The Dallas Cowboys benefited greatly from the element of surprise last season, with rookie quarterback-running back duo Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott shocking opposing defenses throughout an unexpected first-place campaign in the NFC East.
This year, a cloud hangs over a franchise that is coming off a salary cap-strapped, acrimonious offseason. That element of surprise has disappeared, and the Cowboys look like a deeply flawed, highly beatable team.
That was exhibited Sunday in Denver, Colorado, where the Broncos dominated the Cowboys on both sides of the ball in a 42-17 victory.
The thin Dallas defense—one which in the offseason lost four defensive backs who played a combined 2,645 snaps in 2016, per Pro Football Reference—helped historically unimpressive Broncos quarterback-running back duo Trevor Siemian and C.J. Anderson resemble John Elway and Terrell Davis.
And against a defense that Football Outsiders ranked first in football in terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) last season, Prescott struggled to make big plays while Elliott had the worst game of his career.
It was by far the most lopsided loss of this new era in Dallas.
The Cowboys do have some valid excuses. Their young, young team will have days like these, and winning in Denver is never easy. But there is reason to be discouraged by Sunday’s performance, because it didn’t totally come out of nowhere and it could have been a lot worse.
There’s evidence now that without Elliott on his game, the Dallas offense becomes remarkably ineffective. This was only the second dud-like performance of his young career, but the Cowboys have lost on both of those occasions.
The other came in his very first game last September, when they managed just one touchdown in a 20-19 loss to the New York Giants. That only score came on an abbreviated 35-yard drive after Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw an interception inside his own territory.
The second came Sunday, when both of their touchdowns again came on short drives that resulted from turnovers.
Elliott has rushed for 80-plus yards in 15 of his 17 career outings. But he picked up only 51 yards on 20 carries in that first meeting with the Giants and he had only eight yards on nine attempts against the Broncos.