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The Dallas Cowboys do not play a game that matters again until September, but coach Jason Garrett’s proximity to the hot seat is already being discussed.

That’s what happens when you miss the playoffs for the fifth time in seven full seasons as coach, with the Cowboys finishing 9-7 in 2017.

At the Senior Bowl this week, owner and general manager Jerry Jones was asked if it was fair to consider Garrett on the hot seat in 2018.

“It’s fair for you to ask,” Jones told reporters in Mobile, Alabama, “but he’s not on my hot seat.”

Well, what else would you expect Jones to say in January? He would not answer that question in any other way. Jones backed Wade Phillips publicly until the end in 2010 when it was painfully obvious the players were no longer buying what he was selling.

“I would like for Jason to repeat as coach of the year within 24 months,” Jones said. “And he’s capable of doing that if we do good next year, be coach of the year twice in 24 months. That would be great.”

Garrett was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year after the Cowboys’ 13-3 finish in 2016. He took a team that lost its starting quarterback, Tony Romo, in the preseason, handed the keys to a fourth-round pick, Dak Prescott, and built the offense around a rookie running back, Ezekiel Elliott, to finish with an NFC-best 13 wins.

He didn’t have the answers in 2017 with Elliott’s suspension and injuries to offensive tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Sean Lee derailing their season. By the end of the season, the passing game was unrecognizable even after Elliott’s return from suspension.

While disappointed in missing out on the playoffs, Jones never gave serious consideration to dismissing Garrett. But there have been changes to Garrett’s coaching staff. Wade Wilson (quarterbacks) and Joe Baker (secondary) were fired. Receivers coach Derek Dooley became the offensive coordinator at Missouri and will be replaced by Sanjay Lal. Special teams coach Rich Bisaccia was allowed to leave for the same job on Jon Gruden’s staff with the Oakland Raiders. Offensive line coach Frank Pollack was fired and replaced by Paul Alexander. Passing game coordinator/linebackers coach Matt Eberflus is expected to join Josh McDaniels in Indianapolis and was replaced as passing game coordinator by Kris Richard, who spent the previous three seasons as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator.

More spots need to be filled, which is why Garrett was not at the Senior Bowl this week.

The coaches who remain and new coaches spent the week going over the Cowboys’ personnel, reviewing the 2017 season and what needs to be done to improve. Attending the Senior Bowl can be beneficial to coaches as they get a first look at prospects, but the truth is the week often turns into a high school reunion of sorts where coaches spend time catching up with buddies instead of paying attention to what’s happening on the field.

“I’m really excited about the changes we’ve made on the coaching staff,” Jones said. “There have been many. Probably by the time we’re through there would’ve been eight coaching changes. And so I think all of those give us a chance to improve, and we really are pleased with the availability of the coaches we’ve got and so I think that will help us. It was all done with the personnel we have and the moves we might have in mind.”

Garrett faced a more pressure-filled future in 2014. He was coming off three straight 8-8 finishes and was in the final year of his contract. The Cowboys went 12-4 and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs largely on Romo’s best season and DeMarco Murray’s 1,845 yards rushing.

That earned Garrett a five-year deal. This will be the fourth year of that contract.

“Jason has had a lot of success here,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said in this Dallas Morning News story. “At times when we have had an offseason there’s been some extenuating circumstances and I just think Jason is a great head football coach. He was coach of the year last year. This is a tough business now, when one year you’re coach of the year and the next people are asking questions like this. I understand it. I understand that’s the nature of our business, but we just really believe Jason is the right man for the job.

“He has a great way about the team. He represents the organization in a great way and we just feel like he’s the right guy for our organization.”

But make no mistake — he will be on the hot seat even if Jerry Jones doesn’t want to say it right now.

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The Dallas Cowboys finished the 2017 season with a struggling offense, but it appears the defense is still more of a concern if you ask ESPN Insider Mel Kiper Jr.

In his first mock draft, Kiper has the Cowboys selecting Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea with the 19th overall pick. Fellow ESPN Insider Todd McShay also had the Cowboys taking a defensive tackle in his first mock draft in Christian Wilkins, but he has elected to return to Clemson for another season.

From skill and need standpoints, the selection of Vea makes sense. For it to happen, however, the Cowboys have to break from one of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s long-held truths: Don’t draft run-stopping defensive tackles in the first round.

Marinelli has gotten by and succeeded with players such as Nick Hayden and Stephen Paea at nose tackle. Hayden was underrated in his time with the Cowboys, but he was not a dynamic interior player. Paea’s first season with the Cowboys was cut short by a knee injury.

When the Cowboys lost Paea in 2017, they moved Maliek Collins to the nose tackle spot. He was OK, but the Cowboys came to love Collins his rookie year as the under tackle. He had to play out of position most of the season and was not able to replicate the success he had as a rookie.

However, Vea could be a different story. He is more than a run-stopper. He is a large man (6-4, 346 pounds) with athleticism that saw him move around Washington’s line. He had 9.5 sacks in three seasons.

Kiper is right; the Cowboys don’t have somebody of Vea’s size along their front. They would like to keep Collins as their under tackle. They have gotten by on effort to stop the run instead of brute force. At times, they struggled against the run in 2017 but a lot of that came with Sean Lee off the field.

Vea makes sense for the Cowboys, but to get there they might have to convince Marinelli it is the right move.

Kiper also mentioned wide receiver as a possibility at No. 19. Only one receiver was off his board in Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, who went No. 8 to the Chicago Bears. Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk was the next receiver to go, at No. 26 to the Atlanta Falcons, and SMU’s Courtland Sutton went No. 27 to the New Orleans Saints.

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As DeMarcus Lawrence departed the locker room Monday, he carried with him a handful of opponents’ jerseys gathered throughout the season. He left the rest of his locker intact, while others gathered up their belongings in oversized trash bags and boxes.

Set to be an unrestricted free agent, Lawrence is certain he will be with the Dallas Cowboys in 2018.

“I mean, I already know what my situation is,” Lawrence said. “I really don’t care about it because I already know how the Cowboys feel about me, and they know how I feel about the organization. My agent will take care of everything, bro. He knows how it feels. He knows my right moves, so he’ll do it.”

Lawrence did not have any qualms about whether the 6-0 win against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday would be his last game with Dallas.

He remains confident the Cowboys will either sign him to a lucrative long-term deal or put the franchise tag on him.

Lawrence led the Cowboys with 14.5 sacks in 2017, which was 5.5 more than he recorded in his first three seasons with the team. The biggest reason he put up the numbers was health. He missed the first half of his rookie season with a broken foot and did not record a sack in the regular season. He had eight in 2015, which led the Cowboys, but needed offseason back surgery, which played a part in his picking up just one sack in 2016.

After a second back surgery last offseason, he managed to play every game this season and was named to his first Pro Bowl.

Having moved up to take Lawrence in the second round of the 2014 draft, the Cowboys view him as a long-term piece of their future, but reaching an agreement on a long-term deal could be difficult. If they use the franchise tag, then Lawrence would be guaranteed about $17 million in 2018.

The Cowboys last used the franchise tag on Dez Bryant in 2015 but worked out a long-term deal with the receiver before a summer deadline. Before that, the Cowboys put the franchise tag on outside linebacker Anthony Spencer in back-to-back seasons.

“I don’t know where the chips are going to lay,” Lawrence said. “Say they spend all their money, what are they going to do? Tag me. Point-blank. Period. So I ain’t got time to sit here and think about that. I’m trying to figure out if I’m going to Jamaica or Hawaii.”

The other key free-agent decision for the Cowboys is linebacker Anthony Hitchens. The Cowboys discussed an extension with his agent during training camp, but nothing took hold. Hitchens missed the first four games with a knee injury but still managed more than 90 tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown.

Given the injury histories of Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, the versatile Hitchens is a big piece of the Cowboys’ defense. He could be in line for a bigger deal from another team, similar to what happened last offseason with safety Barry Church, who signed a lucrative deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“You never know it is a business until it hits you on the business side,” Hitchens said. “It is something that is out of my control and out of Dallas’ control. Hopefully I’m back here. This is home for me.”

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It didn’t take long for DeMarcus Lawrence to realize 2017 was going to be different for him.

On the Dallas Cowboys’ third defensive snap of the season, he sacked New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning for a 7-yard loss. He added a half sack later in the game, which meant he had more sacks in one game in 2017 than he did in nine in 2016.

“After my first sack, I felt like, ‘OK, I got my legs back. Now it’s time to roll,’” Lawrence said. “I’ve been feeling good ever since then.”

With two games to play, Lawrence has 13.5 sacks, good for third in the NFL and just 1.5 behind the leader, Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals. On Tuesday, Lawrence was named to his first Pro Bowl, a fitting reward for the best seasons by a Cowboys’ pass rusher in the last four years.

“It would be great for the recognition that the fans and coaches and players also see all the plays I’ve made on the field,” Lawrence said Tuesday before the Pro Bowl announcement was official.

What has been the difference for Lawrence this year?

“I think health,” he said. “Being in the system for a while. Going against our offensive line, you don’t have a choice but to get better.”

Lawrence’s rookie season was impacted by a broken foot suffered in training camp that cost him to miss the first eight games. In 2015, he led the Cowboys in sacks with eight, but he was never right last season following back surgery. He played anyway, despite missing seven games (four because of a suspension and three because of the back injury).

He had a second surgery going into this season and has not missed a game.

Since the opener against the Giants, Lawrence has seen more attention from opposing offenses. He does not get many one-on-one opportunities. They will have a tight end help a tackle and maybe send a running back his way as well.

“Other teams have scouting reports,” Lawrence said. “They have film also and I feel like they gave me a little bit more recognition throughout the season. That’s the way it is.”

In addition to the 13.5 sacks, the most by a Cowboys’ pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware had 19.5 in 2011, he has been credited by the coaches with 41 tackles, six tackles for loss and an astounding 45 quarterback pressures. His previous high in pressures was 31 in 2014. He also has forced four fumbles, recovered two and knocked down a pass.

“Sets the edge well, makes plays on the ball in the running game,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “You’ll see him make plays on the other side of the field running it down, 20, 30 yards down the field. He has been incredible. An All-Pro and really defensive MVP.”

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As Jason Garrett stood behind a podium inside what is normally the Oakland A’s weight room Sunday night, he could have ticked off 30, 40, maybe 50 things his Dallas Cowboys did wrong against the Oakland Raiders.

The Cowboys blew a 10-0 halftime lead. They converted 2 of 10 third-down chances. They did not sack Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. They allowed 5.3 yards per carry. They did not get a takeaway until the game’s final play, missing out on at least four opportunities. They allowed 25.8 yards per kickoff return. They were bailed out by three touchdowns called back by penalty or overturned by replay.

That’s just some of what went wrong.

But as Garrett spoke, he kept coming back to one word. It’s something he puts on T-shirts and sweatshirts for the players to wear. It is on Yeti cups. It is on a digital board inside the locker room.

Fight.

Nothing was really pretty about the Cowboys’ 20-17 win against the Raiders except the result.

“Continued to scratch, continued to claw,” Garrett said. “Wasn’t our most perfect performance in any phase of our football team, but the fight was there.”

The fight was never more evident than on the Raiders’ final play. With 39 seconds left, Oakland had a third-and-3 from the Dallas 8. Carr scrambled to his right with nobody open and saw the front pylon daring him to go for the touchdown.

As he lunged forward he was hit by safety Jeff Heath, knocking the ball loose and ultimately out of the end zone for a touchback.

“I thought that play typified what we’re trying to instill in our football team,” Garrett said. “Him laying out, somehow, some way not letting that guy get to the pylon and ultimately knocking the ball out. It was a helluva play. It was an unbelievable game.”

So unbelievable that the Cowboys’ playoff chances can be symbolized by the piece of paper referee Gene Steratore used to affirm a first down on a fourth-down quarterback sneak by Dak Prescott at the Dallas 39 with 4:49 to play.

“It’s a game of inches, a game of 5-by-7 note cards,” tight end Jason Witten joked.

That was on display on the Raiders’ final drive. Anthony Brown should have ended the game with an interception of Carr with 1:05 to play but inexplicably dropped the pass. On fourth down, rookie cornerback Jourdan Lewis was called for pass interference at the Dallas 15.

A win was looking like a loss or at least a trip to overtime. The season hung in the balance before Ezekiel Elliott could return from his six-game suspension. And then Heath came up to hit Carr as the quarterback was looking for the winning touchdown.

Beyond “fight,” the play was another Garrett mantra.

“He talked about ‘finish’ all week,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “That’s been a big theme for us, and I think it showed.”

Now Elliott’s return can mean more. Now the Cowboys can envision the scenarios they need to get to the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 2006 and ’07. But all they have done is guarantee themselves no worse than the fourth 8-8 finish in Garrett’s tenure as coach.

“We got Seattle,” Dez Bryant said. “And we got to reset. As soon as I walk out of this locker room and every last one of us walk out of this locker room, let’s reset. We’ve got to get ready for Seattle.”

The Cowboys’ playoff chances are better but still not in their control. They will likely need to win their final two games and need the Atlanta Falcons to lose two of their last three games and the Detroit Lions to lose one of their final two games.

“Nothing has changed,” Prescott said. “We know where we are. Our backs are against the wall. We’ve got to win and that is what this team is about. We’re excited and we’re loving these matchups. We’re loving the position we’re in. It is what it is. We got ourselves here and we’re excited about next week. Just one at a time.”

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When Sean Lee sat out the second drive of the third quarter in Sunday’s win over the New York Giants, alarms went off.

Did he aggravate the hamstring injury that forced him to miss five full games and parts of two others?

“And that’s appropriate, too,” Lee said. “It’s been one thing after the next with me in a lot of injuries.”

With Lee having missed the previous three games because of the hamstring strain, the Dallas Cowboys athletic training staff came up with a plan to ease him back into the lineup. He played every series in the first half but was kept out of a third-quarter series with Anthony Hitchens playing on the weak side and Jaylon Smith at middle linebacker.

“Coming back from an injury, just making sure I’m fresh and ready,” Lee said. “We’ve got guys that can go in and play really, really good football, so just making sure I’m fresh until I get my legs back under me. Game legs and get in game shape. I was off for about three or four weeks, so we’ve got guys who can come in and make a ton of plays.”

Lee played in 66 of 80 snaps against the Giants and had two of the game’s biggest plays with a 9-yard tackle for loss and an interception in the fourth quarter. In the five full games he played before the New York contest, he played in 293 of 315 snaps, getting pulled for 17 snaps in the blowout win against the San Francisco 49ers. In the other four games he played in all but five snaps.

Lee, whom the coaches credited with 20 tackles against the Giants, said he could follow a similar plan this week against the Oakland Raiders.

“We’ll see what we do, and I think it can change game to game,” Lee said, “but I know I just have to find a way to stay in every game and be a part of every game.”

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If you’re wondering about the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff scenarios, take a break. It’s time for Five Wonders:

Away we go:

  • Ezekiel Elliott will be back from suspension on Dec. 18 for the beginning of the prep work for the Seattle Seahawks on Christmas Eve. In the first 23 games he has played, Elliott has gotten almost all of the meaningful carries. He played 464 of the 547 offensive snaps in the first eight games of the season. When he returns, I wonder if the Cowboys will go back to giving him almost all of the meaningful carries or if they will give Alfred Morris some work in the run game and Rod Smith some work in the pass game. Of the two, Morris’ time is likely more in jeopardy. The Cowboys will have to see what kind of conditioning Elliott is in when he comes back, but Smith has been useful in the passing game beyond his 81-yard touchdown catch against the New York Giants. It might be smart to work Elliott back up to speed.
  • I’m on record as saying the Cowboys need to keep linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who is set to be a free agent. I wonder why the Cowboys aren’t talking to him about a new deal now. The word I’ve gotten is that there haven’t been any discussions. Considering Sean Lee’s injury status and Jaylon Smith’s continuing return from a serious knee injury, keeping Hitchens around makes sense and not just for insurance. Hitchens is a good player; better than people want to realize. If he goes, then the Cowboys have to add a linebacker somehow, either in free agency or the draft. Why not keep one of your own? Here’s a mini-wonder inside a wonder: I wonder if teams will place a higher value on Hitchens than the Cowboys and make him an offer he can’t refuse if he gets to the open market.
  • Speaking of keeping potential free agents, I wonder if the Cowboys will make a push to keep left guard Jaylon Smith. The former No. 7 overall pick struggled to find a footing with the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots, but he has done well enough for the Cowboys to consider keeping him in 2018. Cooper is better served — as are all left guards — when Tyron Smith plays, but the Cowboys value continuity up front. They can keep him with a short-term deal, draft a potential starter in the spring and keep the group together for another year.
    • Brice Butler was inactive against the Giants in part because of a foot injury. He was limited throughout the week in practice leading up to the game. I wonder if the Cowboys will continue to keep Butler inactive even if his foot improves. He is a free agent after the season and his chances of returning don’t seem great. The Cowboys want to see what rookie Noah Brown can do, and he is better in the running game. Butler has made some big plays this season, mostly on broken plays. I think he is a solid player and can help an offense but as presently constituted, he just doesn’t seem like the best of fits right now. He played in fewer than 20 snaps in each of the last three games he has played.
    • The Cowboys and Giants have met in Week 1 in five of the last six seasons in part because it is a guaranteed ratings’ draw to open the season. While that will still be true in 2018, I wonder if the NFC East rivals are done meeting in Week 1. What point would it serve? At 2-11, the Giants are about to have a top-three pick, a new coach, a new general manager and probably a new quarterback. The season-opening meeting is something of a tradition but it’s one that needs to end.

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Darren McFadden found out he would be inactive for last Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles just about the same time as everybody else, a few hours before kickoff.

“Surprised the hell out of me,” McFadden said. “But that’s what they decided, man. That’s just what it is right now.”

The Cowboys opted to carry two tailbacks, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith, against the Eagles because they need extra help on special teams. McFadden’s only contribution on special teams is on the kick return team.

McFadden was inactive for the first eight games of the season, but when Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension started, it was expected he would be part of a running back committee with Morris and Smith. He carried one time for minus-2 yards in the loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

McFadden has gone through two straight lost seasons after leading the Cowboys and finishing fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,089 yards in 2015. He missed the first 13 games last season because of a broken elbow suffered in the offseason and he has dressed for one game this season.

The inactivity has him thinking about his future. He is set to be a free agent after the season.

“When the offseason gets here I’ll sit down and think about it, said McFadden, who is in his 10th season. “Try to get away from the game for a little while and just make a decision from there.”

With a short turnaround this week and health issues at linebacker (Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens) there is a possibility McFadden could be inactive Thursday against the Los Angeles Chargers.

“It’s very frustrating,” McFadden said, “but at the end of the day they make their decisions, and I can’t do nothing but roll with them.”

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With Sean Lee likely to miss at least the next two games if not three because of a hamstring strain, Anthony Hitchens is ready to do an impersonation of the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive leader.

Hitchens will move from middle linebacker to the weak side, as he did when Lee missed two games earlier in the season.

The Cowboys have been a different defense without Lee. They gave up 35 points in losses to the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers without him in October. They gave up all 27 points without him last week against the Atlanta Falcons.

“Communication is huge, getting the guys lined up, and I’m going to be the guy making the calls if he’s out,” Hitchens said. “I’ll just try my best to imitate him and get everyone lined up. He’s going to help me throughout the week. At the end of the day, if he’s out, I’ve got to step up and play the Sean Lee role.”

There might be one exception.

“I try to shy away from the bad words,” Hitchens said. “But sometimes it comes out, you know? But then I have someone to blame for that.”

Hitchens has been credited by the coaches with 36 tackles and five tackles for loss. Against the Falcons, he had a season-high 10 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss and was among the few defensive bright spots in the loss.

With Hitchens moving to weakside linebacker, the Cowboys will go with Justin Durant and Jaylon Smith at middle linebacker. Lee might not be on the field Sunday and moving forward, but Hitchens will use him as a resource.

There is a big difference from the weakside and middle linebacker spots even if they are separated by a yard or two on the field.

“Every play you’re keying a guy, you’re keying a tight end, keying a running back,” Hitchens said. “It’s just different plays and different positions where your eyes are. Throughout the week, I’ve just got to work with Sean if he’s not playing and ask him, ‘What does he see on this play or this formation?’”

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Wherever Ezekiel Elliott watched the Dallas Cowboys’ 27-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, it had to be painful.

It had to be painful for Tyron Smith, the All-Pro left tackle who did not play because of a groin strain, to watch as well.

And it was absolutely painful for Sean Lee, who watched all but one full drive from the sideline because of a hamstring strain.

The Cowboys live with a next-man-up philosophy, like most teams, but the next-man on Sunday wasn’t good enough. Not even close.

The bleak loss ended the Cowboys’ three-game winning streak and puts clouds around everything as they welcome the Philadelphia Eagles to AT&T Stadium next week. That would be the 8-1 Eagles, owners of the NFL’s best record and coming off a bye.

At 5-4, the Cowboys might not be within hailing distance of their NFC East rivals.

Their wild-card chances took a hit as well. The Seattle Seahawks (6-3), Detroit Lions (5-4) and Green Bay Packers (5-4) all won Sunday. The Cowboys will lose head-to-head tiebreakers with the Packers and Falcons, who are also 5-4.

The Cowboys spoke bravely about being able to effectively run the ball without Elliott, who had 783 yards in the first eight games. Alfred Morris had eight yards on six carries in the first half Sunday. He finished with 51 yards on 11 carries thanks to gains of 14, 20 and 11 on the Cowboys’ first drive of the third quarter. That drive ended with Mike Nugent’s 38-yard field-goal attempt hitting the right upright to keep Atlanta’s lead at 17-7.

But the loss of Elliott wasn’t even the one that hurt the most. It was the loss of Smith. He was ruled out on Saturday because of a groin strain that kept him off the practice field all week. Chaz Green, who opened the year as the starting left guard, quickly showed he wasn’t going to be able to block Adrian Clayborn.

Green was beaten by Clayborn for a 5-yard sack on the first drive of the game and gave up a pressure that led to the Cowboys’ first punt of the game.

Clayborn, who entered the game with two sacks, had six for the game. He had just one season in his career with more sacks in a season when he had 7.5 in 2011 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, the only other player to record five sacks against Dallas was San Diego Chargers pass rusher Leslie O’Neal on Nov. 16, 1986.

Green was pulled in favor of Byron Bell with 8 minutes, 18 seconds left in the game and gave up two sacks on his first drives, including Clayborn’s sixth.

In the first eight games of the season, the Cowboys allowed 10 sacks. They gave up eight Sunday, the most Prescott has absorbed in his first two years. He had not been sacked more than twice in a game all season.

The Cowboys can only hope Smith’s absence is short.

They also must hope Lee’s absence is short, although he missed two games earlier this season with a hamstring strain. Lee was hurt late in the first quarter and spent the rest of the game on the sidelines with Dallas leading, 7-0.

Five plays after Lee was hurt, the Falcons scored a field goal. They scored on five of their next seven drives to build a 27-7 lead. Without Lee against the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay, the Cowboys lost and gave up 35 points in both games. They also gave up an average of 164 rushing yards. The running-challenged Falcons finished with 132 rushing yards.

This is not the way the Cowboys envisioned opening their time without Elliott. And it won’t get easier next week against the Eagles.