Finally, real, live football is coming back. The 2020 NFL season kicks off with the Chiefs and Texans on Thursday night, but the Sunday prime time matchup is reserved for the Dallas Cowboys - America’s Team - as they travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams for Sunday Night Football.
It will be a game full of new things for each side. The Rams are unveiling their brand new SoFi Stadium, which cost an absurd $5 billion to construct. While there won’t be fans there to enjoy the stadium, we’ll get to see what it looks like at home on television. Beyond that, the Rams will be debuting their offense for the first time without Todd Gurley running the ball, and new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley will call his first game after replacing legendary coach Wade Phillips.
For Dallas, their big debut focuses around head coach Mike McCarthy, coaching his first game since December 2, 2018. McCarthy brought in an almost completely new staff, though offensive coordinator Kellen Moore remains as the playcaller. But new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be unveiling his much-anticipated multiple defense, which also features Aldon Smith’s attempt at making a comeback after five seasons away from football.
For Dallas, this season opener offers a lot of hope for fans after moving on from the old school, conservative ways of Jason Garrett and into the more aggressive, analytics-driven approach McCarthy has been bringing. The Cowboys were one of the most talented rosters last year, but poor game management and special teams played crucial parts in leading Dallas to a disappointing 8-8 record; six of their eight losses were by a touchdown or less.
After drafting CeeDee Lamb in the first round of the draft, expectations are sky high for the Cowboys offense. McCarthy has reportedly infused some of his West Coast offense principles into Moore’s offense - a group that led the NFL in yards and finished second in offensive DVOA last year, by the way - to better take advantage of this receiver corps.
Defensively, the Cowboys have some unknown commodities in the secondary - notably safety Darian Thompsonr and rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs - but they added a bevy of pass rushers to complement DeMarcus Lawrence. For this week’s game they’ll have the aforementioned Smith in addition to Everson Griffen, Dorance Armstrong, Tyrone Crawford, and rookie Bradlee Anae, whose impressive training camp should get him some snaps in this rotation. As if that wasn’t enough, the Cowboys will get Randy Gregory back in Week 7.
The Cowboys also made a big commitment to improving their special teams by bringing in John Fassel, formerly of the Rams. To cure their kicking woes, Fassel brought along his longtime kicker from LA, Greg Zuerlein. After struggling with injuries last year, Zuerlein is apparently healthy and ready to return to his consistent form.
The Rams, on the other hand, saw more attrition last year. They failed to make the playoffs last season after appearing in the Super Bowl the year before. Gurley is gone, and he will be replaced by a running back committee of Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson, and rookie Cam Akers, who have 236 career carries between the three of them. For comparison’s sake, Gurley had 223 carries just last year, which was a career low for him.
Defensively, their new coordinator is the least of their concerns. Two of the Rams’ top three pass rushers from last year, Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews, are gone. Linebacker Cory Littleton, who led the team in tackles, is now in Las Vegas. Safety Eric Weddle, their second-leading tackler, retired. And finally, starting slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman was released in a cap-saving move.
That’s almost half of their starting defense from last year gone. The good news is that Aaron Donald is still one of the most dominant defenders in the sport, star cornerback Jalen Ramsey just inked a new deal, and last year’s promising rookie safety Taylor Rapp is looking to take another step forward. In an alternate reality, all three of these players are on the Cowboys and still basking in the glow of their Super Bowl win back in February, but in this version of 2020 they’re getting ready to tee off against Dallas on opening night.
More than anything, though, this is a crucial year for the Rams. It’s weird to say but head coach Sean McVay has a lot to prove this season. He no longer has experienced coordinators in Phillips and Fassel to rely on, and he’ll have to correct quarterback Jared Goff’s sharp regression from last year while competing in the toughest division this year.
The 49ers and Seahawks both made the playoffs last year, while the Cardinals are expected to make a push for the playoffs after trading for DeAndre Hopkins to pair with reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray. While the expansion of the playoffs to seven teams per conference technically makes it possible for all four NFC West teams to make the postseason, it’s highly unlikely. That means McVay will have to embrace all the changes to his team while navigating a gauntlet of a divisional schedule.
But it all starts on Sunday against the high-powered Cowboys. McVay has never lost a season opener in his three years with the Rams, while McCarthy is 9-4 in season opening games. The bottom line is that Dallas has more experience - both on their roster and the coaching staff - and continuity than the Rams. That should translate to success for the Cowboys.