It was a thrilling if eventually disappointing opening game for the Dallas Cowboys against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We know the score. Now it is time to look at what we may have learned about the 2021 edition of the Cowboys.
Kellen Moore is the real deal
You probably were expecting this to lead off with Dak Prescott being back. We didn’t learn that against the Buccaneers, however. We just had it confirmed. His performance was not just a continuation of what we saw last year, but it came against one of the elite defenses in the NFL.
No, what we learned was that it wasn’t just Prescott going all Superman on the field. It was the offensive coordinator dialing up some great calls. And it was clear from the very first offensive snap for Dallas.
My favorite thing about the Cowboys' first play from scrimmage isn't that Kellen emptied the backfield at his own 2-yard line or that McGovern fended off Vita Vea, but that Dak didn't panic, didn't lay up short to one of his TE's, but rather attacked downfield. pic.twitter.com/1WiwJAFy1l— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) September 11, 2021
This play would never be called from the two yard line to start a game in the pre-Mike McCarthy era. Which says that not only is the head coach a more daring individual, he has a tremendous amount of trust in his OC. He also may have had some input in game planning, of course. But this play is redolent of the innovation and daring we hoped Moore could bring to the table. After the game, he just offered more reasons to be excited about his offense.
Kellen Moore: “Yards are yards, whether they’re run or pass. I think sometimes we get a little hung up on the category they go into.” https://t.co/WMCfkqKeoV— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 13, 2021
That also offers clear evidence of how Prescott has the reins to make needed adjustments at the line. It is a vital partnership for a high-powered offense. That is just what Moore is bringing to the Cowboys, and it looks like something we will see all this year.
The run defense has taken a big leap, too
Many have noted that Dallas only had 60 yards on the ground in the game, which was part of why they had to go so heavily to the pass. But less remarked is that Tampa Bay had even fewer rushing yards, 52. While they were a bit better in yards per attempt than the Cowboys, Dan Quinn’s defense still held them to a 3.7 yards average. That is usually going to be good enough to keep your team from getting gashed the way we saw so many times last year.
Perhaps more so than with the offense, we have to see if this is sustainable. Still, it is a great way to start the season. The Cowboys will likely not see a quarterback as effective as Tom Brady again this year. That makes keeping the run game in check even more important. We’ll keep an eye on this, but so far, so good.
A welcome sign in the turnover margin
Dallas was plus three, picking off Brady twice while Prescott only got intercepted once. The Cowboys held onto the ball with no lost fumbles, while the Bucs coughed it up twice. That should have led to a win. While that failure is disappointing, it is a hopeful thing for the future.
However, it is not something that is all that easy to consistently maintain. The way fortunate bounces and caroms worked in Dallas’ favor shows just how much luck plays a part in this. But the players also have to be in the right place to capitalize on those things, and for once, they were. Let’s hope that continues.
There is a special problem
As in special teams, which can only be described as bad in the first game. With the performance of the other two phases of the game, it is a legitimate argument to make that John Fassel’s unit lost this game for Dallas. Missed field goals by Greg Zuerlein may have been the product of relying on him when he admitted that he was not fully ready. The coverage on kick returns was dismal, and might also have been a product of Zuerlein not putting the ball into the end zone. The Cowboys did not get any productive returns themselves. That led to being in the minus column in hidden yards, the field position to start drives.
This is big. Fassel has to get this corrected immediately, or it could threaten more losses. Dallas came tantalizingly close to pulling the upset, and given what the offense and defense did special teams was likely the thing that drug them down.
The guard has changed at linebacker
Micah Parsons was on the field for 78% of the defensive plays. Keanu Neal totaled 77%. Meanwhile, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch notched 25% and 22% respectively. Those numbers will shift depending on how often opponents go with 11 personnel, but it is obvious who the real starters are. After the debacle of last year’s defense, we were all calling for the team to do something in the offseason to fix the linebacking woes. The team saw the same thing we did, and acted accordingly.
The Cowboys were missing their best player, and didn’t miss a beat
This is particularly important as the team now has a different issue on the offensive line, and it is a comfort that Kellen Moore and Joe Philbin made things work so well without Zack Martin. There were still issues with the interior of the Tampa Bay defensive line, but they are one of the best groups in the league. Now they face the Los Angeles Chargers and Joey Bosa with Terence Steele filling in for La’el Collins. Many still feel a bit of panic over that, but the current staff is not at all likely to make the inexplicable mistakes that led to the infamous Adrian Clayborn six sack game against the Atlanta Falcons in 2017.
The Cowboys have both the coaching and the personnel to make this work. The Chargers are still a good team, but Dallas should be a bit better, even with the missing players.
We need to see Peyton and Eli doing the Dallas MNF game
OK, this is not exactly something we learned from the game, but after the fantastic debut of the Manning brothers in their alternative “call” of the first Monday night game, it is absolutely glorious that they are already scheduled to make their third appearance for the Cowboy’s home opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. While there are undoubtedly some viewers who want the traditional play-by-play announcing, the first edition of their coverage of the game was a treasure trove for those who want a much more unfiltered and honest discussion of what is happening. It should be glorious.