TAMPA, Fla. – Bring on the Bucs.
That's right, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Super Bowl defending champs, riding an eight-game winning streak, final four games of the 2020 regular season and all four playoff games.
No cowering allowed.
Respect is one thing, that's good. The Bucs have certainly earned that. Tom Brady has earned that. But, dang it, that's where it must stop.
And sensed over the past few days, with the Cowboys answering questions seemingly for two weeks leading up to this NFL season opener, that they were beginning to grow tired of the questions about what's it going to be like facing the champs? What's it going to be like playing Tom Brady? How tough is it going to be facing this Buccaneers defense?
Began sensing these Cowboys players, especially the veterans, were becoming indignant.
As I've said since this schedule came out, the Cowboys must relish the opportunity. Embrace the challenge.
Thursday night. National television. A sellout crowd of 65,890 expected. Why, in these parts they are calling this game "the most coveted ticket in Tampa Bay-St. Pete sports history." Heck, some upper-300 level seats on the secondary market are going for $1,900. Lower level along the Cowboys sideline are at $1,500.
No wonder Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy has been cranking up the noise at practice.
What do you think Jerry?
"It's a great way for us to open this season," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said during his morning segment on 105.3 The Fan. "We have so much to gain by having a good experience this Thursday night. So much to gain. These kinds of things are really what the doctor ordered for where we are. Everybody wants to win.
"But to get to open up this NFL season in these times, the COVID times, to get to do it with challenges – we're coming in as drawn up, we're coming in with some challenges. … Then to sit up here and play a team that really pulled it off in an unconventional way last year with how they really proved something, the year they got out of their quarterback Brady. And for us to be able to step up in the middle of all this and start our journey, it's a great opportunity, as the storybook writer wrote it."
Yeah, got that right. Maybe they should give Jerry the shot at Thursday night's pregame speech.
- Air Jerry: Heard someone said because the Cowboys leave Wednesday for Tampa, Zack Martin has slim-to-no chance of passing the COVID protocols in time to play Thursday. Slim might be accurate. But not none. The Cowboys know they can take this thing right up to Thursday if Martin is asymptomatic after testing positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, and if he can test negative twice 24 hours apart. If he does so, don't forget. Jerry has a plane. Can zoom over to Tampa in a heartbeat in time for the 7:20 p.m. kick.
- Little Connor: So Connor McGovern is called by Ezekiel Elliott, but the third-year guard must come up big Thursday night if indeed he must replace Martin at right guard. But how about this, McGovern the poster child for how important preseason games can be? In the Cowboys four preseason games, McGovern got in 132 snaps – 90 of those while starting three of the four games. And remember the 2019 third-round pick started the final eight games last year with Martin missing the last six and having been moved out to right tackle before that. Backups can't buy experience like that. "If anyone goes down, I'm ready to step up," uh, Little Connor says.
- Eyeball Benefits: Thought Hard Knocks made a nice comeback in Tuesday night's final episode, capturing the raw emotion of what borderline players go through when the final cuts to 53 come down. Both from not making the team and the joy that comes with making the team. When Jones was asked about this five-episode season of Hard Knocks giving a closer look at the Cowboys, if it has been an intrusion, Jerry said, "I think people do better when they know a lot of eyeballs are on them." He means in practice, and he certainly learned that from now Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson. During those training camps in Austin, when it came time for a head-knocking, full-tackle, inside-in drill, Johnson would allow us media members, cameras and all, to actually walk onto the field and stand about 20 yards behind the drill to get an up-close look at the action. Not for our benefit, mind you, but to put pressure on his players to perform well under such scrutiny.
- Package Galore: Last season former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan seemed to have an aversion to playing his 4-3 base defensive alignment, even if offenses were running a two-tight end set or employing a fullback instead of a third wide receiver. Had a hard time understanding all that nickel, especially since the Cowboys were giving up 5 yards a carry. Well, new DC Dan Quinn seems to be running a 4-3 formation, and will be interesting to see how he combats the Tampa Bay offense. On the Bucs official depth chart, and we know they have a fearsome three-receiver set of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, they list two tight ends as starters: Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard. If Quinn goes base, that means at linebacker Jaylon Smith will be in the middle, Leighton Vander Esch on the weak side and Micah Parsons on the strong, and Quinn would have no qualms matching his outside linebackers on those tight ends. In fact, LVE says, "Everybody looks forward to playing Tom Brady, and I'm looking forward to playing against Gronk." That's the spirit.
- Telltale Remark: The Cowboys defensive players were good troopers last year, rarely speaking a discouraging word while obvious they were not embracing the defensive scheme and alignments of Nolan. And when veteran defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence was asked about what Quinn is doing this year, he said, "Everybody's got their own way of playing this game of football. Last year wasn't my way. I accepted it. But being able to get back to the way I know how to play the game, it's going to be exciting." Certainly the defensive problems contributed greatly to that 6-10 record, Lawrence lamenting, "Looking back on what we had to go through last year, it was tough." And rough.
- About Face: Sure seems this Quinn-led defense is poised to make a 180 from last year's well-document struggles. Seen it in practice. Seen it from the first unit in preseason games. But what gives McCarthy confidence he'll see it in these games, facing a huge challenge right off the bat Thursday night? "My confidence is in what I see every day," McCarthy says. "I see a bunch that is connecting, coming together. I think the fact that if you take something as simple as the missed assignments, the mental error breakdowns, our defense has been ahead of our offense. And I think the big part of that is they were able to practice almost daily with the same guys rolling in and out." Now we'll see if we see that in the opener.
- Opener Shots: If Martin does miss Game 1 and McGovern has to start, who then is the game-day backup guard? McCarthy says he anticipates Brandon Knight, landing on COVID reserve this week because of high-risk, close-contact, coming off in time to play and manning that role. Knight, a starting tackle last year with Tyron Smith sidelined, has worked predominantly at guard during camp … Tampa Bay caught a COVID break this week with starting defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh coming off the reserve list … That's a lot of meat in the middle of that defense when paired with Vita Vea at nose tackle … After missing a couple of weeks at the end of training camp with a knee sprain, nearly forgotten man Tarell Basham has returned to practice and appears ready to go. He gives the Cowboys versatility, the defensive end able to move inside as a pass rusher … Maybe one of the best Hard Knocks scenes is somewhat longshot Azur Kamara calling his mother to tell her he made the 53-man roster. His special teams ability might get him on what can be a 48-man gameday roster, the Cowboys having the ability to call up two players from the practice squad for the game. Maybe like Jeremy Sprinkle as the third tight end or possibly fullback Nick Ralston and then veteran Darian Thompson for special teams purposes … Lots of rain in the forecast for Tampa on Wednesday and Thursday. Uh, in fact, the last time the Cowboys played Brady, it was 2019 in Foxborough, Mass., against the Patriots on that very cold, windy, game-long rainy day. They held Brady to 190 yards passing and the Pats to 282 total yards, though losing 13-9. Hey, with this guy starting his 300th game, can use all the help you can get.
Short and sweet for this week's final word, and comes to us from Vander Esch, another guy who you can tell was not a fan of last year's defensive scheme. When asked why he thinks this year's defense will be improved, which it must if the Cowboys are to improve upon that 6-10 record, the fifth-year linebacker has this to say:
"The clarity, intensity and focus every single day. We're ready to play fast."
Well, here we go.