TAMPA, Fla. – It's hard to know how to feel, to be honest.
In a lot of ways, the Cowboys' defensive debut under Dan Quinn went about as expected. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored 31 points on Thursday night. Tom Brady hit the Dallas secondary for 379 yards and four touchdowns. The Bucs' vaunted offense came 10 Rob Gronkowski yards away from having three 100-yard receivers.
And with the game on the line, Brady coolly guided his offense 57 yards in 11 plays – albeit aided by a questionable no-call of offensive pass interference – and set up the game-winning field goal.
"We didn't want to give them the ball back," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. "That's why we threw the ball twice on that last series there. Hey, he's a great player."
And yet, even still, this Week 1 effort was a far cry from 2020. After the atrocious performances the Cowboys routinely exhibited last season, Thursday night's performance felt downright encouraging.
The main reason for that is clearly due to takeaways. The Cowboys got out to a fast start in that department with four on the night. Jourdan Lewis and Trevon Diggs both intercepted Brady, while DeMarcus Lawrence and Damontae Kazee forced fumbled that led to big-time recoveries.
"When we locked in, communicated, we had four turnovers today," Kazee said.
Kazee, the newcomer to the secondary, might have made the most impactful of the four. With 5:04 to play in the game, Brady found Chris Godwin for an 11-yard game that seemed certain to put Tampa ahead by two possessions – only for Kazee to punch the ball free at the goal line, allowing Lewis to scoop it.
It was the type of play the Cowboys didn't make nearly enough in the early going of last season, and it allowed Dak Prescott to move the offense downfield for go-ahead points.
"We want that to be a staple of our play style," McCarthy said. "It's something we put a lot of time into. We spend a lot more time than I ever have, particularly with the team fundamental drills."
Again, it feels disingenuous to get too excited. The Cowboys forcing four takeaways and still allow the opposition to score 30-plus points – not to mention win the game – leaves plenty of room for improvement.
Hopefully, that will come quickly, given the amount of youth on the field. It's not to say Micah Parsons had an awful night in his rookie debut, finishing with seven tackles and a pass breakup, but even he acknowledged the eye-opening experience of going against someone like Brady.
"I think some of the decision-making, how good he was at getting the ball off, seeing the coverages we were in, I just felt like you could tell he's been in the league for 22 years, I'll say that," Parsons said.
That's part of it, too – the expectation level. Going against a living legend at quarterback, with that arsenal of offensive weapons, it's easy to understand that people weren't hoping for much.
But on the rare occasion the Buccaneers did try to run the ball, they averaged just 3.7 yards per carry – a marked improvement from last season. And while it may feel hollow, the Cowboys did force four punts to go with their four takeaways.
Absolutely none of this is to say they've fixed their defensive woes. But in Dan Quinn's first game on the job, the Cowboys were facing one of the steepest challenges in the NFL this week. The fact that we're even debating their grade afterward seems like a sign of progress.