By Dwain Price
With the yawner-of-a-preseason schedule firmly behind them, the Dallas Cowboys now turn their attention to Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs will be the Cowboys’ season-opening opponent as the two teams will collide on Sept. 9 in Tampa in the first game of the 2021 NFL season for any of the league’s 32 teams. It’s a matchup made in football heaven since the Bucs are heavy favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champs while the Cowboys are trying to get back onto the big stage for the first time since they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-17, in the Super Bowl following the 1995 season when Barry Switzer was their head coach.
“Not to be Captain Obvious, but it’s full steam ahead to Tampa,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. “The first game is the most important game, because it’s the next game.
“I’ve played in that game on both sides of the field – the opening game. It’s a ton of energy, it’s a great game to compete in, and trust me, we’re looking forward to it and we can’t wait to get there.”
The contest against the Bucs will serve as the first game in 333 days since quarterback Dak Prescott suffered that gruesome compound fracture and dislocated right ankle injury in an Oct. 11, 2020 game against the New York Giants. Added to the strained right shoulder he suffered in training camp, Prescott was predictably treated like precious cargo over the past few months as the Cowboys wanted to make doubly sure he’s ready for opening day.
But in the days leading up to season opener, no doubt offensive coordinator Kellen Moore will ramp up Prescott’s workout schedule.
“We’ve lost some opportunities to practice with Dak,” McCarthy said. “Now that he’s back, our focus – part of Kellen’s focus and Dak’s focus – really has been this past week.
“We need to get as much in as we possibly can between now and the Tampa Bay game, so our focus is on Tampa.”
While the focus is squarely on Tampa Bay, the Cowboys don’t want anyone paying the least bit of attention to their 0-4 preseason record, which resulted after Sunday’s 34-14 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at AT&T Stadium. It’s the seventh time in franchise history that the Cowboys were winless in preseason, including the third time in the last seven seasons that they’ve posted an 0-4 preseason record.
But that could be an omen.
After going 0-4 in the 2014 preseason, the Cowboys went on to win the NFC East with a 12-4 record and also won a playoff game. And after posting an 0-4 record in preseason in 2018, the Cowboys won the NFC East with a 10-6 worksheet and also won another playoff game.
In addition, the Cowboys didn’t win any preseason games in 1962, 1986, 1998 and 2000, and they also captured the NFC East in ’98.
Besides Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott also didn’t play in any of the four preseason games, and the starting offensive line only played three series together. But the Cowboys are expecting Elliott to effectively bounce back from a season where he rushed for a career-low 979 yards while also rushing for a career-low tying six touchdowns.
Meanwhile, second-year receiver CeeDee Lamb had a terrific training camp before he was placed on the Covid-19 list. McCarthy said Lamb is expected to resume practices later this week.
Also, the battle between Cooper Rush, Garrett Gilbert and Dan DiNucci as the backup to Prescott has intensified. Then again, the Cowboys could acquire Prescott’s backup from a list of suitors after other teams waive prospective quarterbacks.
On the defensive side, rookie linebacker Micah Parsons was sensational in training camp and in the preseason.
“I think with Micah’s skill set and how athletic he is and his speed, you can play him pretty much anywhere,” linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said. “I think the coaches are utilizing that very, very well.
“I’m glad he’s on our team and not somebody else’s.”
In the meantime, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones performed a kind gesture by allowing the New Orleans Saints to practice this week at AT&T Stadium. New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Ida on Sunday – 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast — and the Saints and their families got out of town before the hurricane made landfall.
“It’s all the Jones family,” McCarthy said, referring to the owner’s generosity. “No one does it better than they do.
“Having an opportunity to coach in New Orleans (from 2000-’04) and gone through this hurricane challenge, it’s a tremendous amount of stress on the families of the Saints, and then obviously the whole region – the Gulf Coast region. My heart goes out to those guys. From the Jones family, I’m sure it’s just great to be in position to help.”
As far as the Cowboys are concerned, they sure would like to be in position to win a Super Bowl after finishing last season third in the NFC East with a 6-10 record.
“We started this quest on April 19,” McCarthy said.
“There’s 300 days that are available to reach the Super Bowl and in between there you have to keep your eye on the target one day at a time.”