For many football fans, this is the best week of the year. College football is back in full force, the Friday night lights are shining in communities across the country, and the NFL has all 32 organizations in action to kick off the 2021 season. It just so happens that the Cowboys take center stage to open the campaign as they take on the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Here are five of the most important storylines for each team heading into Thursday night's season opener.
- Tampa Bay will begin their defense of their Super Bowl 55 title Thursday night on the same field in which they won it. The biggest difference from February to September will be the size of the crowd (or party) that'll be in attendance. Super Bowl 55 was the least attended title game in the NFL's history due to COVID protocols limiting fans to just 25,000. Thursday is expected to have a full crowd in Raymond James Stadium as the Buccaneers raise their second championship banner in the organization's history.
- The top storyline from Buccaneers camp? Quarterback Tom Brady is entering his 21st NFL season and does so with seven Super Bowl rings and is searching for his eighth. Enough said.
- Repeat winners have not been an easy task in the Super Bowl era. In fact, an NFL team has won back-to-back titles a total of only eight times. The last time it happened was in 2003-04 when New England defeated the Panthers in Super Bowl 38 with, you guessed it, Tom Brady playing quarterback. Kansas City's repeat bid was slashed last season by this Tampa Bay team, who has reloaded for another run of their own by returning all 22 starters on the offensive and defensive side of the ball.
- Among those returning are a stable of offensive skill weapons that is unmatched across the NFL. A unique blend of talent, experience, and speed combine to make this a lethal unit for Tom Brady to utilize. Starting with the talent, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Ronald Jones II are all at the top of their game and some of the best at their positions in the league. Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, and Antonio Brown have each been to the top of the league at some point in their careers and still have enough left in the tank to contribute when needed. And if those two factors weren't enough, Scotty Miller, Jaelon Darden, and Giovani Bernard each provide a change of pace and added element to the offense that can exploit a defense.
- The offense stole the headlines through the championship run, and for good reason. But the real reason the Buccaneers were able to keep their run going last season was due to the relentless pass rush that put guys like Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers under pressure. Even some of the best quarterbacks and offensive lines in the league couldn't combat guys like Devin White, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, and Vita Vea effectively. Suh hasn't practiced since August 28th due to a positive COVID test but is expected to be activated prior to kickoff on Thursday.
- The offensive line was a huge question mark last season and entering 2021, it still has its share of concern. The Cowboys will likely be without Zack Martin, who has been placed on the COVID-19/Reserved list. Head coach Mike McCarthy all but ruled him out for Thursday's game. That means Connor McGovern will likely start at right guard for Martin. La'el Collins missed the whole season last year due to a hip injury but even though he's returned to action this offseason, his availability is uncertain due to a stinger in his neck that has limited him in practice over the last couple weeks. Collins was able to practice with the Cowboys on Sunday, opposite Tyron Smith, who also missed most of last year with a neck/back injury but he said he's feeling better than ever heading into the season.
- When Thursday comes around, it will be a total of 333 days since Dak Prescott played any type of live football. First, it was a compound fracture in his ankle that sidelined him from Week 5 until the start of training camp in Oxnard. Then, it was a shoulder sprain that he suffered in the first padded practice of camp that held him out of any preseason action and a significant amount of practice time leading into the new season. Finally, Prescott makes his full return and brings new hope for the offense and from a leadership standpoint. Outside of the injury history, this week will be the first time in close to three whole years that he'll take the field completely free of questions surrounding his contract after signing a 4-year $160 million deal this summer.
- Thursday will also serve as the first opportunity for the Cowboys offense to showcase their full assortment of talent at the skills positions since Week 1 of last season. Blake Jarwin's knee injury in last year's season opener ensured that 95% of the offensive snaps in 2020 would not include each of the best at their positions. However, it did open the door for Dalton Schultz to have a breakout year and put together over 60 receptions and 600 yards to increase his role in the offense. This season, Jarwin and Schultz bring a forgotten element to the passing attack, adding to the production expected from Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb at receiver.
- Dan Quinn's addition as the defensive coordinator has appeared to be the biggest upgrade made on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. His hands-on approach has settled in well with a revamped group at linebacker with rookies Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox joining veterans Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Carlos Watkins and Osa Odighizuwa have navigated their way into starting roles inside while DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory show some exciting potential as pass rushers off the edge. Quinn's addition, paired with the added talent, have brought optimism for a complete defensive turnaround. One that will be tested immediately against Tampa Bay.
- Coach Mike McCarthy needs a quick start this season to avoid a repeat of 2020, when they were slow out of the gate. Dallas started McCarthy's tenure 1-3, mostly healthy, before dipping to a record of 3-9 following the loss of Dak Prescott in Week 5. A repeat of last year's 6-10 season is not going to be enough this season, and this organization knows that with the return of so many key pieces and the addition of talent in some much-needed areas. McCarthy led the Packers to an NFC Championship game in his second season in Green Bay. Not saying that's the expectation, but there's pressure to see a visible turnaround this season or the seat may start heating up quicker than expected for the second-year head coach.