It’s almost here, the NFL regular season. And not just any old regular season; it’s the 100th regular season. The festivities kick Thursday night with the oldest rivalry in professional football as the Bears take on the Packers.
And in a tradition that feels almost as old as that rivalry, the Cowboys are kicking off their season against the New York Giants on Sunday. In past years, this matchup has been must-see television, but recently it’s been fairly one-sided for the Cowboys. Dallas has swept the season series the last two years, as the Giants have fallen into a hearty rebuild process. In fact, Jason Garrett is 11-6 all-time against the Giants, which spans three different head coaches for New York.
Not surprisingly, the Cowboys are favored to win Sunday’s season opener by a full touchdown. Only the Seahawks (hosting the Bengals) and the Eagles (hosting the Redskins) are favored to win by a larger margin. Of course, a big part of the story will be Ezekiel Elliott, who returned to the team on Wednesday with a new, massive contract after holding out all of training camp. Elliott, who’s led the league in rushing two of the three years he’s been playing, will be good to go against the Giants but rookie Tony Pollard should also see some action.
That transitions to the next big story for this game, at least on the part of the Cowboys, and that’s offensive coordinator Kellen Moore making his debut as a playcaller. We’ve gotten glimpses in training camp and the preseason, but this game will give us our first real taste of what Moore’s offense will look like. Based off everything we know so far, Moore’s offense will contain the same basic plays but with loads more pre-snap motion and misdirection.
But how will he call plays? Will Moore rely on Zeke as much as his predecessor did, or will he air it out more? After all, Dak Prescott’s career high 526 pass attempts last year still ranked just 13th in the league. Will Moore use Pollard frequently and make it more of a running back tandem, or will Zeke still be the primary runner? How much will the tight ends, specifically the un-retired Jason Witten, get involved?
These are all questions that remain to be seen, but it’s at least encouraging that Moore’s first ever regular-season game calling the plays comes against a defense that ranked in the bottom ten in pass defense, run defense, scoring defense, and total defense last year. They were also 24th in defensive DVOA, though their 22nd rank of weighted DVOA suggests they improved as a unit throughout the season.
And the Giants added some pieces on defense that should see another slight uptick in production in 2019. Signing edge rusher Markus Golden and safety Antoine Bethea, as well as trading for Jabrill Peppers, should help mitigate the loss of Olivier Vernon and Landon Collins. They also drafted nose tackle Dexter Lawrence and three cornerbacks - Deandre Baker, Julian Love, and Corey Ballentine - that should get some playing time early on.
Nevertheless, this is a defense that should run into some struggles against a loaded Cowboys offense that also features the return of All Pro center Travis Frederick. The Giants offense, on the other hand, is another story. It seems as if general manager Dave Gettleman couldn’t make up his mind between rebuilding or reloading. First, he jettisoned star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns (which Dallas definitely isn’t complaining about) and then he signed Golden Tate to a four-year deal worth $37.5 million. Of course, Tate is suspended for the first four games now, because Giants.
Gettleman also invested more money into his offensive line, signing right tackle Mike Remmers and acquiring right guard Kevin Zeitler (the second-highest paid guard in the NFL) in the OBJ trade. In addition to left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Will Hernandez, the Giants now have an offensive line capable of creating a good offense. But after Saquon Barkley, the weapons available are unclear. Evan Engram enters his third season looking to finally put it all together after injuries shortened his first two years, and Sterling Shepard is suddenly the top (only?) receiver for this offense; his 66 catches for 872 yards last season were both career highs.
The biggest question mark for this offense, though, is Eli Manning. The 38-year-old has clearly seen better days, and it’s only a matter of time before fans start aggressively calling for sixth-overall pick Daniel Jones to take over as the starter. With a depleted wide receiver room, things will get even harder for Manning going up against a loaded defense with playmakers at every level.
Expect Barkley to shoulder the load for the offense, and likely have a big game, but more than anything this matchup will be about Zeke getting back into the flow of things and seeing how Moore does in his first ever game calling offensive plays. Being a rivalry game, the Giants should have a little more push, which makes this a good way for the Cowboys to get their feet wet as the 2019 season gets under way.