The Cowboys and Buccaneers couldn’t be in more different situations heading into their season opener on Thursday night.
Last year, the Cowboys suffered through a 6-10 season that featured decimating injuries to their entire offense, Dak Prescott being the most significant of them, while also getting to watch their historically awful defense invent new ways of losing each week. Now they’ve swapped out Mike Nolan for Dan Quinn, undergone a massive infusion of youth on defense, and returned their injured stars on offense. Nobody in Dallas is interested in repeating last year.
The Buccaneers, on the other hand, would be ecstatic for a complete repeat of 2020. After signing Tom Brady in free agency, the Buccaneers finished the year 11-5 before making a run all the way to the Super Bowl, becoming the first team in NFL history to play in their home stadium in the Super Bowl. To add the cherry on top, they won in convincing fashion, with a 31-9 final score against the previous year’s champions, the Chiefs.
The Buccaneers were also the healthiest team in the NFL last year, which played a big part in their season going so well. Dallas can’t even pretend to make such a claim. Although that isn’t to say the Buccaneers simply got lucky. They’re an extremely talented team, ranking third in offensive DVOA and fifth in defensive DVOA last year. And out of their 31 players who played at least 200 snaps last year, Tampa Bay has done the impossible and ensured that all 31 players have returned, making it highly probable that they’ll be just as good.
For Dallas, it’s very simple: the season will go as Dak goes. His ankle looks great, and so does his shoulder despite a mostly-manufactured worry mill during the preseason. On Thursday night in Tampa Bay, Prescott will see his first game action since his gruesome injury against the Giants last year. He’ll be doing so with a fully stacked cupboard of weapons. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb are arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL, and Ezekiel Elliott is looking for a bounce-back season after showing up to training camp noticeably slimmer than in past years. Dallas also has the luxury of two starting caliber tight ends in Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz, the latter just had a breakout year after the former tore an ACL in the season opener last year.
When Prescott is on, we know how dangerous this offense can be. In 2019, the first year with Kellen Moore calling plays for Prescott, they finished second in offensive DVOA and Prescott was enjoying a career year. In the four-and-some-change games that Prescott played last year, the offense was sitting around fifth in offensive DVOA and Prescott was putting up such gaudy numbers that it seemed impossible to contain him.
The issue, of course, was the defense. While the unit got better in the latter half of the year, it was still a highly unreliable group, and it cost several people their jobs. Dan Quinn has come onto the scene, along with a handful of promising rookies, headlined by linebacker Micah Parsons.
Quinn has quite the impressive history, having won a Super Bowl as the Seahawks defensive coordinator after his defense utterly dominated Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The next year, Quinn was in the Super Bowl and nearly secured a victory over Tom Brady and the Patriots. Seattle led 24-14 at the start of the fourth quarter, but New England rallied back before Russell Wilson’s goal-line interception sealed Seattle’s fate. Two years later, Quinn was taking on Brady again in the Super Bowl as the head coach of the Falcons. His Atlanta team famously held a 28-3 lead early in the third quarter before Brady engineered a ridiculous comeback that sent the game into overtime - for the first time in Super Bowl history, by the way - before ultimately winning.
Now, Quinn has another chance at trying to best Brady, with both of them in different locations. Quinn will be doing so with plenty of new faces - both to him and the Cowboys - while Brady has simply “gotten the band back together” for the Buccaneers. This will also be the first opportunity for Mike McCarthy to prove that last year truly was an aberration, and that he’s still the highly-sought-after head coach the Cowboys thought they were getting.
Tampa Bay comes into this game with some considerable advantages, most notably the amount of continuity they have from an exceptional year. Another big disadvantage for the Cowboys is their offensive line. Zack Martin has already been ruled out after testing positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, and La’el Collins has been struggling with a stinger in recent days. Collins returned to practice on Tuesday, but the injury is still a concern.
To make matters worse, the Buccaneers have an exceptionally good front seven. Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh are a handful for any offensive lineman, but pitting backups against those two is daunting, to say the least. Tampa Bay also tied for fourth-highest team pass rush win rate last year and was second in team run stop win rate. Connor McGovern will have a tall task, and Collins’ health will be a factor as well. Additionally, Tyler Biadasz will be making just the fifth start in his career.
In other words, it’s a good thing that Dak’s ankle looks to be doing so well, because he may very well have to do a lot of running on Thursday. Between those potential problems on the offensive line and the thought of Tom Brady facing such a young and inexperienced defense, it’s easy to see why the Buccaneers are favored to win. But the Cowboys have the ingredients to win too, setting up a potentially thrilling start to the season.