Your Dallas Cowboys returned to real, live NFL football action Thursday and put on a sensational performance against the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cowboys played well enough to win but also made enough mistakes to lose. And in a close game such as this things like lucky bounces and bad officiating calls can make a difference. And that's exactly what happened as the 2021 iteration ended up on the wrong end of a 31 - 29 result.
There was a lot to like about the Cowboys' performance:
- Dak Prescott looked phenomenal in his return from a fractured ankle.
- A defense that has struggled to generate turnovers for most of the last 10 years produced 4.
- Kellen Moore and Mike McCarthy called pass plays 80% of the time, showing the franchise is no longer wedded to the idea you must run to win.
And yet in a game where the Cowboys created 3 more turnovers than the Bucs, had more yards, converted third downs at a higher rate, ran more plays, held the ball for ten more minutes and had fewer penalties for fewer yards still managed to lose.
This result can largely be boiled down to two facts:
- The Bucs were much more efficient in the red zone, with Dallas converting only one of four opportunities into touchdowns.
- The Dallas place-kicker missing two kicks worth four points that NFL kickers convert 98% of the time.
That's it. Red zone situations and placekicking is why a Cowboys team picked by virtually everyone to either lose or be blown out ended up on the wrong end of a 2-point game.
Two plays pretty much illustrate how Tampa Bay converted three of their four red zone opportunities into 21 points. The first came early in the game and saw perennial MVP-caliber Tom Brady hooking up with perennial entertainer Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown:
Look, Brady and Gronk have done pretty much the same thing to many teams over the years. It's what they do and there's no shame in having it happen to your team.
So I'm not bothered by the Cowboys' braintrust going to the risky zero-cover blitz and getting burned by it. Though it is somewhat ambitious to think that having your safety blitz and thus leaving your defensive end to cover the future Hall of Fame tight end would somehow confuse Tom Brady. But, hey, the standard approach wasn't working so I get it.
And it really wouldn't be a close Cowboys contest without officiating controversy. The final margin of victory came on a last second field goal that was possible as a result of this play:
The rule says if a wide receiver gains separation as a result of extending his arms into his defender then it's offensive pass interference. And it's pretty clear that's exactly what happened here. And without that play the Bucs' final game-winning drive looks very different.
Compare that non-OPI call to this OPI call that went against the Cowboys in the opening week last season:
As a Cowboys' fan it's extremely difficult to reconcile that the first was allowed to stand and the second was negated. As an NFL it's just frustrating games come down to such calls and the league can't achieve consistency.
Nevertheless, your Cowboys performance should provide hope to Dallas fans. They went toe-to-toe with the Super Bowl champions - on their home turf - and very much held their own. The offense looked like an elite unite (outside of red zone woes) and the defense made enough plays to offset being exposed many times.
If this version of the Cowboys plays as well as they did Thursday throughout the season this should be both an entertaining and successful campaign.
Let's get to the grades.
Look, the overall performance is how coaches are graded and the Cowboys' overall performance was pretty damn good. This looked like a unit ready to play. The offense was crisp and made plays throughout. The defense held up well enough but, most importantly, came up with turnovers. Turnovers play a massive role in determining NFL games and Dallas has been woeful in this area for seemingly forever.
They did create many in latter stages of 2020 but that was against mostly backup QBs. Thursday they generated four against the Super Bowl champs.
So Mike McCarthy and the rest of the staff deserve a lot of credit as this looked like a competent group. And yet...
So many things happened Thursday that leave me still doubting McCarthy and his gang. Consider:
- Special teams were a disaster with 4 lost points due to missed extra points and a chip-shot field goals, lengthy returns allowed and multiple penalties.
- McCarthy not going for it on fourth down when the analytics said it was the obvious choice.
- McCarthy choosing to bet on a mediocre defense stopping Tom Brady as opposed to his high-flying offense gaining six yards.
Let's take a look at those last two in more detail. Midway through the 3rd quarter faced a 4th-and-goal from the Bucs' 3-yard line trailing 21-16. The analytics, via @ben_bot_baldwin, yield the following:
What this tells us is a successful 4th down attempt increases the Cowboys' win likelihood from 24% to 38%. A successful field goal attempt increases the Cowboys' win likelyhood from 20% to...20%.
Remember how Mike McCarthy spent so much time telling everyone who would listen that he had learned so much by studying analytics and he wanted an 800-strong group of analysts to be part of his decision-making team?
Yeah, throw all that stuff out the window. Because when the time came for him to show some stones and make an unconventional decision he chose the cheap, easy, safe, non-controversial and dumb decision.
Then let's move to the Cowboys' final drive. They faced a 4th-and-6 from the Bucs' 30-yard line with 1:29 remaining. Ask yourself which of the following options yield the best outcome:
- Asking a Cowboys offense that generated 451 yards and 30 first downs gaining six yards on 4th down or...
- Asking a Cowboys defense that surrendered 431 yards to stop Tom Brady and the Bucs offense from going 50 or so yards for a game-winning field goal.
I'm not saying the decision is a slam dunk in favor of going for it, but I know what I would do. I have much more faith in Dak Prescott and the offense than I do the defense stopping Tom Brady from getting 50 yards.
This doesn't even bring up the fact that the coaching staff's pet placekicker had looked shaky throughout the night and was now being asked to convert a very difficult late game kick (kudos for Zuerlein for doing so).
This is why, despite an impressive overall performance, I don't give the coaching staff a higher grade. McCarthy flat out ignored the analytics that he supposedly has so much enthusiasm for when it counted. And then bet on the weaker unit at the end when he could have chose to put the game in the hands of his quarterback who had been outstanding virtually throughout the game.
Speaking of which, let's talk about Rayne Dakota Prescott. Simply put he was sensational. After being shelved for most of the last year and not playing through most of training camp and pre-season he put up yet another massive performance.
Dallas smartly decided not to try beating their heads against the imposing Tampa run defense, instead passing on 80% of all offensive snaps. Prescott responded with 42 completions, 403 yards, 3 touchdowns and a 101 passer rating. He made play after play after play. He hung in the pocket and took numerous hard hits from the talented Tampa front seven.
Honestly, anyone who doubts Prescott is a top-8 (or top-5) NFL quarterback needs to reevaluate. Without him the Cowboys would have been trounced Thursday. And Cowboys' fans should be ecstatic because there's nothing more valuable than a top-shelf quarterback in the NFL and there's simply no doubt anymore that's what Prescott provides.
Dak was not perfect. He had one interceptable ball dropped. Another ball that was intercepted was more a result of a CeeDee Lamb drop than a bad throw.
For Cowboys' fans wondering how their $40 million dollar man would perform Thursday was an emphatic, positive result.
Running Back: C-
Dallas ran only 14 designed runs to their running backs. That might be a record for fewest runs in team history but I haven't looked it up. The runs were virtually all unsuccessful, averaging only 3.0 per rush. But the one time the braintrust put the ball in Ezekiel Elliott's hands he looked like a third-rate plugger.
Yes, Blake Jarwin badly whiffed on his block attempt. But when you're one of the highest paid players in the league at your position you're expected to beat a defender one-on-one in open space. Zeke didn't even threaten the defender.
Elliott does deserve a lot of credit for providing outstanding pass protection on the team's 60+ dropbacks. He repeatedly picked up the right defender and aggressively took them on. That played no small role in Dak getting sacked only once all night against a fierce defensive front.
Tony Pollard was given his usual 3-5 opportunities in a non-blowout game and didn't do much notable with them. Hard to think he doesn't beat that defender on the above play, however.
Wide receiver: A-
This grade could have easily been an A+ had CeeDee Lamb not had three critical drops. He, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup were all fans and analysts hoped for, routinely beating coverage to get open and making plays all over the field. This trio, with some contributions from Cedric Wilson (number one in your program), were virtually unstoppable. Here's the numbers:
Cooper's second touchdown of the night tells the story as he easily beat his man and gathered a fairly easy pitch and catch from Dak. I'm still confused by many Cowboys' fans who seem eager to "get rid of Cooper's contract". He's a top-10 NFL receiver, a legit #1 receiver and, until proven otherwise, the best receiver on the Dallas roster.
Yes, CeeDee Lamb could someday make that claim. But right now it's not debatable and Thursday well-illustrated why. Lamb had three drops on the night. One ended a drive on third down and another that resulted in the Cowboys' lone turnover on the night.
Was that a tough catch in traffic? Yes. But if you want to be the best you simply can't have that ball bounce off your hands.
TIGHT END: B-
Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz combined for nine catches on ten targets but for only 65 yards. They contributed what they could when given opportunities. But Jarwin's whiff on the 3rd down attempt inside the 5-yard line proved a critical failure. Frankly Schultz looked like the better player in the first game where both were given similar opportunities.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A
This was a unit I was concerned about going into the game. Zack Martin was out and Connor McGovern was in. La'el Collins was seeing his first action since 2019. Tyler Biadasz is young and relatively unproven. Tyron Smith was returning from neck surgery. And all that group had to do was go up against one of the most dynamic and talented defensive fronts in the NFL.
So for them to hold up and keep Dak mostly clean despite dropping back virtually every play was impressive. Tyron Smith looked like he went back in time. He's only 30 and if he can play like he did last night the rest of the season and stay healthy (always iffy) good things will happen. Collins was stout all night long.
But it was Connor McGovern who most impressed, simply because the expectations were so low. Going against Ndamuking Suh or Vita Vea virtually every snap McGovern help up quite well. That''s Vita Vea McGovern is seen planting into the turn. Yeah, he struggled at times and Dak's mobility and pocket poise helped, but McGovern played about as well as could be hoped for.
And yes, Vita Vea did make Tyler Biadasz look silly, but that happens to most lineman going up against Vea. Overall this unit proved up to the challenge throughout the night.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C
The formula for success for this group was simple: get Tom Brady off his spot. You're not going to sack or even hit Brady very often because he knows where he's going with the ball before the snap. And he doesn't hesitate to throw the ball away if he gets any pressure at all.
But getting him to throw the ball away is the road to success and the Dallas front simply didn't do it enough. Many have put their hopes in Randy Gregory developing into a top-shelf edge rusher. Nothing I saw Thursday indicated he's there yet. He had zero pressures and only one tackle. He did manage to recover this fumble for the game's first turnover.
The fumble was caused by Demarcus Lawrence who at least got into the backfield a bit and create some tension. But he also wound up without a sack or pressure but did end up with five tackles and the forced fumble.
But since recording 25 sacks in the 2017 and 2018 seasons Tank has only 11.5 sacks his last 32 games. Yes, he grades out very well overall and his motor never stops. And yes Tristan Wirfs is an extremely good right tackle. But elite edge rushers get paid to make plays and Tank simply couldn't create one Thursday.
The rest of the line is a group of retreads and wannabes and pretty much performed like it. If this unit can't improve opposing quarterbacks will have time to throw.
How this group would be utilized was a bit of a mystery prior to the game but I don't think many of us thought a rotation of Jaylon Smith & Leighton Vander Esch replacing Micah Parsons & Keanu Neal would be the answer. It was bizarre frankly.
And not particularly effective. I honestly can't remember anyone making a play. Parsons got welcomed to the NFL when, despite good coverage, Brady hit Gronk for a key gain. It looked like Parsons had an opportunity on this Brady prayer but he was unable to make the play. That was pretty much the story all night for this group: unable to make a play.
Brady clearly had his sights on Brown and it's easy to understand why. Brown has been a mediocre corner his entire career and has rarely been left on the edge as he's better in the slot. The Cowboys' decision to go with him was always questionable and we should expect teams to target him until he can make them pay.
Brady's overall numbers of 397 yards and four touchdowns illustrate this group struggled throughout the night. There were bright spots, however. Trevon Diggs displayed he's the best cover corner on the team, locking up Mike Evans most of the night (Evans would finish with only 24 yards on six targets). Diggs also showed the ability to catch the football when he captured this ricochet off Leonard Fournette's hands for an interception.
Jourdan Lewis also grabbed an interception as well, on the last play of the first half. He returned the ball 66 yards and looked like he might convert the pick into a game-changing touchdown return. I feel like if Maurice Canady turns around and picks up the trailing Marpet this could have gone to the house.
And finally we had Damonte Kazee making a huge defensive play, forcing a fumble near the goalline when Tampa appeared headed for a game-clinching touchdown. And of course it was Jourdan Lewis who pounced on the ball for the recovery.
Look, we're accustomed to seeing the Cowboys' low-pedigreed secondary get beaten by good quarterbacks and receivers; that's been going on for years. We're not accustomed to them countering that with big turnovers; that's completely new. This group ended up the night with two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovered and one of only two quarterback pressures (from Donovan Wilson).
SPECIAL TEAMS: D-
Call me crazy but I don't think handing placekicking duties to a kicker who's unable to kick is a great idea. Greg Zuerlein barely kicked at all during training camp and in pre-season. And yet the Cowboys' braintrust decided to jettison the only other kicker on the roster and not bring in any other competition.
It's mindboggling. Imagine putting the fate of your $5 billion dollar franchise on the foot of a guy who hasn't kicked in weeks. Well, that's exactly what your Dallas Cowboys did and, shockingly, that turned out to be a dumb decision.
Zuerlein looked every bit like a kicker who hadn't kicked recently missing both a chip-shot field goal and an extra point. His other field goal makes were all shaky as well. Only his gutsy 48-yarder to give the Cowboys a late lead looked solid.
I honestly don't blame Zuerlein. I blame the GM, McCarthy and special teams coach Jim Fassell. Fassell sure seems to like "his guys" regardless of whether "his guys" are really performing well. And I'm not a fan of coaches who have pets and don't really evaluate them based on performance.
The rest of the special teams fared little better, with the coverage teams surrendering multiple lengthy returns.
This opening week contest always looked like the biggest challenge on the schedule. So there's no shame in losing to the defending champions on their turf.
But it was also a missed opportunity; exactly the kind of missed opportunity that has haunted this franchise for decades now. Dropped passes, missed field goals, bonehead coaching decisions...this team isn't good enough to overcome such nonsense. So that's very disappointing.
But they alos provided a lot to like. Dak Prescott and the offense are going to be a handful for anyone they face. Thursday it was the wideouts doing the damage because that's where the opportunities were. But if teams take that away Dallas can go to the run game and if that doesn't work they also have two pass catching tight ends and a dynamic second running back.
Kellen Moore deserves a lot of credit too. Compare the multiple shifts, motions, mis-direction and rub routes to the stale, predictable offense this team used to run. The only thing stopping Moore from ascending to the "boy genius" level of play-calling is his inability to decode the red zone.
The defense looked as fragile and vulnerable as expected. But it's young, with lots of new faces. And I'd much rather see new, young faces struggling than the same old group we already knew weren't quite good enough. The fact this group, going back to last season, has a knack for taking the ball away is a huge development. Again, I'm looking forward to finding out what they can evolve into.
The Dallas Cowboys are back for another season woohoo!