Though few had hopes that the Cowboys would sneak into the humid 65,000-capacity pirate-themed bar that is Raymond James Stadium and come away with a dub against Tommy “Frosted Tips” Brady and the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Star-head faithful were nonetheless anxiously awaiting kickoff Thursday night. After fighting through excessive canon blasts, eye-roll-inducing camera pans over the red-donning sea settled in the stands for championship banner day, and the nauseating over-the-top TB12 fluff pieces during pregame, Cowboy fans were eager to see just what we’re dealing with this year.
Despite coming up just short, losing 31-29 on a Ryan Succop field goal in the game’s final minute, it’s safe to assume most Cowboy fans, like myself, went to bed practically giddy. By just showing that they belonged every bit on the same field with the defending champs and almost stealing one — a game most believed they didn’t have a chicken’s chance in a wolf den of winning (the ’Boys were eight-and-a-half-point dogs at kick) — I have to say I felt better about this particular loss than I have many victories. It was an electric back-and-forth affair, and if not for Greg “Does-He-Even-Have-a-Leg?” Zuerlein’s shanked 31-yarder, Dallas would have downed the Bucs in front of their own amusement park pirate ship.
So many questions remained unanswered from the preseason, and this game offered answers. Is Dak fully recovered from nearly losing a foot last year and also suffering a baseball pitcher’s injury during training camp? Can he possibly pick up right where he left off in his MVP-caliber start a year ago? Would the injury-plagued offensive line (which hadn’t previously played all five starters together in the McCarthy era) be able to hold up against the sophisticated, blitzing Tampa front seven? Had the historically bad defense from a year ago improved to simply be mediocrely bad? It didn’t take long to realize the answers to these questions were definitely: Yes! Yes! Yes! And maybe.
With No. 4’s eye-popping statline of 42/58 (a career high for attempts) for 403 yards, three TDs, and a pick (that was not his fault) and a rating of 101.4, any concerns about rustiness from the broken ankle or his lack of preseason gameplay can be put to bed like a roommate who’s had a few too many Jell-O shots on an empty stomach. Dak looked exactly as he did up until his Nike was dangling by a tendon on national television 11 months ago.
The O-line provided Prescott the ability to easily settle in, not allowing a hit until nearly the end of the first half. Even fill-in guard Connor McGovern played spectacularly in All-Pro Zack Martin’s absence, not allowing a pressure all game.
The defense, while still succumbing to a handful of busted plays that resulted in big gains or flat-out touchdowns for the Bucs, also managed four takeaways, showing a decidedly unfamiliar ball-hawking ability for this team, as well as many much-needed third-down stands. I’m not ready to crown them as the 2016 Broncos, but what they showed can certainly be worked with.
Alas, the euphoria would be short-lived. Less than 24 hours would pass before learning that No. 2 wide receiver Michael Gallup would be sidelined for three to five weeks with a strained calf. Gallup was an early security blanket for Dak in the game, helping neutralize a bit of CeeDee Lamb’s case of the dropsies, going four for 36 before being forced from the contest in the third quarter.
If that weren’t enough to send fans into a brief psychosis, shortly after that news, reports started pinging cell phones all across Cowboyland that right tackle La’el Collins would also be out five weeks because of a suspension resulting from “violating the league’s substance abuse policy.” The rumor is that it was because of missing tests rather than failing them, which, in a way, is worse. Collins had looked back to form against Tampa after missing the entire 2020 season due to hip surgery. Nightmare flashbacks of Terrence Steele being nearly decapitated again and again by Brown’s D end Miles Garrett are now playing across many Cowboy fans’ subconscious. Veteran backup tackle Ty Nsekhe actually looked worse than Steele during the preseason. My suggestion would be to kick the returning Zack Martin out to tackle (a move coach Mike McCarthy begrudgingly eventually made about seven games too late last year in Collins’ absence) and keep McGovern in at right guard. But McCarthy is proving he’s nearly as stubborn as he is reckless, and I have a feeling he’s still opposed to what he once called “fantasy football stuff.”
It’s hard to yank a knee so hard from one direction to the other in such a short amount of time, from such a slept-like-a-baby satisfaction to huffing into a Doritos bag in less than a day, but such is the life of a football fan and even more so for a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. I do believe, though, that Dak and Co. showed me enough to believe they can ride out this patch of stormy weather, especially considering they will not face a team that made the playoffs last year until they face the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 11, but that’s provided more, and bigger, clouds don’t come rolling in. I still have my finger hovering over the panic button like Breaking Bad’s Hector Salamanca and his bell. I’m much too conditioned not to.