FRISCO - Maybe it was a very particular game script. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe it was the humidity. But on a muggy NFL-opening Thursday night in Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers 31-29 victory put the spotlight, in part, on the Dallas Cowboys linebackers.
And a seemingly massive change.
“I thought it was a good start for him,” coach Mike McCarthy said of rookie Micah Parsons, the first-round pick who was on the field for 51 of Dallas' 64 defensive snaps. “I think he’s beyond his years.''
Meanwhile, the "years'' of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch may not be long around here, not if the snap count in this game represents a trend. Smith was in on 16 plays. Vander Esch was in on 14.
Newcomer Keanu Neal, a former Atlanta Falcons safety brought to Dallas via free agency by Dan Quinn - the ex-Falcons head coach now in charge of the Cowboys defense - got 50 snaps at linebacker.
Writing on the wall?
“I think they understand if you look at the big picture,” McCarthy said of Smith and Vander Esch.
Oh, they do.
Part of what they understand: Smith, a former second-round choice who counts $9.8 million against the cap this season, could be in his final season in Dallas. Vander Esch, a former first-round choice, is making $3.77 million in the final year of his deal after the Cowboys declined to pick up his $9.3 million option.
Cowboys' Huge Draft Whiff Finds New NFL Home
Former No. 28 overall pick Taco Charlton is with his fourth team in five seasons
LISTEN: Ugly and Lucky, Cowboys Find Way to Win in Los Angeles
The Cowboys got their first win of the season on Sunday in Los Angeles, but there is still much work to be done.
Cowboys' Punt Block in L.A.: Bone(s)-Headed Explanation
Special teams coach John Fassel claims he's crowd-sourcing strategy from Cowboys fans
A year ago, Smith played 98 percent of the Cowboys defensive snaps. A couple of years before that, Vander Esch was a Pro Bowler.
READ MORE: One Cowboy Was 'Spec-Dak-Cular'
This doesn't mean that Smith and Vander Esch now hold no value here. It's a long season. Parsons, who was terrific, won't be asked to do it all on his own. And there might be other circumstances in which Neal will be something less than idea depending on what the other team's offense is doing.
But to go from being on the field 98 percent of the time to being on the field 25 percent of the time? To go from being the No. 1 linebacker in the pecking order to be No. 4?
READ MORE: 'Greg the Leg' Laid an Egg
Said McCarthy: "We had projections of how we wanted to play guys, and we knew it was going to be a challenge with the climate and the humidity. I think we really hit the target as far as getting the distribution of playing all the guys on defense.''
But, added the coach, "If they (Smith and Vander Esch) weren’t frustrated, I’d be disappointed.''
READ MORE: Did La'el Collins Get Screwed By NFL?