After a sloppy 4th Quarter in which the Cowboys surrendered 21 points thanks to some generosity from the reserves in the turnover department, Dallas lost the 2nd preseason game to the San Diego Chargers, 28-20. But, over the course of the evening in beautiful San Diego, things started to round into shape as it pertains to the battles on the roster and ultimately on the field for the team. Dallas is not ready for the season to begin, and the 9 starters who were held out for various injuries must return quickly, but you are starting to see signs of how they would like the team to look when live ammunition is used in 16 days time.
One of the themes of the offense in the offseason is the dependence on the veterans who are holdover to the Bill Parcells era to continue to carry the bulk of the mail. It is certainly great that players who are now at or near their 30th birthday are still contributing in such large doses, but with Jason Witten and Miles Austin missing so much of training camp on the offense, it was refreshing to see the camps that are being put together from 2 players who were both born in 1988.
The older of the two, DeMarco Murray, looked as if he cannot wait to start the season from his limited use against the Chargers. Murray, who we discussed at great length a few weeks back, has a burst to his game that is unlike anything at his position in years. He also has versatility that allows the Cowboys, if they so desire, to essentially build an entire game plan around finding creative ways to use him and terrorize defenses. Now, the only question has been his ability to heal that left leg that was broken when Dave Tollefson rolled up on him when the Giants visited back in December. Then, the question would shift to: Will he be able to shoulder the workload of being a 20-touch a game guy in the NFL with his style of give and receive punishment over the long term.
He only received 5 touches on Saturday, which makes plenty of sense because you don't want to wear him down in August. But, in those 5 plays, he did what we saw in 2011 and even on the training camp field in Oxnard. He gets the ball and hits the line at 100 mph. He has know uncertainty of his intentions and gets there in a blur. He is confident in his body and even more confident in what he believes is about to happen. In short, he has all the appearances of a big time back. And to compare him to Felix Jones, Tashard Choice, Marion Barber, or Julius Jones is just not even close. This is Tony Romo's first chance to play with a quality, all-purpose weapon behind him in the backfield, and it has to make everyone in the game-planning meetings excited just to imagine what that could mean to the offense to have a guy who makes people miss.
Then, the younger of the tandem, Dez Bryant, has had what many consider the best training camp of any veteran. He has looked "into it" on just about every occasion on the camp field. He has shown flashes of brilliance in both of the preseason games (if you consider a jaw-dropping pass in the back of the end zone that was nullified by penalty), although his work is also being properly limited. Going into his 3rd season, it is important that he shows durability and the ability to get on the field and affect every game in every quarter.
He has been called out by the staff for his conditioning issues that seem to be something that required explanation. They weren't calling him fat or out of shape. They were calling him out of shape for what his job required. Run hard, every play, every route. And if you cannot do that 60 times during a typical NFL war in which guys are going to try to hit you, then you are not ready to be all you can be. He has famously been issued #88 because of 2 men in particular, Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin. Two legends in the jersey and the franchise, and both of them, especially Pearson, had a knack for making the biggest plays in the last moments of the 4th Quarter. And to do that, you have to be able to run your hardest when everyone else is tired.
So, in response to that, I think we are seeing him go harder at practice and at camp. Running hard every play on Tuesday and Wednesday will lead to stronger legs on Sundays. And if there is one thing that has occurred to many observers of the first 3 weeks of training camp, it would be that this offense has been very good with Witten and Austin as major cogs. But, what if they were joined by a premier running back and a game-breaking wide receiver for 16 weeks?
What if, the best players on the offense who are helping Romo are both in their early 20s? And what if, when you consider Tyron Smith (age 21) as still one of the youngest players in the NFL, this is the group to consider as your present and future? Well, then you are certainly not nearly as concerned about this "window closing" narrative that the national talkers are babbling on about.
As I watched the "1s" take on the "1s" of San Diego, that was what was most interesting to me. The Cowboys offense without Witten on the field made me - and more importantly, Tony Romo - consider the idea that it might be time to ask the young bucks to carry the mail much more than they have been asked to this point. And, since they both look committed to that opportunity by being in fantastic shape physically, this could provide very impressive results.
Some other observations from Saturday Night in San Diego:
* The offensive line was still victim of plenty of drive-stalling moments early on against the Chargers starters. There were penalties and busts that get a QB hit hard if he is not bailing them out with great awareness. David Arkin was somewhat better, but he is still going to be a liability at center if they have to play him in the regular season at that spot. His two worst moments were at the 7:13 mark of the 1Q when he was beat and forced to hold Chargers reserve nose tackle Cam Thomas and the 2:45 mark of the 1Q when he was forklifted into the backfield and the 2nd time onto his back by Thomas. He just cannot block big lineman 1-on-1. Strength and anchor will never be his forte and when you get into the regular season, defenses will find ways to isolate you and expose you if you cannot block without help - even as a center. That is one reason why Jim Johnson designed the "Double A Gap blitzes" in Philadelphia. Make the center prove he can block in a pinch. Phil Costa has similar issues, but reports are of added strength and like so many others, now we just need to see him on the field.
* Meanwhile, great reports on right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau. Bernadeau played in limited action in Carolina last season, but in the one game in which he played, a week 14 affair against Atlanta, I thought he showed he could be a steady and solid offensive guard in the NFL. It gave me concern that Carolina decided to go another direction after developing him, but I would not pretend to know what went into their decision making process. But, in watching Bernadeau on Saturday night, I was quite pleased. He is a very strong man and able to stay in front of his assignment. He also handles stunts well and gets to the 2nd level to dig out a linebacker on running plays after being a part of a combo block at the line. He looks pretty secure at RG and now we await the return of Nate Livings at LG. If he can equal Bernadeau and just become a solid guy who does his job and you don't have to worry about him each play, the OL can be back in business and the center will look better just because those around him are better, too. This is good news, but time is running out for the dream of seeing Livings-Costa-Bernadeau actually take a snap together in the preseason before they have to go wrestle with arguably the best defensive front in football on opening night in New York.
* Those who continued to help their cause to make the team include: Jamize Olawale, Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley, Kevin Ogletree, James Hanna, and Daniel Loper on offense and Mario Butler, Adrian Hamilton, and Robert Callaway on defense. Each of these guys edged a bit further up in their positional battles by showing some nice things on the evening. The wide receiver battles are truly interesting and all of these players aside from the big guys - Loper and Callaway - can continue to distinguish themselves by being special teams contributors. You absolutely must factor in that most important factor when trying to figure out who will make this team from man #37 to man #53 on the final roster. The first 3 dozen players you keep do not have to be special teams candidates, but you better believe that anyone under 280 lbs, who is deep on the depth chart, better be able to cover kicks. It is the only way to survive in the NFL for a young reserve. And that is why Olawale, who has almost no instincts as a ball carrier, has a great chance to knock Phillip Tanner off the roster. He just looks like a guy who could play on all 4 teams.
* Those who did not help their cause on Saturday include: Pat McQuistan, who continues to disappoint in his 2nd stint with the Cowboys, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (although he has proven he can cover kicks already), Andre Holmes (who took a step back but is still very much in the mix), Clifton Geathers, and just about all others down the depth chart who were hoping to pop into the action. Bruce Carter, who will easily make the team, did not calm fears about his lack of play-making at MLB, but Barry Church did show more signs that he is ready to start at safety.
* Speaking of the secondary, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne both were present and ready for action. Carr had 2 interceptions that were both on plays where he was in the trailing position, but demonstrated recovery skills and play-making. The expectation level has certainly been laid out for both players as the price was substantial, but there is no question the Cowboys are better equipped to play defense against premier receivers. Claiborne is going to sustain plenty of bumps and rookie lessons along the way, but both will bring a swagger back there that has been missing for quite a while. Hypothetically, the ability for the corners to handle their own business should free up safeties to play more of a "ball hawk" role, but we will need to see how that materializes.
* Victor Butler continues to show great pass rush skills. It is worth noting, however, that he plays DeMarcus Ware's weak-side role in the defense. What that means is that he doesn't appear to be a candidate for the strong-side where Anthony Spencer often is lined up. When the Cowboys play their 3-4, it often looks like a 4-3 under at the snap. There are a number of scheme issues to having Ware and Butler both rushing from each side on normal downs and basically, bringing 5 men. Butler is very promising, and has tremendous ability to make plays when he was on the field. But, I am not sure they will ever figure out how to get Butler and Ware on the field at the same time except on 3rd and long. Even though the two outside linebacker spots seem similar, they require different skill sets and abilities. Stay tuned for more on the topic.
Tomorrow, I want to take a long look at Cole Beasley and answer many questions about what he can and cannot do when we consider him for the roster. He is certainly making himself a tough guy to cut.