Monday, August 31, 2015

The Morning After - Preseason Game #3 - Vikings 28, Cowboys 14

We have crossed the 2-year barrier with great ease since the Dallas Cowboys last won a preseason game (August 24, 2013 vs Cincinnati).  It is a rather interesting footnote that they are about to have their second consecutive winless preseason (barring a magnificent Thursday Night performance from Dustin Vaughan and Jameill Showers), but in the end, it just doesn't matter.
The touchdowns do not matter.  The sacks don't matter.  Nothing.  Well, the dumb decisions don't matter, unless you are trying to get a job in the NFL.  And the injuries definitely matter.  But, besides that, nothing really matters.
So, as we try to look through the details of another Cowboys preseason loss, it is ok to cherry-pick a few items you find compelling (good or bad) and leave the rest where it belongs - right next to interesting anecdotes from Oxnard or OTAs as the team builds for September 13th.  The fantastic news is that the calendar turns to September tomorrow and that the waiting is almost over.  Two weeks from this morning, the conclusions drawn from the Week 1 clash with the Giants will be examined closely under the "over-reaction microscope".  But, until then, put the important pieces in bubble-wrap and start the strategic sessions in the film room.
That said, here, we are willing to pass the time by figuring out which 53 players will be in the 2015 team picture, how those players look, and how equipped the Cowboys are to host the Giants in 2 week's time.  Sure, the 28-14 loss to the Vikings doesn't matter, but since we are here, let's look a some items anyway...
- The Cowboys running game has been talked about non-stop since the Cowboys made their DeMarco decision in March.  You have to remember, this team simply could not run the ball from 2010 through 2013, and then magically figured out how to run it so well that they wrecked the league with it in 2014.  So, please forgive those in the audience who are suspicious of the idea that you can put anyone behind this Cowboys OL and dominate.  That might be true, because the OL personnel is certainly impressive, but we might need more than a 1-year track record to get too drunk on confidence.  So, it was important to see some impressive flashes in preseason to calm the nerves from someone in that RB group.  And while Darren McFadden's flashes were actually limited to a small handful of plays - in fact, really 2 plays - it should be noted that those moments did resemble what everyone was looking for.  4 carries in all for McFadden.  A zone left for 6 yards.  2 zone stretches back to the right for 13 and 3 yards.  Then, on the next drive and on his final carry, a beautiful 15 yard play where the Cowboys pulled both guards left and we saw the dominance of 2014 for a brief moment.  I have definitely expressed my position on McFadden and my doubt that he is a big part of the replacement answer, but since he has demonstrated some quality in a preseason where Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar have yet to really distinguish themselves (and likely won't play in the finale) we better take what we can get.
- The oddest part of this entire camp is that it sure seems like 45-50 of the 53 spots were pretty clear all the way back before the first bag was packed for California.  Now, that sometimes just means this is a good team that has plenty of returning pieces from a contender, so I am not sure it is anything to get worked up about.  That said, as we try to build drama to "cut down" days, there just hasn't seemed to be a whole lot of pressure from below the cut-line during this camp.  I imagine you would prefer several players from that bottom group trying to force you to keep them, but as we look at the long shots at Wide Receiver, Running Back, Offensive Line,  or really anywhere on offense, I am pretty sure the exact 24 offensive players we thought would be on the 53 will be.  Every one of them that we would have picked on July 1 will be on the offense (perhaps with the exception of whether they would keep a 4th tight end instead of a 3rd Quarterback).  I don't ever remember that much stability in any of my 18 training camps, but it sure has kept the excitement level of cuts to a dull roar.  Usually someone rises up, but aside from Gus Johnson, who has that been?  Most of us thought Lucky Whitehead was on the team back in May, because of his return ability.  The drama is not high right now.
- Another week with the feeling that the pass rush ability of the Cowboys will have improved by leaps and bounds over the last 12-18 months.  You may recall in 2013, as the team was switching to the 4-3 for the first time in about a decade, the pass rush was all about Jason Hatcher, what was left of DeMarcus Ware, and George Selvie pulled off the couch.  Since then, the Cowboys have tried to design a way to build a defense around what Rod Marinelli wants.  That, of course, is a defense that can apply pressure with 4, and zone up behind it.  We have talked at great length about this idea and process, but what we haven't done until this August is see it actually happening.  I think if there is a major story to report in August of 2015, it would be that the Cowboys defensive line looks the part of a strong and capable pass rush against their opponents so far.  I think much of that was built around 2 inside players who both had resumes of different qualities in the fast rising Tyrone Crawford and the expensive and controversial Greg Hardy.  But, let's not lose sight of the edge guys who both seem to have the quality that any pass rushing end better have - the secondary acceleration.  Most rushers have an initial move - we will call that the first 2.5 seconds of any play where they are trying to get to the QB before he gets the ball out - but, what we are talking about here is the next 2.5 seconds.  When the QB looks, then tries to buy more time or even thinks about running.  Does your DE have the twitch to round up any escape plans before they materialize?  This seems to be Randy Gregory's forte.  He is getting sacks from that secondary phase as sometimes guys get chased into him.  That is not an insult, but his initial moves need refinement and development - which we expected.  But, I am not sure anyone expected him to have sack opportunities every week because if any QB decides to wander to his side of the field looking to extend the play, 94 is there to shut that idea down in a real hurry.  And, you aren't running away from him.  So now, with DeMarcus Lawrence having some of those same qualities on the other side, if you combine those types of players on the edge with bulls in the middle that guards cannot handle 1-on-1, well, you can see how this might go.  QBs better get the ball out.  It almost looks like the Cowboys designed a pass rush for guys like Aaron Rodgers who live off of that secondary phase of each play.
- Is this the year that Cowboys' fans put Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia in the crosshairs?  Well, 2 weeks in a row of special teams disasters is not helping things.  You can imagine after those issues in San Francisco that special teams was emphasized all week long on the practice field.  The guys were scolded, they returned to basics, they used time and reps to sort things out and the point was made that we better see better on Saturday Night against the Vikings.  So, when Cordarrelle Patterson motored 107 yards for a rather easy-looking touchdown on Saturday against what sure appeared to be the #1 kickoff cover team, I can only guess that Jason Garrett and Bisaccia had a moment to compare notes again.  This is absolutely the type of thing to turn a great season into a good one, or lose a division title or home field advantage.  Special Teams are vital in today's NFL where the margins are so small and honestly, it is fair to wonder if this is going to be a weak link in 2015.  You can live with modest returns from your side, but you cannot live with massive returns allowed.  A punt blocked for a TD last week and a kickoff return for a TD this week actually means some good things for Bisaccia.  You can believe that when it comes down to those final roster spots, there will be no dissenting voice when it comes down to making sure that special teams ability is the one true tie-breaker.  It must be and now that emphasis will be made.
- Beyond those initial thoughts, the questions of camp are rather bland.  We wondered if anyone could take the 5th WR spot from Lucky Whitehead (No) and whether Devin Street would demonstrate that he is a clear blue-chip prospect (Not yet).  We wondered if a clear 3rd tackle would emerge to calm our nerves about swing tackle (No).  We wondered if there was a dark horse at RB who you would put on the active roster (I love Gus Johnson, but I doubt it).  We wondered if any of the reserve QBs would dazzle us enough to make us think there is something behind Romo more than warm bodies (No).  Defensively, would anyone emerge to really challenge Nick Hayden inside (Not really) and would the Cowboys cut a notable player of the DL (doesn't look like it)?  Would they have to let a good DB go (Orlando Scandrick cleared that up) and would all four of the safeties be safe?  Basically, all of these questions are less than what you would call compelling lead stories on the NFL Network.
The Cowboys are a good team and good teams have quiet camps - save for the occasional fight - and with the exception of the horrendous Scandrick story, this month has been properly under the radar nationally.  Now, the Cowboys survive Thursday by keeping the prominent 20 players at the top of the roster off the field.
I don't fully understand why the NFL decided to mess with the cutdown days so much in the last decade.  We used to have several dates with teams to saw down their numbers, but then teams wanted longer to evaluate and more importantly, to have bodies to survive camp without damaging their roster too much.  But, now, when nobody in the entire league wants to play anyone in the final week of preseason, we make them cut 15 players before this final game.  Simple question, wouldn't it make more sense for these 480 players who are being cut by NFL teams by tomorrow to be able to play in that final preseason game?  Then, they may audition for the league in the one game where the teams already don't want to use their established players?  Allow them to get their ability on film one last time when teams need them most?  Instead, they cut down to 75, scratch the first 20 and that means that many reserves will have to play a huge chunk of the night - which of course risks them from Week 1 action.  It really is a flaw in the way the NFL goes about its business these days, but since the status of Tom Brady's availability for a game that is 10 days from now is still in doubt, I suppose they aren't worried about things that make them look like they know what they are doing.
Regardless, we prepare to see the names today of the first round of cuts for the Cowboys and proceed through the final week of preseason.

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