Cowboys overcome difficult week to build confidence for season ahead

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Things could have gone worse for the Dallas Cowboys after their 31-29 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, but it's hard to imagine how much worse. Consider:

  • At the start of the week, right tackle La’el Collins was suspended five games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Starting defensive end Randy Gregory was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

  • At the start of Wednesday’s practice, assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett suffered a torn quadriceps tendon and in the middle of the practice Gregory’s battery mate, DeMarcus Lawrence, suffered a broken foot, requiring surgery the next day.

  • On Thursday, backup offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, who could have potentially replaced Collins, was taken to the hospital because of a heat-related illness and spent the night there for observation.

  • On Saturday, starting safety Donovan Wilson was ruled out because of a groin strain that kept him off the practice field all week, and his running mate, Damontae Kazee, was questionable entering Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Chargers because of a quadriceps injury.

Despite all of that, the Cowboys managed a 20-17 win Sunday on the road against the Chargers -- a somewhat ugly and confusing win, but still a win. It was needed after pushing the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers to the brink in Week 1 but coming up short.

After coach Mike McCarthy dealt with so many issues in his first year -- a shortened training camp, no preseason, the defense's implosion, the loss of quarterback Dak Prescott to injury, a high-volume of offensive line injuries and the tragic death of strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul -- he did not see last week's events as anything new.

"Unfortunately it's normal," McCarthy said. "I'm hopeful abnormal is getting back to not having these kinds of meetings. I think change is a constant in our game right now ... The most important part of my job is just to make sure the players don't see that or feel that and keep them focused on what's in front of them. ...

"I'm excited about what's in front of us with the Monday night game against Philadelphia, three games at home. This is an excellent win to build off."

Imagine if the Cowboys had lost to the Chargers on a day in which they ran for 198 yards as a team, led by Tony Pollard’s 109 yards. Imagine if they lost on a day in which they averaged seven yards a play. Imagine if they had lost when they converted on two of their three red-zone opportunities.

Now imagine if the Chargers did not have two touchdowns called back because of penalties, or if quarterback Justin Herbert wasn't intercepted in the end zone by Kazee or if L.A. didn't commit 12 penalties.

The Cowboys aren't that far from 0-2.

"It's huge," Prescott said of the difference between 1-1 and 0-2. "It's only one game but it's huge. It's the confidence. The confidence of getting that first win, especially on the road going into the home opener on Monday night. We know what that atmosphere is going to be like. It's important to be going into that off of a win. It's the first one of many, but you've got to get the first one. Build off that and keep going."

Instead of talking about questionable clock management and coaching decisions, the Cowboys can talk about how well Micah Parsons performed as a full-time defensive end for the first time since high school, filling in for Lawrence after less than a week of practice.

Parsons' 38.9% pass rush win rate was the second highest of any player in Week 2, according to ESPN data powered by NFL Next Gen stats.

"A lot of it was natural," said Parsons, who had a key fourth-quarter sack of Herbert. "Shoot, some people had a long day out there."

He was talking about right tackle Storm Norton, who was filling in for an injured Bryan Bulaga.

"The best part really is the reason why they drafted me," Parsons said. "I'm just showing my different versatilities to what I can do. After today, we can open the playbook up even more. I think my teammates and [defensive coordinator Dan Quinn] put an unbelievable amount of faith in me and it just keeps building my confidence up that I can do much more than what I thought I could do."

Terence Steele replaced Collins at right tackle and the Chargers' best pass-rusher, Joey Bosa, was credited with three tackles and no quarterback pressures. The Cowboys slid help to Steele at times and Prescott got rid of the ball quickly, but not every time.

"You've got to fill in when someone else goes down, have their back, but understand how great of an opportunity it is for you," said Prescott, who took advantage of his opportunity as Tony Romo's injury replacement in 2016. "If we want to be the type of team that we want to be and we want to make a run like we're going to, everybody's got to play a part in it."

Collins will miss four more games. Gregory is expected to be back this week, but Lawrence is on injured reserve and could miss two months. Wilson could be back this week, but other players will go down at some point.

It’s just one game, but McCarthy believes it could mean more than one win.

"To come in here and win this game was important on a number of fronts for us. We needed it and we needed the confidence that goes with it," he said. "Winning in this league is so hard, so I'm just proud of the guys."