The season is finally here and it's time to see what the Cowboys have in store for 2021.
Last year saw so many setbacks, with injuries and the play on the field.
But it's a new year, with new players and a new outlook.
Here are my five points on my mind as we head to Thursday's season opener in Tampa Bay.
Dak is back.
Let's be real. The Cowboys' 2020 season crumbled after Dak Prescott's season-ending injury. The veteran was playing at an all-time level with his 371.2 pass yards per game average putting him on a pace to shatter Peyton Manning's single-season mark (5,477). Moreover, No.4 was single-handedly carrying an offense with a patchwork offensive line and leaky defense playing sub-standard football at the beginning of the season.
With Prescott back in the fold, the Cowboys' high-powered offense gives them a puncher's chance against any team in the league. If he quickly rediscovers his rhythm and connection with his receivers, the Cowboys' offense exploits mismatches on the outside, particularly against teams lacking three premier cover corners. Against a Buccaneers' defense that utilizes pressure to mask their woes in coverage, No.4 could be the equalizer in a marquee matchup.
Can Mike McCarthy shake off the rust?
The one-time Super Bowl winner appeared to struggle with his decision-making after an extended layoff following his dismissal from the Packers. McCarthy bungled several situational football decisions that ranged from clock management to special teams' gambles while acclimating to the head coaching role with the Cowboys.
In Year 2, the grizzled coach needs to be on his game from game planning to clock management to team execution. The Cowboys are expected to have an edge in close games with a Super Bowl winner on the sidelines. McCarthy needs to be a difference maker in one-score games with his decisions tipping the scales in the Cowboys' favor. If not, management should question whether he is the right guy for the job.
O-Line faces a huge test without Zack Martin.
The loss of the All-Pro guard leaves a huge void in the middle of the Cowboys' frontline. It is not just his presence as a dominant blocker at the point of attack with exceptional skills as a run and pass blocker but it is his ability to neutralize All-Pro defenders in the trenches. Without Martin to steady the interior of the line, the Cowboys could have problems handling the Buccaneers' dynamic defensive tackle duo (Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea) at the line of scrimmage. In addition, the loss of the all-star blocker robs the Cowboys of a right tackle answer if La'el Collins is unable to play or forced out of action in the game. Considering how the O-Line struggled without premier players in 2020, the loss of Martin could significantly impact the game plan this week.
Is Dan Quinn's new-and-improved defense ready for primetime?
The ultra-energetic defensive coach has raised the bar for the unit that appeared lackluster at times in 2020. From their energy and effort to their overall execution, the Cowboys did not play like an upper-echelon unit in any aspect.
Quinn has created an environment of trust and accountability within the squad that has resulted in better effort and more attention to detail throughout training camp. In addition, Quinn's simplistic schematic approach has helped the young players play faster between the lines. Without the mental clutter clouding their minds, the Cowboys hustle and chase like a pack of wolves hunting prey on the grass.
Against a Buccaneers' squad with a collection of blue-chip players dotting the perimeter, the Cowboys' renewed commitment to playing hard will give them a chance. Quinn's creative personnel deployment, particularly with the linebackers, could enable the Cowboys to create some problems at the point of attack. If the young cornerbacks can hold up in coverage against TB12 and the Buccaneers' electric pass catchers, the Cowboys could make this a more competitive game than many would expect.
Secondary is under pressure.
The Cowboys' secondary ranks as the team's biggest issue heading into the regular season. The unit is full of newbies and youngsters attempting to acclimate to develop chemistry and continuity on the run. Although the unit is loaded with talented athletes, particularly at cornerback, the Cowboys need to develop trust through communication and experience.
The defensive backfield must play as one and their connectivity is essential to playing great defense in a pass-happy league. If the Cowboys can limit the blown assignments while keeping the ball in front of the defense, they will have a chance to keep a talented Buccaneers' offense under wraps.