FRISCO, Texas -- Much of the post-mortem on the Dallas Cowboys’ 28-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings has been about the strange playcalling late in the fourth quarter that had Dak Prescott handing off to Ezekiel Elliott twice after the quarterback had shredded the defense through the air.
Elliott was stopped for no gain and a 3-yard loss, setting up a fourth-down play that failed, ultimately costing the Cowboys a chance to win.
"We can go back and look at those plays, and when they don't work out, you say, 'We should've called something differently,'" Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.
That was a polite way of indicating Garrett doesn't care much for second-guessing, even when for the first time since 2007, the Cowboys failed to gain a first down via the run in a game.
But what about the start of the game?
The Cowboys trailed 14-0 after one quarter. They were outgained 124-67. The Vikings had 10 first downs. The Cowboys had three. The Cowboys missed a 57-yard field goal attempt on their first drive. The Vikings cashed in with touchdowns on two red zone opportunities.
The Cowboys had to play catch-up from the beginning.
"We came back and gave ourselves a chance, 14-14. It's a 0-0 ballgame at that point," Prescott said. "Slow start or not, we have to stop doing that, but we got over that, right? We overcame that and gave ourselves an opportunity."
Said Garrett: "Ultimately, we went ahead 21-20. Did a good job coming back in the game."
Yeah, but imagine if the Cowboys got off to just a middling start and not an awful one. Would they have been in the same predicament that led to the questionable playcalling at the end of the game?
Garrett did the defense no favors by having Brett Maher attempt the 57-yard field goal, giving the Vikings a short field. The defense did itself no favors by giving up a 90-yard drive on the Vikings' second drive. The offense hurt itself with five predictable first-down runs that resulted in 17 yards.
"We can't execute for some reason early on in these ballgames," wide receiver Amari Cooper said. "It's hard starting behind the eight ball and fighting your way back. It's something we have to go back to the drawing board on and really work on."
This is not only a problem from the Minnesota loss. This has been an issue all season.
The Cowboys have been outscored 55-37 in the first quarter. In quarters 2 through 4, they have outscored opponents 214-115. They have scored one touchdown on their opening possession all season and that one was partially due to a takeaway by the defense that gave the Cowboys the ball at the opponent's 45 in the 37-10 win against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Cowboys' opening possessions have averaged five plays for 47.4 yards through nine games. The defense has allowed points on the opening possession three times (two touchdowns, one field goal).
"I don't think there are any hidden secrets," tight end Jason Witten said.
The Cowboys can overcome lethargic play to beat poor teams. They trailed the Giants 7-0 in the season opener and 12-3 in the rematch two weeks ago at MetLife Stadium. They had a halftime lead because of bizarre end-of-half playcalling by the Giants that led to an interception and Maher field goal. They led the Miami Dolphins by only 10-6 at halftime.
Dallas could not overcome a poor start against the then-winless New York Jets, trailing 21-3 at one point before losing 24-22. Everything had to go right in their comeback, and their 2-point attempt to Witten fell incomplete because of an unblocked blitzer.
The Cowboys have found ways to rally, leading Garrett to talk about his team's ability to fight, scratch and claw, but the poor starts have to be on him. Coordinator Kellen Moore calls the offensive plays. Kris Richard and Rod Marinelli are responsible for the defense.
As the coach, Garrett's responsibility is to have his team mentally and physically ready to play from the start.
"I think as much as anything else, it's about execution, and you hear me say that a lot," Garrett said, then recalling the start from the Vikings game. "I thought the response was good. We have to continue to work hard to start better in the games."
Elliott almost jokingly said that maybe the Cowboys "have to act like we're behind" at the start of games.
"If we eliminate slow starts, who knows where we'd be," Elliott said.
They almost certainly would not be 5-4 after the third-easiest schedule so far, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. The remaining seven opponents are currently a combined 32-30. Their first nine opponents are a combined 34-41.
"I think at times we've played well," Garrett said. "We've played consistently well throughout games. I think that's probably a work in progress for every team in the league, and hopefully over the course of the year you become more and more consistent. If you want to be playing at the end of the year, that's what you have to be."