EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Backup quarterback Cooper Rush has been a salve for the Cowboys, but his play isn’t the most auspicious sign for Dallas to emerge as a potential contender in the NFC.
Instead, as the team showed in Monday night’s 23-16 victory over the New York Giants, it was the its ability to course correct its mistakes from the first half — inefficiency in the red zone, penalties, drops — and turn those into the reasons they won. During the two-and-a-half-year tenure of Mike McCarthy as the team’s coach, that hadn’t always been the case.
“We were moving the ball all night so I think there was a lot of confidence of: ‘Hey we just got to finish when we get down there,’” right guard Zack Martin said told USA TODAY Sports. “We were able to have that huge drive there in the fourth, that 90-yard drive, then the defense closed it out at the end.
“These are huge games to get.”
Rush and the Cowboys (2-1) have won two games in a row, the previous coming against the defending AFC champion Bengals, and have slid into second place in the division, behind the undefeated Eagles (3-0). The aim, now, will be for the Cowboys to start games with precision.
In the first half Monday night, Dallas failed to convert both its trips into the red zone, settling for short field goals.
In each case, the Cowboys had marched inside the Giants’ 10-yard line. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore called unimaginative plays and there also appeared to be communication issues. In the first quarter, for example, on a second-and-goal from the 5, Rush appeared to change the play at the line of scrimmage while running back Ezekiel Elliott stood behind him and tapped his shoulder several times, apparently unsure of what the call was (it was a rush to Elliott).
But that changed in the second half. The Cowboys sped up the tempo with some no-huddle offense and were decisive at the line of scrimmage. Dallas scored a pair of 1-yard touchdowns on consecutive drives that bookended the end of the third quarter with the start of the fourth.
“It may be a good sign for others on the outside who don’t think we’re capable of these things,” receiver Noah Brown told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s just validation for us. We already knew we could do this and just to come out here and do it, it’s a boost of confidence. I’m already looking forward to next week.”
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It’s worth pointing out, too, that the final Cowboys touchdown of the night was Lamb’s highlight reel grab, which came after he had a pair of costly drops in the second quarter, one of which negated what almost certainly would’ve been a touchdown.
“It was very frustrating, honestly,” Lamb said. “I practiced all week, all offseason on focusing in on the ball and I let that one slip away. It was tough. …
“I appreciate all the guys believing in my abilities. It was a tough third quarter; I kept thinking about it. But all the guys kept telling me: ‘Let it go. Let it go. We still got more game left.’ And then fourth quarter when I kept hearing my name getting called, I knew it was my opportunity again, so I had to step up.”
The penalties, though, are still an issue. One year after they were the NFL’s most-penalized squad (141 enforced), the Cowboys were called for eight more, totaling 70 yards. But it wasn’t just a question of volume; the Cowboys showed a lack of situational awareness, granting the Giants four first downs via penalties.
The Cowboys will host the 1-2 Washington Commanders in Week 4 before a tough two-game stretch that will see them face the Rams and the Eagles, both on the road. Dallas very well can’t afford to start those games with sloppy inefficient play.
But if the Cowboys somehow find themselves in that spot, Monday night showed that they can work their way out of it.
“It tells you the kind of team you have,” coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. “These guys have been leaning on one another. This is an outstanding locker room. The accountability is very high. The resilience is there, you can see it every step of the way. It’s just like anything, sometimes you have to go through some hard times to get to where you want to go and hopefully we’ve built a good foundation to get to where we want to go.”