A year ago at this time, the NFL was kicking off their 102nd season with a Thursday night game between the Buccaneers, hot off a Super Bowl victory, and the Dallas Cowboys, who were ready for Dak Prescott to make his return from a gruesome leg injury the year before. That game ended up being a thriller, with Prescott going head-to-head with Tom Brady through the air. There was just one problem: Dallas was on the wrong side of the final score.
This year, those two teams will face off again in Week 1, but there are a few differences here and there. For starters, instead of being the kickoff game for the entire season, this rematch will be the primetime special engagement on Sunday night. The NFL obviously has hopes of this one being every bit as entertaining as it was last year.
The Cowboys, of course, only hope for a different result. Though they lost this game last year, Mike McCarthy’s group responded by rattling off six straight wins, the last of which even came without Prescott under center. But their successful season ended in disappointing fashion, getting beat in their own home by the 49ers.
That prompted several notable changes in Dallas. The coaching staff remained largely intact despite rumblings about McCarthy’s job security and head coach interview cycles for both Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn, both of whom ultimately stayed put.
However, the roster was indeed reworked. On the offensive line, Connor Williams was promptly shown the door on his way to the free agent market and La’el Collins was unceremoniously released. Amari Cooper was traded to Cleveland while Cedrick Wilson got a bigger payday elsewhere in free agency. The Cowboys sought to offset these losses by signing James Washington (currently on injured reserve), drafting Jalen Tolbert (currently second-string on the depth chart), and drafting left tackle Tyler Smith from Tulsa to move to left guard (more on that in a moment).
Defensively, Dallas wisely kept much of their core together after an unprecedented season last year. The one major departure was Randy Gregory, whose vacancy is likely to be filled by a rotation of the re-signed Dorance Armstrong, the free agent acquisition Dante Fowler, and rookie Sam Williams. But Dallas is still banking on success with Quinn’s scheme built around the pass rushing skills of DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons with a versatile, ball-hawking secondary featuring Trevon Diggs cleaning up after them.
Perhaps the biggest story this offseason, though, has been the Cowboys’ apparent shift to a more run-heavy approach on offense. Coaches are once again bragging about all the ways they’ll get the most out of both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, and the run-blocking abilities of Tyler Smith, Dalton Schultz, rookie Jake Ferguson, and Noah Brown have all been highlighted at various points this offseason.
It’s a little unlucky, then, that they begin the season against the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has a particularly imposing defensive line, highlighted by the monstrous Vita Vea. In last year’s game, Kellen Moore seemingly admitted that Dallas couldn’t run against the Bucs’ front, asking Prescott to throw 58 passes while Elliott and Pollard only carried the ball 14 times. It worked for that game, but will Dallas take the same approach after spending all offseason trying to become a ground-and-pound team?
As for the Buccaneers, they’re no longer the reigning Super Bowl champs. Their offseason got off to a tumultuous start, with Brady retiring only to come back a month later. A few weeks after Brady’s return, head coach Bruce Arians decided to retire, which led to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles being promoted to the top spot. Then Brady skipped out on the preseason for undisclosed reasons that definitely had nothing to do with appearing on The Masked Singer.
But Brady is back, even though Rob Gronkowski is retired at the moment of writing this. Slot receiver Chris Godwin is also nearing his return from an ACL tear last year, and on Wednesday he was a full participant in practice. The Buccaneers also brought in veteran receiver Julio Jones to fill the spot that was bizarrely vacated by Antonio Brown during a game last season.
The biggest story for Tampa Bay, aside from celebrity singing contests, is the interior of their offensive line. None of their three starters inside from the last two years will be suiting up Sunday night. Left guard Ali Marpet retired last year and right guard Alex Cappa signed with the Bengals in free agency. Center Ryan Jensen is all that remains, but he landed on the short-term injured reserve with a serious knee injury. His backup, Robert Hainsey, also suffered an ankle injury in preseason but is expected to be suiting up against the Cowboys.
The Cowboys have their own issues along the offensive line, though. As you all know, Tyron Smith will be out until at least December. The Cowboys spent a lengthy period of time flirting with Jason Peters before signing him to the practice squad on Monday. He’s expected to go through a ramp-up process, which means rookie Tyler Smith will start at left tackle after spending all summer playing guard. We know what this offensive line will look like Sunday night, but what we don’t know is how they’ll perform against a strong Buccaneers defense or, more importantly, how it’ll change as time goes on.
When these two teams kicked the ball off a year ago, both were riding some sky high expectations to perform in 2021. While each team won their division, neither so much as reached the NFC Championship game, where Prescott had originally predicted such a rematch would occur.
It didn’t play out that way, but the rematch has arrived all the same. Expectations for both the Cowboys and Buccaneers are a little more tempered this time around. They both have plenty to prove, though the stakes are likely higher in Dallas, as is often the case.
In order for 2022 to be considered a success, they have to be better than the 12-5 team that was one-and-done in the playoffs last year. That starts by getting revenge on the Buccaneers and giving the fans in AT&T Stadium a reason to believe again on Sunday night.