Not that the outcome will be long-remembered or that the whole exercise makes sense when a serious injury occurs, but we still got another chance to watch the 2017 Dallas Cowboys in action once again before September 10th. The 4th preseason game provided another look at quite a few portions of the squad we have been examining all through August. It also provided a team that I think will likely win its division across the field in the Oakland Raiders and some of their special players and the challenges they present. With all of that in mind, let's work our way through some of the good and the bad in an observation-filled "Morning After" that goes in a dozen different directions:
It was certainly wonderful to look at this offense once again with Dak Prescott at the helm. If you include what we saw last week without Ezekiel Elliott and then what we saw this week with the RB that may-or-may-not be in tow when they play the Giants, it is clear that this offense is prepared to remain one of the heavyweights in the whole league at moving the football, controlling the clock, and putting up points. I really appreciate their style and their balance and their disposition. The best part is dominating 1st down which not only shortens your 3rd downs, but often prevents them altogether. This is not easy. Many teams in this league make offense look incredibly difficult. But, because of the enormous amount of talent this team has assembled on that side of the ball, they are a thing of beauty. On Saturday, they unleashed all of their personnel groupings and all of the different looks that are built on keeping the defense in a bind that is next to impossible to predict what is coming next. I was quite impressed in their action what they can do. They will be a handful again in 2017.
Defensively, I do not have as many nice things to say about the preparedness for 2 weeks from now. Derek Carr looked a little off, yet still carved up the Cowboys defense in almost an entire half of football. Carr and his weapons made the Cowboys zones look rather silly in their 2 touchdown strikes that had the defense looking at each other in that unfortunate "I thought you had that guy" way. Both touchdowns looked like the corner let their man go into a zone where the safety was late arriving and in this league that will get you beat. And, like in the playoffs last year, a long touchdown pass can erase the 10-minute drive you just marched down the field. If you are a ball-control offense, the last thing the defense can do is leak big plays in the pass game. They generally have done well in preventing that, but this is a new secondary and with that is the first and most important question they will be asked - can you prevent the home run? If the answer is "no", then the question will be repeated by any opponent all season long and the center-field safety (or 2-high) will need to be examined quickly.
James Hanna and Geoff Swaim can really fit and change how this offense looks. If you look closely at 2016, this thing was invincible through the trip to Pittsburgh and then the offense fell off. Swaim and Hanna are not "fantasy tight ends" and likely never will be. But, boy do they make the offense more balanced and less predictable. Hanna missed 2016 and Swaim lasted to the Pittsburgh game. When they were gone, it was pretty much Jason Witten and a little bit of Gavin Escobar who never allowed for that balance because of his inability to block. Rico Gathers may be special at some point, but the true teeth of this thing is the ability to run 12 or 13 personnel with tight ends that scare the pants off the defense as "extra OL" and then it turns into play-action passes. We saw that Saturday night and we will see it more this year. Everyone wants a smaller offense because fans like the idea of Ryan Switzer and Cole Beasley out there together as impossible matchups. That might work, too. But the ground and pound possibilities of 12 and 13 personnel are what Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan live for. Expect more of that in 2017.
Cooper Rush is looking more and more like a Dallas Cowboy. How much of one? Would they really trust him to be their #2? I still don't think they would ever do that, but he is making them have the conversation which is way more than anyone already imagined. Good for him. He was basically assured that he made the team already - which makes everything else pure gravy for a player that really had a rough 2016 at Central Michigan at times. He completed less than 60% of his passes in the MAC and threw 16 interceptions in just 13 games. Who knew that he would look this good at any point of his NFL career. But, here he is.
Jaylon Smith had some much better hop and explosion at times on Saturday, but also had some disconcerting signs - including Jamie Olawale running away from him on a long run down the sideline. We need to stay conservative in our expectation levels early. In other words, even with the Anthony Hitchens news, expect Justin Durant to be the decision early. Pushing Jaylon into a spot before he is ready is ill-advised.
Chaz Green was the starter at left guard. He gave up a sack there as Treyvon Hester blew by him on a stunt and then hurt his ankle in some limited action at left tackle. I really have a hard time buying him as anything more than a reserve at this point of his career. And, because this is actually his 3rd season since his draft, the clock is ticking on his ability to do that. Durability is the most important ability and it seems that, like his college career, that sabotages his actual ability when he gets on the field. And, giving up one sack at left guard is more than Ron Leary did there all last season, so those interior spots have to be nearly perfect in pass protection to get the grade. I am still assuming Jonathan Cooper is their choice there, until I see otherwise.
Anthony Hitchens is hurt badly, but not as badly as we first feared. I am a big fan of Hitchens and I think he is a real underrated force on this defense. He is smart, he is committed, and he has a great motor. He also gave them a lot of cover at LB and if he is out until November and if Damien Wilson gets a call from the NFL for his absurd incident in July with the firearm, this team gets real thin at LB real quick. Real quick. Keep an eye on that.
Last year at camp, I spent a lot of time predicting the breakout season of David Irving. I think that went very well in 2016 and now we move on to a player who has already broken out a bit as a rookie, but I expect another big step forward this year. Maliek Collins looks so good at the 3-technique. Like possibly so good that he was the 3-tech that they thought Tyrone Crawford could be when they signed him to that deal. Collins destroys run plays and then beats guards in pass rush. 3-tech is important in this defense and I think the 2nd year man from Nebraska is going to be wonderful this year after a very nice rookie campaign. He had 13 splash plays in 2016 (9th on the team), but I think he can make a run past 20 this year.
Is there a chance Lance Lenoir - undrafted out of Western Illinois - can actually make this team? I still highly doubt it because the numbers game is just so harsh in this league, but man he pops in every single game and he plays a ton of special teams. Practice Squad for sure, but he is at least raising some eyebrows.
OK, La'el Collins time. I want to make our Wednesday film session about him versus the amazing Khalil Mack. I didn't watch the game until yesterday and had noticed some trusted national twitter voices making claims that he played poorly. I expected the worst and aside from a few dubious penalty calls (which he needs to clean up anyway), I thought I saw everything I had hoped to see in the positive direction. He is going to be pretty good, in my opinion, and a step up from Doug Free soon. That doesn't mean there won't be some bumps in the road as right tackle is so difficult to play with awesome opponents and exposure to refs every game. He will get flagged and he will give up a sack at times. But, overall, I think he can be a positive very soon. I really like his skillset and his disposition. And I question whether those national voices actually watched the game or just heard about the 3 flags. Because Mack didn't get anything done against him and those flags were pretty soft.
This team is so good at play-action passes and have a chance to turn it into an art form this year. Those rollouts offer very high-percentage looks for their QB in space and cut the field in half, with the linebackers already vacated because of the run fake. Unfortunately, part of play-action is also the RBs being alert for blitzers who keep coming. That will continue to be an issue and it looked like Elliott and Alfred Morris could have been better on Saturday Night on picking up the DB headed for the QB.
I was a real big Terrell McClain fan, but his durability prevented me from getting too upset when the Redskins put a big deal on his plate (4 years/$21 million/$10.5m guaranteed) at the age of 29. Instead, they gave Stephen Paea a much smaller deal (1 year/$2 million) and if he continues to patrol the middle at that 1-technique like he looked Saturday, I think he has a real chance to play on 1st and 2nd down quite a bit. I know the Cowboys have big plans for Cedric Thornton, too, but Paea is as strong as an ox for a smaller DT and really shows up on tape well. That might be the personnel departments latest find at real cheap prices for a run stopper in the middle.
One more game on Thursday against Houston in which they should scratch everyone in their top 25-30 names, and then we get this roster down and get on with business.