Has a loss ever felt this encouraging before? By no means was the Cowboys’ 31-29 loss to the Buccaneers on Thursday night a cause for celebration, but it was probably the best type of loss fans could have hoped for.
Much was made about the Buccaneers’ unprecedented level of continuity from last year’s Super Bowl team, and that fact made the Cowboys steep underdogs heading into the game, especially being on the road with Dak Prescott playing for the first time in nearly a full calendar year with no Zack Martin.
But boy did things look good. Not perfect, but good. Dak, in particularly, looked incredible; he completed a mind-boggling 72.4% of his 58 (!) passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns, and the Martin-less line only allowed one sack. Still, Dallas fell short right at the end like so many other teams in the past who have given the ball back to Tom Brady with under two minutes left. These five plays were a big reason why.
Greg Zuerlein’s first missed field goal sets a bad tone
The first quarter made it very clear that neither defense was going to put up too much of a fight, giving us all the Dak/Brady shootout we deserve after waiting all summer. Both quarterbacks were slinging it, but they weren’t getting much help.
Early in the second quarter and trailing 14-7, Prescott engineered another drive where he seemingly hit on every pass he attempted. Dallas drove down to the Buccaneers’ 13-yard line when the drive fizzled out after a missed shot to the endzone on third down. Instead of going for it on fourth and short, Mike McCarthy sent the field goal unit out.
Greg Zuerlein, who had surgery this offseason and did little in the preseason, shanked the field goal so far to the left that it looked like one of those Madden glitches you find in the first week of release. The decision not to go for it was bad, but Zuerlein missing such an easy kick is unforgivable, especially when the game ended up being decided by just two points.
Greg Zuerlein’s missed extra point complicates things
Greg the Leg eventually redeemed himself, but it took a while. The missed field goal led to a fumble recovery on the very next play, setting the Cowboys up in perfect position just 27 yards out from paydirt.
It took just five plays for Prescott to find Amari Cooper for the touchdown, cutting the score to 14-13. A successful extra point from Zuerlein - who’s missed just six extra points in the last five years - would have tied things up. Instead, he doinked it off the upright, which filled Cris Collinsworth with joy but filled Cowboys fans with more anger than the guy who was holding the ball for Zuerlein.
The missed extra point wasn’t as consequential as the missed field goal, but it kept the Cowboys from a tie game and made the kicker spot a clear point of concern going forward. And while Zuerlein also missed another field goal, that one was from 60 yards so it really shouldn’t count. Still, the worries about Zuerlein in the preseason were reinforced Thursday night.
All three of CeeDee Lamb’s drops
This is a bit of a cheat, as it’s a combination of three different plays, but CeeDee Lamb struggled at key points Thursday night. His one real weakness in 2020 was occasional drops, and that continued against the Buccaneers.
All in all, Lamb played well, catching seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown. But he had three drops that came at the worst possible times. The first two happened back to back, and there’s an argument to be made that the first one was just a poorly thrown ball by Dak. But the second was all Lamb, and it killed the Cowboys’ drive and robbed them of a chance to strike first.
The third drop was arguably the most damaging, as it turned into an interception. Granted, Prescott threw the ball into a tight window, but he put the ball right on Lamb’s gloves and it just bounced off of them. With how much hype Lamb earned this offseason, and the expectations that come with wearing number 88, he simply has to be better.
Forced to settle for a field goal predictably comes back to bite
An immaculate fumble at the goal line gave Dak the ball down two with just under five minutes left, otherwise known as too much time for a quarterback of his caliber. Not surprisingly, Prescott led the offense down the field with aplomb before penalties slowed things down.
Facing third and six on the Buccaneers 30-yard line, the Cowboys failed to pick up the first down. But a hold from Connor Williams backed things up to third and sixteen, which they again failed to convert. Faced with fourth and six, Dallas had no choice but to kick the field goal.
To his credit, Zuerlein made the kick, but it also meant giving the ball to Brady with enough time to what he always does. Dallas made the right decision in kicking it, but they needed to string together a touchdown drive there and eat up the clock. They failed in that regard, and it cost them.
Missed pass interference call gives Tampa Bay what they need to win
Surprisingly, the Dallas defense was holding up much better than most expected on the final drive. An offensive penalty forced the Buccaneers to burn their final timeout, and the Cowboys did a good job of only giving up short completions and tackling inbounds.
But on second and ten at the Dallas 42-yard line with 24 seconds left, Brady went deep down the sideline to Chris Godwin, who made the catch. It set Tampa Bay up in perfect position to kick the field goal and win. The problem is that Godwin pushed off of his defender to make said catch.
Apparently offensive pass interference is no longer a penalty in 2021 pic.twitter.com/K5fpGmQel3— Marc Istook (@MarcIstook) September 10, 2021
The replay showed a full arm extension from Godwin, and NBC’s rules expert Terry McAulay opined that the play should have been flagged for offensive pass interference. Of course, such penalty would have negated the catch and moved the Buccaneers back onto their side of the field with roughly 18 seconds remaining. Instead, the reigning champs start their year off with a win, while the Cowboys end another season opener with a loss and plenty of grumbling to be done about offensive pass interference.