Friday, August 14, 2015

The Morning After - Preseason Game #1 - Chargers 17, Cowboys 7

Thankfully, in less than a month, odds are that your memories of last night in San Diego will be completely gone from your brain, and that is ok, because I am not sure there is much worth spending too much time saving for future reference.
The fact is that this is preseason game #1, a time where coaches install nothing more to their game-plan than the most basic ideas and objectives and want to see those players down the roster competing at a level that exceeds anything they have seen so far in practice.
The fact that the date was August 13th and the opening night will be September 13th should remind us that this was a level up from an ordinary practice - there will be live contact and that can put a player's well-being in jeopardy - but, several levels below what will be seen in one month's time.  We have to all get through it without anything too disastrous occurring and evidently the Cowboys way to insure that is the case is to avoid playing just about any and all players who they determine to be indispensable.
No one blames them for this strategy, although it does not seem to be shared by several franchises who put "QB1" out there for at least some work.  The Cowboys offered more healthy scratches last night than you would expect from your average NFL team, but the Cowboys do this just about every year and it appears 2015 will be no different.
So, how do we evaluate the performances we saw from the Cowboys in this setting where many of the regulars never even see the field?  Carefully, but also, minimally.  Context is crucial when we look at the NFL Preseason at any point.  But, more so in Week 1 of the preseason, especially when the team itself is screaming that this game "doesn't mean that much" by how they conduct the situation.
However, even more-so, let's remind ourselves, with the exception of the catastrophic injury, nothing we saw last night truly, truly matters in the big scheme of things.  And therefore, the Cowboys position of avoiding the catastrophic injury by never putting shoulder pads on Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Doug Free, Sean Lee, and several others is actually quite defendable.  You can't lose who you don't risk.
That said, here are some things to consider and ponder from last night:
--  I think the most impressive player that I saw last night in live-action is the rookie lineman from LSU, La'El Collins.  He played with that edge that we saw all year for the Tigers, and jumped off the screen at times as a dominant and physical guard who will quickly leap to the top of the Cowboys offensive line picture with the other 1st round picks.  I thought Collins was the best offensive lineman in the 2015 draft, but because of one of the most hard-to-comprehend stories in draft history, he fell all the way out of the draft on the day before the selections were to come down.  The Cowboys were able to sign him as an undrafted free agent and basically add him as a "bonus" signing.  But, that doesn't mean he still wasn't the best lineman in the draft.
Honestly, the league must think this is unfair for the best offensive line to add the best prospect at that position.  Regardless, he put on a show last night for his NFL debut with several moments that were just dominant.  He will certainly have things to clean up and other things to learn about what is expected of him, but I have no doubt that he is already one of the 5 best linemen the Cowboys have and ready to over-take the admirable Ron Leary at LG.  I think Leary is a great story and a solid starter, but he just can't offer you some of those moments to rewind and marvel like Collins can.
In fact, if you go back and look at the first series for Leary against the very talented  #94 Corey Liuget (who was just paid handsomely by the Chargers to continue to dominate on the inside), you will see Leary struggle to stand his ground like he did against the Lions and the Packers last postseason.  Leary just doesn't have the anchor that is elite. Big #71 has it. And if Collins isn't the starter against the Giants, it is nothing more than the Cowboys just wanting to bring him along slowly.
He is good enough to start right now and not ever look back.  He was elite in college and I expect it won't be long before he is that in the NFL.  His block on that TD was very impressive as he pushed the DT over to his tackle before cleaning out a LB who was untouched and in the hole.  What a savvy veteran move to knock two guys out of the way on a run where Gus Johnson ended up in the end zone.  Collins is going to be special, and he already is pretty good.
--  Overall, the 2015 Draft class showed well.  Collins is the bonus pick, but you also saw Damien Wilson continue to impress as the 4th round linebacker from Minnesota.  The Cowboys scouting department seems to have an eye for linebackers these days after nabbing Anthony Hitchens from Iowa in the 4th round in 2014 and now this Wilson kid in 2015.
Wilson shot into the gap last night on a play that made you think about how well he is settling in as the backup Will LB to Sean Lee and how he could be called upon to play quite a role this year.  Surely, the Cowboys hope he doesn't have to come right in and do much more than special teams, but I really like how Wilson has looked at camp.
Additionally, Randy Gregory showed some pass rush ability that flashed as the game went on and you even saw his first preseason sack.  He just has attributes that again - like Collins - scream 1st rounder, even though the Cowboys were able to grab him late in the 2nd round.  As I said on draft weekend (and I am sure others did, too), the Cowboys appear to have 3 1st round picks in this draft class and that type of haul of talent could be the type of thing that tips the scales in their favor for years to come.
Teams don't get to take 3 of the Top 15-20 players on their board.  I can tell you with certainty that the Cowboys believe they did just that.  To be honest, I thought Jones was the 3rd best of the bunch, and in watching much of training camp with my naked eyes, I still feel that Collins and Gregory are far more eye-catching.
--  I was asked to explain the "swing tackle" position and why that is a concern for the Cowboys.  Ok, here we go:  "Swing Tackle" is a guy who can substitute at either RT or LT in a pinch.  On game day, NFL teams only activate 7-8 offensive linemen to their 46 man roster.  That means that you have the 5 starters, and sometimes, only 2 reserves.  So, if you have in-game injuries, you need to have 2 backups who can handle any situation.
You want a versatile interior player - Mackenzy Bernadeau can play both guard spots and center - and you want a player who can play either tackle.  Last year, that was Jermey Parnell who actually held that role for several seasons in Dallas.  Luckily, you almost never needed to use that insurance policy, but last year in Philadelphia, Doug Free was injured and never played again.  Parnell stepped in and handled everything quite well.  He was really good and so much so that Jacksonville decided to back the truck up and pay him a ton of money.
So, who is the swing tackle this year?  Who would step into a tight game if Tyron Smith or Doug Free sprain a knee in the 3rd Quarter?  Well, the Cowboys felt great when they took Chaz Green in the 3rd Round to do just that.  But, like his college career, health has kept Green from doing anything so far at camp.
So, the job looks like Darrion Weems has the inside track at the present time, but to be honest, he looked like he has serious limitations in pass protection - which is the most important attribute for a swing tackle.  Especially at left tackle.  Again, it isn't something your average fan would be bothered by, but I can promise you the team is stressing this situation right now.
They want to bring 7 players to game-day, but they need the two reserves to instill confidence and right now they don't have much behind Tyron Smith and Doug Free that would do that.
-- One of these years, Jason Witten is not going to play 1,000 snaps.  And that will be the year that you will be happy you have invested in the Tight End position.  When you think about it, the constant drafting of his replacement (Fasano, Bennett, Escobar) may seem frustrating because they are never used, but it is actually one of the smarter things this front office has done year to year.  Luckily, they have never had to use that insurance, but they smartly prepared for it.  But, I am here to say that in watching Gavin Escobar in camp, I am convinced he can really play.
His hands are quite phenomenal and his blocking is at least improving.  Last night he made a number of catches to tell you that he is standing by, and ready.  But, the Cowboys are constantly in 11 personnel these days with the emergence of Cole Beasley, and Witten never comes off the field.  So, Escobar is still waiting for his first 10-catch season.  But, that doesn't mean he is a bust.  I think one of these years he might get his chance here to show what he has, and while he will never be Witten, I think he has a chance to be pretty good.
--  I am going to resist the urge to read too much into the RB spot.  I still think that there is a RB or two that will play a major role in 2015 that are not currently even with the organization.  I see things I like from Gus Johnson, but I still think they prefer the practice squad for him.  I like Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar's potential, but I still get the suspicion that within a few weeks, we will have a new player or two to consider unless things turn quickly in camp.
--  Others that were impressive in spurts last night:  Terrance Williams had a play-making look on the first drive, Tyrone Crawford was in the backfield, Ryan Russell was impressive, and Corey White looks like a guy who can battle on every route.  And yes, I am intrigued by Jameill Showers vs Dustin Vaughan, although I am not sure either will get a spot on my 53.  And, Lucky Whitehead has some real burst to his returns.
-- Others that were not as impressive as we may have hoped:  Jeff Heath needs to continue to prove he can tackle in space or they will try to replace him, I am not confident in Davon Coleman or Ken Bishop pushing Nick Hayden, pretty much every longshot OL trying to make the team as a reserve did not show much, Deontay Greenery, and Jasper Brinkley looked a bit behind the action a few times.  Of course, Lucky Whitehead needs to hold on to that football, so he shows up on both lists.
In the end, I just spent 2,000 words talking about a game that hopefully in 10 days I will not think about again all year.  But, for now, this is part of going through the paces to prepare for a season and we aren't even sure the teams take it seriously.
Heck, the Cowboys thought Brandon Weeden had seen enough after one drive that ended in unintentional comedy.   It is tedious and a shame they charge people full price to watch that in person, but it is part of the NFL calendar and something we go through every single year - and then complain about - as a matter of August NFL tradition.
But, in the end, it appears everyone got out of it healthy and now they head back to Oxnard for another week of practice.
On to the next one...

No comments: