Let's start with the lead. There was very little of deep consequence accomplished on Saturday night in Los Angeles (of course, I recommend Los Angeles for all of your non-consequential preseason activities). When you scratch 21 players from a preseason opener - as the Dallas Cowboys did, you are quickly telling us a few important things:
1) - You are a smart team that understands the worst thing that can happen in the preseason is to lose an important piece in a meaningless game. Not all of the 21 players scratched were fit, but many of them were, and the Cowboys know what we all know, nothing good can happen from running Sean Lee, Ezekiel Elliott, or Cole Beasley out there.
2) - You already know most of your cutdowns and roster spots and don't require 5 games to sort that out.
3) - The NFL preseason system is antiquated and ridiculous and soaks fans of their dollars but accomplishes almost nothing else in modern times. At the very most, teams need about 2 exhibition games, but until further notice we will continue with this silly dance.
So, with that all in mind, I think it is safe to say that the countdown to opening night is on (27 days to go!).
But, for the sake of the exercise, let's examine some of the finer details about the Cowboys trip and subsequent loss to the Los Angeles Rams, in which neither team gave us any indication whatsoever about the quality of their team as almost no regulars played enough to impact the outcome in any way at all.
And, yes, I want to start with Rico Gathers again.
Now, one thing we must always remember in preseason is that because of the fact that teams take these games less and less seriously each year, the findings can be somewhat dubious. We can't always believe what we see because there is a real competition level that is being compromised when nobody will play their best players. In fact, it doesn't take long before they are not even playing their employable players. The game is often between cutdown candidates and, with that in mind, we must temper the highlights that we see. Especially when a key prospect is taking down the likes of Folarin Orimolade. Orimolade might be a player with a fine future, but he is currently listed as the Rams' 15th linebacker (most teams keep between 6-8) and was an undrafted free agent this past spring out of Dartmouth. Again, that doesn't mean that he won't play in this league, but rather that the odds are stacked highly against him. The point to this is that this is like the NBA Summer League. It is great to watch and promising, but we should wait to get too overly excited for when Rico Gathers takes someone like Landon Collins down the seam like this on Sunday night in Week 1.
And yet, again, I am pretty fired up to see Gathers run by Orimolade in this man-coverage matchup and score his 2nd long touchdown pass reception in 2 weeks. I don't care if it is Folarin Orimolade.
As you can see, the Cowboys are in 12 personnel. Two tight ends to the left, 2 wide receivers to the right. Now, about 98% of the time, when you are in this grouping and formation, you will get man coverage (12 personnel says you are likely running the ball - so the front will be stacked) with a single high safety. In almost every case, that safety will shade to the WR side because of the threats of speed and dangerous results, while a TE usually can't do much damage down the field.
This is where Rico Gathers can offer something that most tight ends cannot, and will remind us of a younger Jason Witten and the reason the Cowboys thought that Martellus Bennett (and Anthony Fasano and Gavin Escobar) was worth a 2nd-round pick. Remember, 12 personnel says to the defense that runs are likely and that you better have the proper personnel on the field. In fact, you are tempted to bring on linebackers because the Cowboys in 12 will have as many as 7 run blockers on the field, so if you counter with nickel, you are outmanned up front.
This is also why Rico Gathers can get better and better as he learns to run block. As many have mentioned, he doesn't ever have to be great at this task (Jimmy Graham never learned), but the better he is at it, the easier his life gets. If he can run block - even a little, then you force the defense to respect the Cowboys offense as Dak Prescott would simply see how his tight ends are being defended in presnap and counter with audibles. If Witten and Gathers have "bigs" (LBs) on them, they run verticals. If Witten and Gathers have "littles" on them (DBs), then you audible into a run and go right at them.
In this case, the Rams were determined to go with the traditional matchups. Our LB should be able to defend your TE. It is preseason, they are just getting everyone work, and who is Rico Gathers, anyway?
The result was a simple pitch and catch from Cooper Rush to Gathers in a play that was painfully simple.
If he is going to show that he can catch the ball easily with his hands and then finish plays, the Cowboys will have found a future piece that can be a matchup issue today.
Remember last week when they defended him with a DB?
This is either the start of something big, or we can look back at August 2017 as the time we lost our minds about a project basketball player who showed his ability for one shining moment.
But, man, he is looking like a real piece to have on the chess board moving forward. And since I had to look, the number of times Martellus Bennett caught a 25-yard (or more) touchdown as a Dallas Cowboy? Twice. Both in 2008. Once from Brad Johnson at the end of a blowout loss in St. Louis and just one from Tony Romo (in 4 years) in Washington that same rookie year. Gathers has 2 in 2 weeks, albeit both in exhibitions.
Similarly, Taco Charlton flashed a few times on Saturday night as a weak-side defensive end against a fellow named Pace Murphy. Charlton looked quite solid and got the hype train back on his side with a sack where Murphy badly overset and left Charlton a nice inside lane, despite barely making contact with his left hand. Murphy was, indeed, undrafted, but actually did make the Rams last year and played 15 snaps in the final 2 weeks of the season. I believe this demonstrates that tackle is about the shallowest pool in the NFL neighborhood as most teams have backups who they desperately hope never have to play because they simply cannot deal with decent pass rushers. People often say that QBs are the rarest bird in that there are only about 20 on the planet who are quite good, well I will tell you the same about left tackles. There aren't many who you feel comfortable playing. Tyron Smith is the best in the world, but the drop-off is considerable and fast.
Nevertheless, Taco demonstrated some very nice athleticism and quickness that has many of us thinking his best home will be inside at DT before long (or a 3-4 DE) where he can isolate against guards and do this sort of thing on a regular basis. Again, lost in all of the noise is the fact that most people absolutely think he will make a nice impact in the NFL and for the Cowboys. He is not a prototypical edge rusher, but he has very rare traits that make you think sliding him to DT on passing downs between, say, DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving, would be all sorts of issues for opponents.
Also, Taco should really help in stuffing rushing plays with his long arms and the ability to work through gaps into the backfield. I think Charlton needed a nice showing for his confidence and those plays will work well. But, I also believe that his ultimate home is going to be defensive tackle.
Other items to quickly touch-
Backup QB looks pretty thin right now. I have heard many talk about Kellen Moore being Scott Linehan's guy as a backup. Linehan really appreciates Moore's ability to grasp the scheme and know the game to help work with a guy like Prescott and be a "player coach" in the room. But, he also might need to play and we saw at the end of 2015 the limitations that brings to the table at the NFL level. His arm is just at the line of what is acceptable at this level if he were to have to play for a month. So, he needs to move the offense a bit here in preseason to alleviate the concerns a bit and while he was much better against the Cardinals, there is no doubt that the weak throws on Saturday against the Rams sounded the alarms again. It would be a major shock to break camp without him as the #2, but I am sure it will be an item this week.
Meanwhile, everyone is scrambling to learn more about Cooper Rush. Rush, the undrafted QB out of Central Michigan in May, certainly looked the part and put the ball in some nice spots in the 3rd quarter, which included the fine TD pass to Gathers. As is the case as usual in the preseason, it is hard to attach meaning to a QB's performance when he is playing with guys who will not be in the NFL in a month, but that is the system in place. Which brings us to our next point....
I don't know who decides which 21 players they are scratching and why Zack Martin and Travis Frederick both needed to play extensively. They both played 19 snaps - or the first 4 possessions. I am sure they were asked to play to help figure out the left guard and right tackle situations next to them, but, I don't think that is smart on August 12th. And yes, I felt that way long before Zack Martin was rolled up on from behind and a real scare was felt throughout the Cowboys' nation. That type of play has resulted in a player tearing an ACL and being lost for 12 months, so, this is not hindsight on my part. There is simply no good reason to risk Martin and Frederick into the second quarter of a meaningless game. None. See for yourself and be amazed that Martin was fine. Thank goodness.
Damontre Moore looked really impressive, and I am planning a video project for him this week. I am quite annoyed by his suspension, but also quite excited about his ability to improve this DE group. Stay tuned for his cutups this week.
Xavier Woods showed some ability in a number of spots. I don't think he is close to challenging Jeff Heath just yet, but he appears to be a more realistic threat than Kevon Frazier at this point. Both look to be keys on special teams, though. He has nice range, good instincts, and arrives with force. I like all of those traits, but he might need some patience to get there with all the assignments that are required to be the QB of the secondary up top.
The Cowboys have very little depth in their offensive line ranks that looks useful. Like I said with the Rams, this is seen all over the league in preseason. There is a massive drop-off of quality in the OL ranks after the starters in the entire NFL. College football and the spread (2 point stance) have not helped, and it shows. There just aren't enough to go around.
One thing we do know with an Ezekiel Elliott suspension is that there is very little behind him that will resemble his ability. I am rather unconvinced Darren McFadden has much to offer and will continue to assume Alfred Morris is the best of the bunch (but also know that the Cowboys feel the opposite is true, it seems). But, the events of Friday suggest that there will be plenty on the offense to worry about for the first month of the season as they try to deal with some very stellar defenses without the promise of huge running days without their stud, Elliott.