In less than a week, the Dallas Cowboys start the NFL regular season against the reigning champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It is a tough draw. Dallas has several lingering questions going into the game. This is a team with multiple players on offense returning to the field after missing extended time last year, and a defense that has undergone a huge rebuild under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. It is hardly a make or break game, as the next few on the schedule look much more winnable. You can never count the Cowboys out for the first one, either, as wonky things tend to happen in Week 1. Still, Mike McCarthy has done nothing so far to prove that he is the right head coach. How the team looks this Thursday will be the first bit of data to confirm or change opinions of him.
A major part of how things will turn out is obviously the quality of the roster. It is probably the most important. Coaching can only go so far, but it too is a factor. There are strengths and weaknesses as things now stand. Some will possibly get resolved in the next few days, but many have to play out on Thursday. Here are some of the things to either make you fret or smile in contentment.
Concern: La’el Collins’ health
He is going to miss at least a couple of the practices for the Bucs game with a neck stinger. The staff has been very cautious with injuries since camp began, and this may be a continuation of that. But stingers can be a lingering problem. Collins missed the entire 2020 season with a hip injury, and his absence contributed to the dismal situation for the offensive line.
Ty Nsekhe won the swing tackle job, but he was underwhelming during most of camp and the preseason games. Now the team may have to rely on him against the ferocious Tampa Bay defense. Unless and until Collins returns, and can play at a high level, we will absolutely worry.
Don’t worry about national analysts who think they can tell how healthy his shoulder is from some Hard Knocks footage. Dak Prescott is ready to go. Reports from practices and his teammates indicate he has plenty of zip when he needs it. He has spent hours in the Dakyard making sure he still has chemistry with his receivers. His leadership is nearly as important as his skills, and that was one thing you could see in the HBO series.
The only concern that could be raised is injury risk, and all indications are that it is the same for him as it is for any quarterback. Which means that the first concern mentioned above is really, really important. He needs to be protected at all costs.
Concern: Uncertain quantities on defense
If you look at the likely week 1 starters according to Ourlads.com, the questions are everywhere. DeMarcus Lawrence didn’t practice for most of camp as he recovered from offseason back surgery. Randy Gregory has not played a full season in a long time. Osa Odighizuwa is a rookie. Carlos Watkins did not exactly excite as a free agent signing. Micah Parsons seems a sure bet, but it will still be his first real NFL game. Jaylon Smith will not be on the field for the nickel. Still, he will line up for likely rushing downs, and we all remember how badly that went last season. Leighton Vander Esch needs a real bounce back this season. In the nickel, Keanu Neal has looked very good, but is still a converted safety. Anthony Brown is more a journeyman than anything at corner. Trevon Diggs needs to have a jump in his sophomore season, especially with the wide receivers he faces in the first game. Slot corner Jourdan Lewis tends to run hot and cold, and Dallas needs him to be hot. Damontae Kazee is coming off his own season ending injury. Donovan Wilson has a short sample size as the strong safety.
That’s something for almost every starter. Facing the defending Super Bowl champs, led by the winningest quarterback in football and with all twenty-two of their starters from last year expected to go, is going to be a trial by blowtorch.
Confidence: The coordinators
If the offensive production from last season is any indication of what Kellen Moore can do, we may see the team flirting with some records. John Fassel made a real improvement in the special teams last year and there is no reason to think there will be any great falloff. And you can count me as a Dan Quinn believer. All he should have to do is get his defense in the middle of the pack with the potential of this offense, and that could be coming, at the least.
On paper, they have a very talented roster to work with, even with the questions raised just above. These three are going to cook.
As mentioned, it has been a long time since so many of the players the Cowboys are relying on have played in a game. McCarthy chose to protect his starters in preseason as well as being extremely cautious with every bump and bruise in camp. Bruce Arians took a different approach, including giving Tom Brady some preseason reps. That may give them an advantage in getting to midseason form.
Still, the ever increasing strictures on camp and practices, including the COVID protocols, are a tide that lowers all boats. We will see which team has done the best job preparing. It just would be nice if Dallas was facing someone else out of the gate.
Confidence: The running game
Yes, it is still unquestionably a passing league, but prime Ezekiel Elliott is still a valuable weapon. All signs point to that being exactly what we will see in 2021, as he is no longer dealing with the recovery from COVID that slowed him last year. There are also hints that he will be more incorporated into the passing game, and Elliott operating in space with the ball in his hands is enticing. Tony Pollard still provides a great change of pace, and the team even seems to have found a good substitute for the injured Rico Dowdle in Corey Clement.
It is on Moore to use the run at the right times, but whenever he dials one up, it should lead to good results.