A little over a week ago, Greg Zuerlein put the Dallas Cowboys' season-opening loss on himself. That is the kind of responsibility elite-level kickers are supposed to take when they miss two relatively makable field goals and an extra point, miscues that played a big role in a 31-29 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the NFL’s nationally televised kickoff game.
There’s a flip side at the position. Elite-level kickers can make amends fast. And in the process, they can save their head coach a world of grief in a moment when he has mismanaged the end of a game.
So went Zuerlein’s Week 2, when he connected on a 56-yard field goal as time expired, delivering a much-needed 20-17 road win over the Los Angeles Chargers and erasing some poor clock decisions by coach Mike McCarthy in the final seconds. All of this leaves Dallas to embrace a disjointed crossroads following the win: hoping that Zuerlein seized a moment to slide back into a kicking groove; but also crossing its fingers that McCarthy’s management was a lapse rather than a trend dating back to similar clock flubs running the Green Bay Packers.
That might be the most tangible takeaway from Sunday. Dallas had opportunities to go off the rails but didn’t, leaving the Cowboys with an impressive road win in the face of adversity. Not only was Dallas missing both of its starting defensive ends — Randy Gregory down with COVID-19 and DeMarcus Lawrence out with a broken foot — but it didn’t have starting right tackle La’el Collins due to suspension, leaving much-maligned Terence Steele to face Joey Bosa much of the night.
The result: A fairly elastic defense came together with rookie Micah Parsons playing on the edge and the offensive line played its best game of the season, holding Bosa sackless and imposing itself in key moments.
In the larger picture, it’s a very feel-good moment for a Dallas team that has shown a penchant in recent years of crumbling in key moments. And while this was only Week 2, it was unquestionably important with a tougher-than-anticipated schedule laid out into the Week 7 bye. Now Dallas has a win over a very good Chargers roster that features a rising young quarterback and a package of high-end skill position players. A road win to boot, in front of a SoFi Stadium crowd that sounded much of the night like it was a home game for Dallas.
And while it’s still just one win that had to be pulled out by a tough field goal, it speaks to the Cowboys showing the mental fortitude to bounce back from a Week 1 loss that Dallas arguably bungled away. Combined with that defeat and a rash of injuries, COVID issues and the Collins suspension, there are past iterations of this team that would have fallen into a hole against the Chargers, followed by a loss and an inevitable spate of questions about McCarthy.
Instead, Dallas finally started fast, scoring an opening-drive touchdown that snapped a remarkable streak of 21 straight games of failing to do so. And while the rest of the game was hardly perfect on offense, it featured a more imposing and creative running game between Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard that was reminiscent of healthy offensive lines that could control tempo and bully opponents when necessary. It also put Dak Prescott into the position where he didn’t have to play four quarters of hero ball, instead leaving him to the final game-winning drive, where he took Dallas 49 yards in 11 plays.
Given how imperfect teams can be the first quarter of the season, it’s safe to say Dallas is already learning some important and encouraging lessons about itself. First and foremost, Prescott is showing that he’s worth the monster contract extension he signed. Zack Martin also might be the most pivotally important offensive lineman in the NFL when it comes to opening up a team’s running game. And Parsons, a first-round draft pick, looks like someone who is going to become a leader quickly on a defense that needs as many as it can get in the wake of Lawrence being lost for a couple months.
Add all of that to Elliott looking capable of big games, the offensive skill positions showing why so many were high on them, and cornerback Trevon Diggs seemingly popping every game, suddenly there’s a lot to like about Dallas, even in the wake of personnel losses. And none of that speaks to Zuerlein, whose return to being a big-moment and consistent kicker would be a massive highlight for a team that has needed it.
All of that said, it’s worth remembering that Zuerlein did mask a near meltdown late in the game, when the Cowboys had the opportunity to get into better field-goal range — then inexplicably ran the ball with Pollard with 33 seconds left and one timeout, failing to use that timeout when Pollard was tackled in the middle of the field with 28 seconds remaining. Had that timeout been used, Dallas could have preserved a handful of additional plays that might have shaved critical yardage off Zuerlein’s 56-yard attempt. Instead, the offense slowly got back to the line and seemed confused, finally using the timeout for the kick with four seconds left. It was such a wincing moment that former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was almost beside himself doing color commentary for CBS, wondering aloud what Dallas had in mind in the final moments.
“They had plenty of time to get multiple plays off and get at least 10 more yards,” Romo said on the broadcast. “But handing the ball off [to Pollard], if you did that, you needed to call timeout with 30 seconds left. And that way you’re still allowed to throw another pass for 10 yards, get a first down and clock it.”
In a lot of Cowboys seasons, including those led by Romo and former head coach Jason Garrett, the timeout mistake would have been the kind of error that would have led to a cascade of criticism. It’s also worth pointing out that even if Zuerlein had missed his field goal, this game would have gone to overtime. It wasn’t a guaranteed loss.
That Zuerlein pulled the win out of a bad situation was a momentary sign of something different. For the first time in a while, the kicker saved the day when the coaching staff had almost doomed it. And the kicker who pulled off the feat was the same guy who was pilloried 10 days earlier for costing Dallas its opener. How it all came together will matter far less than the lifting feeling the Cowboys experience of being 1-1 and heading into divisional play with their home opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, rather than the grind of an 0-2 hole that would have put McCarthy under intense scrutiny.
Instead of facing that wrath, the kicker did his job and changed the narrative when Dallas needed it most. It was one moment of promise for the Cowboys that some things might actually be changing.