CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The post-Dez Bryant/Jason Witten era in Dallas got off to a rocky start on Sunday.
The Cowboys were clearly missing a go-to wide receiver on the outside, a presence at tight end and leadership on the offensive line without 2016 All-Pro center Travis Frederick, who is battling Guillain Barre syndrome. The result was a lackluster performance and a 16-8 loss to the Carolina Panthers in the season opener.
Quarterback Dak Prescott took the blame, saying he was “off” his game — although he remained upbeat, insisting that things will improve.
“I have to figure out why I was off,” said Prescott, who was limited to 170 yards passing and no touchdowns. “Was I rushing it? Did I feel pressure? What were the things that were causing it? Was it just me missing the pass?”
But it’s hard to pin the 232-yard offensive output on the third-year quarterback.
It didn’t help that he was under constant pressure from a swarming Panthers defense led by Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short. Prescott was sacked six times, the most costly coming on Dallas’ final drive when Mario Addison stripped him of the football and Captain Munnerlyn recovered to seal Carolina’s win.
But the Cowboys never really looked in sync outside of one fourth-quarter touchdown drive that came when they were down 16.
And they have more questions than answers heading into a Week 2 matchup with the New York Giants on offense.
Starting wide receivers Terrance Williams and Deonte Thompson were limited to a combined four catches for 33 yards. Free agent pickup Allen Hurns, who the Cowboys are hoping has a chance to emerge as their No. 1 receiver, had one catch for 20 yards.
Greg Swaim was limited to three catches for 18 yards, and no other Cowboys tight end caught a pass.
Prescott was clearly most comfortable throwing to one of the team’s few holdovers from last season — slot receiver Cole Beasley, who was targeted a team-high eight times and had seven catches for 73 yards.
Overall, the offense seemed to lack creativity with the Cowboys settling routinely for screen passes that were often sniffed out by Kuechly, who finished with 13 tackles.
Prescott said the Cowboys’ problems stemmed mostly from self-inflicted penalties.
An illegal block above the waist by left tackle Tryon Smith put Dallas in a second-and-21 on the first drive. Smith had a holding penalty on the second drive leading to a second-and-17. La’el Collins was flagged twice for holding in second half.
Dallas finished 2 of 11 on third-down conversions.
“Early on, we didn’t have a great rhythm,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We were behind the chains a lot. I thought it got better as the game wore on. We spread them out a little bit. We got some creases in the running game. Guys kept fighting. We made some positive plays on top of positive plays that allowed us to move the ball, certainly on the scoring drive and it’s not good enough. We have to play better.”
Ezekiel Elliott had 69 yards rushing on 16 carries and a touchdown but was largely ineffective before the fourth quarter.
“We have to run it better,” Garrett said. “We have to throw it better. Every part of it has to improve. I thought our guys battled and I thought it got better as the game wore on.”
The Cowboys featured a steady rotation of receivers, which Prescott said he liked.
“It keeps guys fresh,” Prescott said. “It gives us the advantage on defensive backs. I’m great with the rotation as long as those guys are continuing to do their jobs.”
Still, Prescott seemed determined things will get better saying the Cowboys have the right type of guys in the locker room.
For now, the big question is what it was before the season began: Who is going to step up in the passing game to replace Bryant and Witten?
One game in, the Cowboys are no closer to finding out.