Thankfully, we have proceeded through two preseason games on our way to opening day. Unfortunately, there are still two more to go.
The Cowboys decided a long time ago that their main priority is to get to Game No. 1 (Sept.13 versus the New York Giants) with complete health among their top players. That is a fine goal that is difficult to reach in today's NFL, especially given the league's insistence that teams play between four and five preseason games against other teams that have guys who are trying to make the NFL for the very first time.
Then, injuries can and do occur in any training camp practice, especially when things get competitive and contact is introduced. Last year, Sean Lee was lost in OTAs, the year before Tyrone Crawford was gone the first practice in Oxnard. The year before that, Jay Ratliff went down. The Cowboys know all about losing a key part or two before they get to Week 1.
Unfortunately, that is a massive part of the NFL game. Yes, there are examples where a team has overcome injuries on their way to meeting their goals in a given season, but all of the best laid plans of an organization come crumbling down because they lose too many players of the special variety during the season. So to not even get to the starting line with a full compliment of expensive personnel is one of the most frustrating circumstances these teams can imagine.
So the Cowboys have basically decided to slide their risk meter all the way to the extreme end of conservatism over the last few seasons. They have decided that whatever the minimum number of plays might be for the top 10-15 players on the roster, that is what they will play. Oh sure, there will be no public declaration -- as that might upset the league bosses who run this month long silliness -- but, hopefully, you are not betting the "over" on any of the proposition bets for total snaps for Tony Romo, Tyron Smith, or Dez Bryant.
The Cowboys will likely run them all out there for the "dress rehearsal" affair next weekend for a few drives, but for the most part, Romo will play in an entire preseason (about 30) the same number of snaps that starting QBs used to play in each preseason game.
It is certainly not what the entire league is doing, but those in the NFL that are willing to risk putting out their top players for large swaths of preseason games run a much greater risk of losing those guys at any turn at a higher probability. There is no way to eliminate risk altogether in this brutal sport, but the Cowboys are limiting it as much as possible to their top players. If they start the season with disappointing and lackluster efforts in the first few weeks, we will reference back to this and suggest the Cowboys don't "look ready", but otherwise, it is tough to argue against when big name stars are dropping around the league with injuries in games that have no significant meaning.
With that in mind, as observers of this organization, I will confess that covering them as a media member is a bit more confusing than normal in the preseason. Evaluating anything of interest is often difficult in August because you have to factor the effort level of the opponent and their personnel situation. But, when you are looking for real answers to real questions, like "how do you go about trying to replace the NFL's leading rusher on an offense that found success in 2014 primarily because they insisted on running the ball with great conviction?", you might be out of luck.
Want to see how Sean Lee looks at a position he has never really played? Tough. Would you like to see all of the corners on the field at the same time? Sorry. The Cowboys have a clear plan and philosophy this preseason (and in 2014) and it involves securing valuable players in bubble wrap.
This view of the preseason would likely make Lombardi and Ditka and Landry explode with emotion, but it is clear they aren't worried about that on any level. Oh, and I appreciate Jason Garrett's angry stares in the postgame, but you aren't fooling anyone. When the brass tells the team that all of the important guys are getting the night off, you are sending a message to every one else -- like it or not -- that this game is meaningless.
Yes, many of them are fighting for jobs, but many are not and their effort level is going to be as flat as it has appeared in San Diego and San Francisco. It boils down to the vets getting through it in one piece. And that seldom results in acceptable football.
So, let's talk about the few topics that do have some observational value from the affair last night in San Francisco.
-- In a game that saw neither team approach 300 yards -- let alone the standard 350-400 yards in total offense -- we found almost nothing offensively to get excited about. What was clear is that if you are going to put reserves against reserves in any competitive NFL setting, you will quickly notice that the pass rushers are way ahead of the pass protectors. This goes on all around the league, but it becomes pretty obvious why offensive tackles who have rare traits (Tyron Smith) go quickly in Round 1.
There are very few monstrous humans who can keep those edge rushers off the Quarterbacks, so when one comes along you grab him and pay him a ton of cash to keep him. The more preseason action you watch, the more you see that Darrion Weems is not exceptional in that his pass protection skills seem mediocre. He, actually, might be what a reserve tackle in today's NFL looks like and Jermey Parnell, the Cowboys swing tackle for the last several years, was actually the exception in that he was excellent in pass protection for a "swing tackle".
Parnell was rescued for big dollars and a starting spot in Jacksonville (because he was seen as a massive upgrade for what they have been running out there) and now the Cowboys are trying to find a reasonable replacement. Weems is their idea right now because Chaz Green looks like he is on what could be a red-shirt year due to continuing health concerns (at the very least, look for him to start the season on the PUP list).
That should give anyone indigestion seeing that Weems has no solutions for elite pass rushers, but similar to QB1, if your elite left tackle were to miss considerable time, there is not really a great plan behind him that will in any way simulate what he is capable of. The best way to make yourself feel better is to watch any preseason game around the league when the starter is taken out and see how bad the average backup tackle is at pass protection. Weems is not good (and don't even bother looking behind him because there isn't anything there, either), but he might be no worse than what most teams have as a 3rd tackle.
Bottom line, hope Tyron has another healthy year. We are seeing again that the league barely has enough starters for the 32 teams and when you start digging down in the depth charts, the quality falls quickly and significantly.
-- For those of us who were amazed that Randy Gregory could be taken at No. 60, now our colleagues are starting to understand why we were willing to look past his risks. Gregory has all of the tools to be a fantastic pass rusher with the type of physical attributes that might add up into something really, really special. The Cowboys had him in their Top 5 evaluations last spring with Leonard Williams, Todd Gurley, Dante Fowler, and Amari Cooper.
Yes, many things knocked him down that lofty perch in the buildup to the draft and I remember very clearly seeing Garrett looking discouraged that the Cowboys were going to go in this direction when they were on the clock at #60, but I don't think any of that matters right now. What matters is that he might change things on the Cowboys defense for years to come and the team might thank its lucky stars that they could pass on him at #27 and still get him a round later.
I watch each week and marvel at his ability and his flashes of special talent and even though history tells us rookie pass rushers do not have big seasons, he sure looks like he will be around sacks on a regular basis in 2015. What a luxury to have him grow in a Cowboys uniform.
-- If you follow my writings on this team for any length of time, you will know I am not a big fan of the Cowboys QB developmental program. Since 2001, they have spent one pick on a Quarterback -- the 2009 4th round pick on Stephen McGee - and have pretty much ignored investing in a young QB who might either grow into your next QB or offer trade opportunities after a few seasons of growth.
Regardless, the Cowboys now have a depth chart behind Tony Romo that just looks uninspired. Brandon Weeden shows very little in practice or games that offers any reason for optimism. He has a cannon, but seems like one check down after another as he follows Brad Johnson's performance in Dallas step for step.
Then, behind him, the Cowboys harbor the undrafted hopes of Dustin Vaughan and Jameill Showers. Vaughan, in year 2, throws passes into coverage with great regularity and while he is far more optimistic with his throws than Weeden, the results are much worse as they are picked off or close on a somewhat regular basis. He had a few throws last night that just continue the trend of wondering if he is progressing, including the humbling experience of the "Defensive Tackle Pick 6".
This leaves Showers, the rare bird who looks like a solid backup developmental QB but also a guy who can cover kicks and punts in the NFL. He is so composed in the pocket and seemingly unbothered by pressure in many cases. I like what he has shown and want to continue to see more. But, for now, he is on my roster.
-- Speaking of special teams, that was a real ugly night. And, unfortunately, none of the healthy scratches are what you would expect to be special teams contributors. Now, Rich Bisaccia was very likely experimenting with his coverage teams and so forth, but the fact that they were hit for punt returns of 27 yards, 34 yards, and 23 yards on the first three punts and then avoided another long return by just getting the end zone punt blocked and recovered for a touchdown, should be enough to keep them busy at camp all week long.
What an unmitigated disaster their punt teams appeared to be, and a showing like that will have opponents putting time and effort into attacking those weak spots in September. In other news, every organization in the NFL is now examining youtube clips of Rugby stars to see if Jarryd Hayne is the first of many to cross the pond and try the NFL.
Wow, if there were any stars discovered on a forgettable night at Levi Stadium, it probably starts and stops with Hayne. I am quite interested in seeing how that experiment works out.
-- Beyond that: There were concerns about the abilities of Joseph Randle to pass protect, encouraging signs from Corey White and Jack Crawford defensively, Ben Gardner and Ryan Russell showing even further defensive line depth - could that be the best unit of the preseason? - and enough ammunition for the coaching staff to make sure this team is reminded that 2014 results are no guarantee of 2015 success.
But, the bottom line remains the bottom line.
In a league where teams are mourning the loss of star players for the season, the Cowboys arrive back in Oxnard for their final few days of California camp in good health. And that, really, is the bottom line.
Thankfully, it allows us to ignore the fact that they are still waiting to score more than 7 points in a preseason game this summer. These preseason games are ugly for sure, but since the NFL forces teams to play this many games, maybe the Cowboys are doing everyone a favor by leaving conventional approaches and doing it there way. If they set a trend, maybe the league will make alterations to this nonsense.
Until then, 2 down, 2 to go in operation "stay healthy."