It’s in the books, and despite being a big underdog in the first game, the Dallas Cowboys went toe-to-toe with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and could easily have won the game but for a handful of plays that went awry. It was a loss, so there are certainly bad things to consider. But since the Cowboys pretty much exceeded expectations, good things also can be found. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle took opposite views of things.
Tom: Let’s give no love to the idea of moral victories. The win was within the team’s grasp, and to see them fail was disturbing, especially since it wasted some really good performances. The most obvious thing was the failure of the special teams. Greg Zuerlein was obviously rusty, and left four points on the field. We can discount the 60-yard attempt, because that was the definition of a long shot, but his first missed field goal was a dagger to the heart and may well have been the difference between winning and losing.
Let’s not pick just on him. John Fassel deserves heat for the pitiful way his unit performed. Once again, the Cowboys wound up on the short end of the field position ledger, with an average starting position of their own 27-yard line versus the Bucs’ average of their own 33. The performance of the STs were actually worse than those numbers indicate, because Dallas got to start two drives on the Tampa Bay 27- and 21-yard line due to turnovers. Take those out of the equation, and the coverage and return game was miserable. The worst was covering kickoffs. Tampa had 92 yards on three kickoff returns, which is absolutely unacceptable.
David: Moral victories don’t show up in the win column, and at the end of the day Dallas had a shot to win and failed to do so. But the Buccaneers also had several opportunities to blow the Cowboys out of the water and they also failed to do so. Chalk it up to first game rust for both teams.
The bottom line is the Cowboys answered a ton of questions we all had coming in: the two tackles are back at 100% (except for the suspension issue), Dak very obviously is, and Kellen Moore has full command of this offense. Defensively, they looked about as good as you’d expect facing off against Tom Brady after so much roster turnover. The pass rush had its moments, Trevon Diggs looked great, and the run defense wasn’t a liability. Sure, the secondary got burned at times, but it’s Brady. Special teams looked especially bad, but that may be due to rust more than anything else; we’ll find out in the coming weeks if it was rust or a real problem. Either way, going toe-to-toe against the reigning Super Bowl champs on the road is highly encouraging.
Tom: Winning would have been highly encouraging. The loss came because there were some issues that should have been resolved before the first game. Dak Prescott was all we hoped him to be in this game, and a maybe a little more. And it turns out we at least have a backup guard on the roster that can be trusted. Now, of course, the line has another big question to answer with La’el Collins suspended for the next five games.
But the secondary, like it was for the Bucs, was the weak point for Dallas. And it was largely one player, Anthony Brown, who was the weak link. He was used and abused all game.
Yet despite his blatantly obvious struggles, he was in for 100% of the defensive snaps, the same as Trevon Diggs, who was the polar opposite statistically. It is hard to believe that Maurice Canady is not worth giving a shot. Maybe Dan Quinn was hesitant to make a move against Tom Freaking Brady, but it is hard to envision Canady or even Nahshon Wright being worse. The defense got a lot right in the game, but this glaring fault was seized by Brady to exploit, and the staff did nothing to fix it.
David: Brown was pretty terrible in that first half, but he did seem to improve in the second half, which speaks both to his veteran status and Quinn’s adjustments. Canady or Wright probably should have got a shot, but it’s unlikely either would have fared any better because, well, it’s Tom Brady.
But this defense was always going to be a work in progress, especially in Week 1 against one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever pick up a football. The Cowboys don’t need that side of the ball to be perfect, just average. Realistically, as long as they’re not a complete liability like they were last year, things will work out for Dallas more often than not. It just so happened that this game was against arguably the greatest roster in the NFL, considering it’s basically the same exact roster that just won a Super Bowl.
Tom: Outside of the Brown issue, the defense was at least passable when considering what the offense brought to the table. Red zone issues also reared their ugly head, but we’ll be generous and give them a bit of a mulligan there because of the Tampa Bay defense. There is, however, another thing that stuck in my craw, and that I am very pessimistic about being fixed. That was game management. It has been a criticism of Mike McCarthy since he arrived in Dallas, at the very least, and he did not cover himself in glory. Kicking a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the three was highly questionable. The 60-yard attempt raises questions. And giving the ball back to Tom Brady with 1:24 left while clinging to a one-point lead led to the almost inevitable conclusion. Even if it had not netted a first down, the series culminating in the kick to take the lead was the only time when feeding Ezekiel Elliott was called for. Force Bruce Arians to spend his timeouts, and just maybe Zeke could have gotten then another set of downs and the ability to end things with a W. Hopefully Dallas won’t see a lot of close games like this when the head coach’s decisions will determine the outcome. If they do, prepared to be disappointed.
David: Ditto the disappointment in McCarthy’s decision making for much of the game, but given how good he was in these spots last year according to the analytics, I’m cautiously optimistic it was a blip and not a harbinger of what’s to come. Overall, the Cowboys are in a good spot. They nearly knocked off the champs with slightly-below-average defense and bad special teams because Dak is Dak. And they don’t face another 2020 playoff team until Week 11. They won’t go undefeated in that span, but this team should be able to stack some wins if they play at the same level they did Thursday night. And if they do, then it’ll make plenty of Cowboys fans very happy.