow came early when left guard Connor McGovern suffered a high ankle sprain that will likely sideline him for several weeks.

So, yes, the O-line is a hot mess.

Then there are the skilled-positioned parts. Cee Dee Lamb, a former first-rounder, is a legit playmaker. But without Cooper and Michael Gallup (yet to return from the torn ACL that ended his 2021 season) in the mix with Lamb, the Bucs demonstrated what will likely become the norm. They essentially took Lamb out of the game with double-coverage schemes, which was less of a challenge when considering the rest of the receivers corps is rather average.

Zeke Elliott and Tony Pollard? That 1-2 backfield punch is a lot more potent when the bigger picture is fueled by the prolific passing game the Cowboys had in previous years. Elliott averaged 5.2 yards per carry against the Bucs (finishing with 52 yards) and flashed some of his old explosiveness. Yet it seems a bit much to expect the Cowboys to thrive with the type of bread-and-butter rushing attack that they rolled with in 2016 behind a dominant offensive line. It will take much more, with or without Prescott.

It’s a long season. Perhaps the Cowboys can ride a defense sparked by phenomenal second-year linebacker Micah Parsons, who would have fit right in with those Doomsday defenses from previous generations.

More likely, this campaign will go down as another test of Jones’ patience, another measure of the resolve of the NFL’s biggest fan base.

Doomsday is back. And it's too bad that for Cowboys fans it means terror that goes way beyond defense.