Thursday, September 28, 2023 Sep 28, 2023
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The Dallas Cowboys Week 1 Checklist: What Got Accomplished at Tampa Bay?

A sometimes not-so-serious look at what you should take away from yesterday's game
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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Later this morning, you’ll be introduced to Dan Morse, who will be writing a piece we’re calling the Cowboys Number to Know, one stat that tells the story of each game. Right now, it’s time to dive into the Dallas Cowboys Checklist, in which we’ll break down all the things the Cowboys accomplished in the previous game irrespective of the scoreline—most of them serious, some of them not.

Let’s dive in.

Extended an extremely early invitation to start questioning the head coach

Hoo boy. Dan will further explore the weeds of Mike McCarthy’s decision to allow Greg Zuerlein to kick a 48-yard field goal with 1:24 remaining, so you can and should read him to discover precisely how egregious it was (hint: very!).

The implication, however, reverberates beyond the loss itself. McCarthy’s choice to take the points and leave Tom Brady time on the clock was very in line with his reputation as a conservative game manager, one that hasn’t always rung true in his short time in Dallas—remember the two (failed) fake punts against Atlanta in Week 2 last year?—but has nevertheless largely been earned. There’s a growing cache of data that suggests conservative game management often amounts to losing game management, and so it only followed that McCarthy’s gun-shy nature was one of the major talking points against hiring him to replace Jason Garrett, another coach who hardly exuded life on the edge.

Thursday represents a missed opportunity, sure, but this was a game the Cowboys were supposed to lose and absolutely could afford to given their Serta-soft schedule over the next two and a half months. The fallout won’t lie in the result itself so much as the process that led to it, which amounts to one more black mark on the head coach’s ledger, one more chip at his approval rating, one more reason to turn up the volume on talk radio. This is the first major McCarthy decision that will be scrutinized this season. It won’t be the last.

Gave us permission to stop stressing about Dak Prescott’s shoulder

In our inaugural Vibes Check with Babe Laufenberg, I asked him just how worried he was about QB1’s health following two ankle surgeries followed by a preseason lat strain. “Honestly, not overly concerned,” he replied.

Babe, per usual, was correct. Prescott proved every bit as prolific as he was prior to his season-ending ankle injury last year.

To wit:

Some of this was obvious on his very first throw of the game, a 28-yarder to Amari Cooper down the left sideline. It was underscored on a pair of scrambles in the second quarter—neither one explosive but each a reminder that Prescott can, does, and will continue to trust his legs in the right moment. The last shreds of doubt were gone when he salvaged a low snap to find Cooper in the end zone on a comeback route, a tidy piece of improvisation that channeled Tony Romo at his best.

Prescott ended up throwing 58 times, an unsustainable number overall yet an absolutely necessary one against Tampa Bay, which returned every significant contributor from the NFL’s top rushing defense last year. Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t denting that cinder block, certainly not with Zack Martin sitting out following a positive COVID-19 test.

But it is meaningful that the Cowboys didn’t even ask the second-highest-paid running back to try—that they immediately determined that the only path to victory was for Prescott to pelt the Buccaneers secondary again and again, and that they had absolute confidence in him to handle it right out of the gate.

That confidence, as we saw, was well warranted. Dak is back.

Speaking of Prescott …

Continued to push the boundaries of pregame calisthenics

The man is a workout icon.

Verified Kellen Moore is still really good at his job

For as brilliant as Prescott was, this doesn’t happen without the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator digging deep into his bag of tricks to pull out enough schemes to keep Tampa on their heels. This was a smorgasbord of football nerdery, with plenty of motion, arcane sets, and, perhaps most significant, a healthy dose of Tony Pollard as both an alternative and complement to Elliott. And it worked despite everyone in the building recognizing that Dallas had little interest in keeping the ball on the ground. That’s a damn difficult strategy to execute, yet Moore did it well enough for Dallas to win. Full marks to him.

Encouraged us to start dreaming big about Trevon Diggs

After Prescott, if you’re going to get hot and bothered by one player’s performance on Thursday, the answer should be the second-year corner from Alabama.

In my season-opening essay, I wrote the following:

This Cowboys season, then, will be defined by balance. The defense does not need to match the offense’s ceiling or even come particularly close; contending in today’s NFL often amounts to being outstanding on one side of the ball and sufficient on the other. It just needs key players to emerge sooner than later, for McCarthy plus new coordinator Dan Quinn to coax a handful of standouts and a few more solid hands out of a unit that had little identity and even less ballast in 2020.

I could have been more specific and declared that, while those standouts ideally should be spread throughout all three defensive units, they absolutely must emerge in the secondary. Look no further than across the field for a lesson in how quickly a dominant front seven can be undermined by a leaky back end, and no further than Tampa receiver Antonio Brown’s highlights to see how even one loose cog—in this case, Cowboys corner Anthony Brown—can cause a defensive backfield to sputter and stall out.

Diggs proved as a rookie that he was the safest bet to emerge as an impact player, particularly when it comes to forcing turnovers. He did so once again Thursday, snagging a cheapy interception from a Brady pass that clanked off running back Leonard Fournette’s hands—one of the defense’s three forced turnovers on the night. But it was Diggs’ consistency shadowing three-time Pro Bowler Mike Evans that merits real attention.

Last year, Diggs’ profile suggested a peaks-and-valleys player whose highs more than offset the lows—a valuable, field-flipping weapon. If he can marry that playmaking with steady coverage, he’s a Pro Bowl talent

Exceeded expectations

I’ll repeat what I said above: the Cowboys weren’t supposed to win this game.

The expectation was to lose and, if Vegas is to be believed—the pregame line swelled to 9 points in Tampa’s favor—lose comfortably. This was house money, then: Dallas did not need to defeat or even hold serve with the best team in football at their building in its very first game coming off a 6-10 season to inspire confidence that 2021 ought to be a whole lot better. All along, the reasonable bet was to take the L, then take a long break before facing the Chargers in Los Angeles next Sunday.

So Thursday’s loss, while deflating and just so hilariously Cowboys in the execution, represents promise: Dallas could and should have won, and probably would have if they’d played some 25 or so other opponents. The offense—this team’s bedrock—decimated the best team in football, and the defense flashed the sort of opportunism that was nowhere to be found for two-thirds of last year.

Let this stamp out any doubts over whether this team can win big in 2021: they can. Proving it to us, and perhaps themselves, too, is the sort of silver lining worthy of their helmets.

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