It should come as no surprise that the NFL schedule makers pitted the defending Super Bowl champions against the traditional draw of the franchise known as “America’s Team” for its 2021 regular-season lid-lifter. After a preseason in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys combined for a dismal 1-6 record, and held back their star players with limited -- if any -- action, Thursday night will finally unveil what kind of engine both truly have under the hood to begin the 2021 campaign.
Here are four things to watch Thursday night when the Buccaneers host the Cowboys:
1) Dak is back. How will Prescott look in his first game action? He sat the entire preseason with a shoulder strain almost exactly 11 months since suffering a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle against the Giants last Oct. 11. Does he move with the appearance of comfort and confidence? Does he run without any sign of hesitation? Will the Cowboys' offensive game plan ease his return, at least early in the game, with a lot of short throws on quick reads that would help keep him upright and untouched? It’s not a formula for the season – unbridled Dak is the best Dak – but it might be better for his re-introduction to NFL game speed, especially against the Bucs’ stellar defensive front seven.
2) The GOAT Story, Chapter 22. The year is 2045. Tom Brady, age 68, is looking fit as ever and, thanks to new advances in geriatrics, can still knock an apple off a tree stump with a football from 30 yards away. He’s still slicing up NFL defenses in pursuit of a 15th Super Bowl ring, and … OK, we’re not quite there yet. But here in 2021, the assumption on how Brady looks coming off yet another Super Bowl crown at 44, entering his 22nd season, shouldn’t be that he’s bound to have slipped. He’s beyond such mortal inevitabilities. Assume instead that he continues to be a marvel of longevity, and effective enough to keep delivering NFL wins, until he proves otherwise.
3) How will Dallas’ new look at LB fare? The Cowboys have infused first-round rookie Micah Parsons and former Falcons safety Keanu Neal into their starting linebacking corps to rave preseason reviews. Even veteran Leighton Vander Esch, who hopes to vanquish injury woes that shortened his availability the past two seasons, is moving from the Mike position back to the weakside spot he manned as one of NFL Media senior draft analyst Gil Brandt’s All-Rookie performers in 2018. The aforementioned Brady is masterful at turning missteps in coverage by linebackers into completions. Between Parsons’ youth, Neal’s position switch and Vander Esch’s health, there is no grace period in Week 1. The odd man out in this shuffle is Jaylon Smith, who hasn’t missed a regular season game for the Cowboys in the last four years. His play slipped significantly in 2020, however, which led to preseason trade speculation and questions about the value he can provide against a $63.75 million contract signed in 2019. The Cowboys, for now, are moving on with Smith in a backup role.
4) How will the Bucs deploy rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka? With two proven edge rushers in Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul already rostered, the Bucs used a first-round pick on another one in Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. He was everything the club could’ve hoped for in the preseason, and now the Bucs have the luxury of juggling the trio. Or will they? “There's situations where I could see in the future, down the road, where we have all three of them out there," coach Bruce Arians said in training camp. Down the road can mean a lot of things, and perhaps it won’t mean Week 1. But with Barrett and Pierre-Paul combining for 31 starts and 17.5 sacks in 2020, it will be intriguing to see who is sidelined when Tryon-Shoyinka gets his snaps against the Cowboys.