It wasn't pretty – but hey, a win doesn't have to be. What matters now is that the Buccaneers have started their season 1-0 after hosting the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL's 2021 Kickoff game.
"I learned a long time ago that you don't learn anything more from losing than you do from almost losing," said Head Coach Bruce Arians immediately following the contest. "We have a lot to learn. Obviously, not pleased with the start of the game. Loved the finish, our guys are winners. They're going to finish and they're going to win, but we can play better and not put ourselves in that situation. Obviously, there's turnovers, penalties, things we can improve on but our guys fought and won the game."
It was a complete effort to overcome some self-inflicted wounds. Dallas also seemed to throw some different looks than the Bucs were expecting and take nothing away from him, quarterback Dak Prescott didn't look like he hadn't played a game since Week Five of last season. He was confident in the pocket, standing up to pressure and exotic looks from the Bucs' defensive front. The Cowboys had all clearly done their homework, but in the end all three phases of the ball worked together for Tampa Bay and the home team, in front of nearly 70,000 home fans, fired the cannons at the end of the night.
Here are a few things that stuck out from the game.
1. Players you thought were washed, are in fact, not.
Vintage is so in and guys like quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Antonio Brown are no exception this season. We had been hearing in training camp that Brown looks like the player he was three-four years ago; Gronkowski was playing at a level Brady had never seen and Brady, at 44 years old, hasn't lost a step.
That apparently wasn't hyperbole.
Gronkowski caught all eight of the passes thrown his way for a total of 90 yards and two touchdowns. The last time he had two touchdowns in a game? Well, the last time this team played: in Super Bowl LV.
The goal was always to pick up where this offense left off and all signs on Thursday night point to that being the case. The Bucs had two receivers that had over 100 yards on the night in addition to those 90 yards by Gronkowski because Brady threw for 379 yards, completing 32 of 50 pass attempts.
Brown was all over the field and had an insane 24.7 yards per catch average Thursday night on his way to becoming one of those receivers over 100 yards. He had 121 total yards on just five catches along with a touchdown. His long came on a 47-yard bomb from Brady right before the half on a two-play 57-yard drive when the Bucs desperately needed points after back to back drives that ended in turnovers.
And all that experience culminated in the final drive of the game, when the Bucs needed a field goal to win with 1:24 left on the clock. Despite having to use their last timeout on a false start penalty to avoid a 10-second runoff, Brady engineered a drive, helped tremendously by Gronkowski, to get the Bucs within field goal range. Kicker Ryan Succop connected on the 31-yarder with two seconds left in the game and the Bucs emerged with the win. It was a textbook two-minute drill that proved Brady is very much still the guy you want to have with the ball in his hands and the game on the line.
"You have the ultimate confidence that, one, he's going to get us in the right play and, two, that he's going to go to the right place with the ball," said Godwin about Brady following the game.
So for anyone that may have doubted a quaterback in his mid-forties, a tight end that came back to life after a year-long retirement and a 33-year old receiver staring down a full season of potential work - Brady, Gronk and AB are making them look real silly right about now.
View the best photos from the Bucs season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
2. Bucs passed an early test.
The game may have come down to a last-second field goal that swung in the Bucs favor, but it didn't have to. There was plenty of 'adversity' to overcome in the first game of the season. It started early with cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting going down with a dislocated elbow suffered because of friendly fire. That threw a wrench into things because SMB is the team's designated nickel corner. Tampa Bay has cross-trained safeties at the position but with Jordan Whitehead already out with injury, safety was a spot the Bucs didn't have a whole lot of flexibility at. It ended up being Ross Cockrell, who was utilized at both corner and safety this training camp, that came in for Murphy-Bunting in the Bucs' nickel package. Safety Andrew Adams, fresh off being elevated from the practice squad and only returning to the team days ago, was also needed when Edwards went down for a period with a cramp in the second half. The series got off to a shaky start for Adams but he ended up saving a touchdown by dropping Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for a one-yard loss on third down and two that forced the Cowboys to settle for a field goal and allowed the Bucs to retain their lead.
As a result, you could see that the Bucs were trying to get pressure up front in order to take some of the workload off the depleted secondary. That pressure didn't start getting home until right before the half. By then, the defense had already been put in back-to-back sudden-change situations thanks to two turnovers, one on a fumble and another on a tipped pass that ended in an interception for Dallas. Tampa Bay committed four turnovers in all, though the interception on a hail mary before halftime hardly counts, allowed 451 yards of total offense from the Cowboys and committed 11 penalties that gifted Dallas 106 yards. In short, Tampa Bay really had no business winning that game.
But they did – and that's probably the most encouraging thing of all. With all of those mistakes stacked against them, Fournette bounced back from the interception to make a few crucial catches. Godwin bounced back from his fumble, that would have almost certainly resulted in a touchdown, by snagging the last pass of the game to set the Bucs up with a manageable field goal. Down one point with 1:24 left, Brady and the offense never wavered.
"I'll tell you what," said Godwin. "We have a lot of high-character guys and a lot of resiliency. Adversity builds character and I think that really showed today. This will be a game that helps us down the road. That's a very talented team and they play really well. We just have to learn from our mistakes and continue to get better."
Learn from their mistakes and, you know, maybe address some secondary depth issues, too.
3. Special teams saved the day.
Of course, we're talking about actually losing instead of almost losing if it isn't for Succop. He was consistent on all four of his extra point attempts and then, cool as a cucumber, trots on to kick the game-winning field goal. Even if his six-year-old son was already begrudgingly asleep at home and couldn't watch.
The Bucs also had the benefit of good field position when they could help it while on defense thanks to punter Bradley Pinion. He certainly made the night harder on Dak Prescott and the Cowboys. Dallas started three of their drives from inside their own 10-yard line and another at the 10. The other eight drives Pinion had anything to do with were touchbacks. That impact cannot be overstated and Arians said as much.
" Our special teams won the ballgame, there's no doubt," he said. "Between Bradley pinning them inside the 10 three times and 'Mick' (Jaydon Mickens) covering. Mick had a hell of a night [in the] return game; it's a shame we had a penalty on the punt return. But yeah, I think all those young guys – Grant [Stuard] had a tackle, they protected well. They showed up exactly in the ways we want them to. Our kickers kicked well and our returners were really, really good but they had good blocking, too."