Cow­boys face in­tense pres­sure to avoid 0-2

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Jar­rett Bell Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

Chal­lenge ac­cepted.

That was Dak Prescott’s re­sponse to the con­tention from Gi­ants safety Lan­don Collins that a key to beat­ing the Cow­boys will be shut­ting down Ezekiel El­liott and putting the game in the hands of the strug­gling quar­ter­back.

Makes sense. El­liott is the best weapon, but Prescott is the face of a sput­ter­ing of­fense that pro­duced just eight points in an unin­spir­ing loss at Carolina, fewest for the Cow­boys in a sea­son opener since 2010.

But there’s a much big­ger-pic­ture chal­lenge fac­ing Dal­las as it tries to avoid the dreaded 0-2 start.

It might be a bit early in the sea­son for a must-win game, but that’s pre­cisely the case as Dal­las takes the AT&T Sta­dium stage in prime time on Sun­day.

You know the deal. A 0-2 start is like a death sen­tence on the sea­son in the NFL. In the 10 pre­vi­ous sea­sons, teams are 9 of 120 for mak­ing the play­offs af­ter start­ing 0-2, ac­cord­ing to the Toronto Sun.

The last time the Cow­boys started

0-2?

That’s an­other marker from 2010, as 0-2 turned into 1-7 … which cost Wade Phillips his job.

Ja­son Gar­rett, who re­placed Phillips as Cow­boys coach, wound up with a path to a pro­mo­tion af­ter the last 0-2 start in Dal­las. Yet in mak­ing the play­offs just twice in seven years, an­other 0-2 start for the Cow­boys could set the tone for con­di­tions that might wear out owner Jerry Jones’ pa­tience with Gar­rett.

Granted, Jones has been very sup­port­ive of Gar­rett, es­pe­cially pub­licly. Jones was close to Gar­rett’s fa­ther, Jim, a for­mer Cow­boys scout, and groomed his coach for this role.

When train­ing camp opened in July, Jones was adamant in declar­ing that this wasn’t a “make-or-break” sea­son for Gar­rett.

Away from the podium af­ter that dec­la­ra­tion, though, Jones told USA TO­DAY when I asked about his pa­tience in the coach, “Just be­cause I show that kind of stick with Ja­son does not mean as we are strate­giz­ing, that it looks like he is in the fam­ily por­trait for­ever. That’s not the way it works.”

Stay tuned.

While Dal­las is still the NFL’s best TV draw (av­er­ag­ing an NFL-high 23.3 mil­lion view­ers for the opener at Carolina), the Scott Line­han-co­or­di­nated of­fense looks like a mess. Or bad TV. Sure, Ja­son Wit­ten sur­pris­ingly re­tired and the Cow­boys re­leased Dez Bryant. The Oline is with­out an­chor cen­ter Travis Fred­er­ick, out in­def­i­nitely while treat­ing an au­toim­mune dis­ease.

Yet other is­sues are so glar­ing. There’s no proven, go-to re­ceiver on the squad to stretch the field. And af­ter so much talk dur­ing the off­sea­son about build­ing a “Dak-friendly” of­fense, that could be in­ter­preted by op­pos­ing de­fenses as a “friendly Dak” of­fense when fac­ing too many third-and-longs.

Prescott has passed for 200 yards just twice in nine games, dat­ing to the mid­dle of last sea­son. Get­ting El­liott in the mix for a full sea­son should help, but if the re­ceivers don’t sep­a­rate and if Prescott misses with the type of ugly throws demon­strated at Carolina …

Add to that the ob­ser­va­tion from Troy Aik­man dur­ing the Fox broad­cast: “I’m not see­ing any cre­ativ­ity.”

In Dal­las, those words from a Cow­boys le­gend cut deep. And should con­cern the Dal­las brain trust.

Yes, the chal­lenge is on in more ways than one.

BOB DONNAN/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Cow­boys quar­ter­back Dak Prescott looks to pass as Panthers de­fen­sive end Wes Hor­ton moves in to ap­ply pres­sure in the sea­son opener.

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