FRISCO, Texas – If Zack Martin doesn't play in Thursday's season opener because of COVID-19 protocols – and that's the expectation at this point, according to head coach Mike McCarthy – the six-time Pro Bowler's absence cannot be overstated.
But the 2020 season taught the Cowboys about adaptability during the pandemic. It's the same approach now. And the club has confidence in third-year backup Connor McGovern if indeed he starts at right guard against the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs. Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said McGovern would take the majority of the practice reps there Sunday.
"He'll definitely be ready for this opportunity," McCarthy said. "Great work ethic. I thought he finished last year as one of the stronger performers on our offensive line at the end of the season. … Definitely one of the offseason bright spots of an offseason where we had a lot of bright spots."
McGovern had a challenging start to his career, to say the least. He missed his entire rookie season in 2019 because of a torn pectoral muscle suffered in his second OTA practice. After rehabbing with the athletic training staff that season, he returned healthy in 2020 but went through a shortened training camp with no preseason games because of the pandemic.
Still, McGovern showed signs of progress with his first on-field snaps last year. He actually made eight starts at right guard – six because of injuries to Martin, and two because the Cowboys moved Martin out to right tackle to address depth issues on the edge.
The experience was valuable. And for the first time in four years, going back to his Penn State days, McGovern went through a fully healthy offseason without any rehab work required.
"You never know when someone's going to go down or what's going to happen. And being in a situation like this (with Martin on the Reserve/COVID-19 list), you've just got to be ready to step up," McGovern said. "Last year helped me a lot with confidence, so I'm ready to go."
McGovern also took a decent number of first-team reps at right and left guard in training camp for various reasons, like giving Martin periodic rest or moving left guard Connor Williams to center for a few snaps. That should help his preparation as well.
Tampa Bay has one of the league's best front sevens, featuring disruptive interior linemen Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and William Gholston. Suh was placed on Reserve/COVID-19 last week, so his status for Thursday appears uncertain at this point.
Regardless, it will be a test. But McGovern feels ready for the opportunity.
"Last year, it was basically almost a little over a year and a half off of football with the injury and all that," he said. "Last year it was a little slower start, took me a while to get into it. But this year, just building off last year. OTAs helped a lot, and camp. I just feel real comfortable right now."