Cowboys Face Bengals In Dress Rehearsal: What Can We Learn From Tomorrow's Game?

John Grieshop

We take a look back at the last four preseason dress rehearsals for the Cowboys and wonder whether the game against the Bengals could be a crystal ball providing us with a glimpse of what the coming season coud hold in store.

We all know that preseason performance isn't any indicator of regular season performance. Or so we've been told.

But that may be different for the third (or in the Cowboys' case: the fourth) preseason game. Typically the games in the third week of preseason are the "dress rehearsals" for teams around the NFL, games in which the (healthy) starters see a lot of playing time: Jason Garrett indicated in Tuesday's press conference that the Cowboys expect to play their starters most of the first half in Saturday’s "dress rehearsal" game against the Bengals.

So in anticipation of the game, let's take a look at the Cowboys' dress rehearsals of the last four seasons, and see how much of an indicator tomorrow's game against the Bengals could be for the coming season. For this exercise, I reviewed the BTB game summaries for the last four dress rehearsals and looked at those parts of the write-ups that would prove prophetic later on. Of course, all of this is done with a generous helping of hindsight, but that's half the fun of doing this.

2009 Dress rehearsal: Cowboys 30, Titans 10.
2009 Regular season: 11-5 record, playoff win

The Cowboys opened the new Stadium in style with a convincing win over the Titans in the third preseason game. Here's what Dave Halprin wrote at the time:

The first game in the new stadium was definitely a success for the Dallas Cowboys as they romped to a 30-10 preseason win over the Tennessee Titans. The Cowboys dominated the game on offense and defense, and only the familiar bugaboos of penalties and special teams kept the thing from becoming a rout early on.

The final score was convincing enough, but sloppy special teams play and penalties kept coming back to hurt the Cowboys, as they would the entire 2009 season. The second and third units played well, holding the Titans scoreless in the second half. Ultimately, the game showcased a strong Cowboys team that had enough depth to win the NFC East, beat the Eagles three times, pitch two successive shutouts to close the season and notch its first playoff win in umpteen years.

With that playoff win, for those keeping track, the Cowboys have more playoff wins over the last four years than the Eagles and Redskins combined.

2010 Dress rehearsal: Cowboys 7, Texans 23.
2010 Regular season: 6-10 record

This dress rehearsal turned out to be a total flop. The Cowboys didn't appear anywhere like they were ready to play, with sloppy ball-handling, missed tackles, and mistakes on basics like getting in and out of the huddle in proper formations. The Cowboys showed up unprepared and couldn't even get the basics of football right - a foreshadowing of the awful season that would ensue and that would cost head coach Wade Phillips his job.

Dave again did the honors in the game summary, and noted that the way the Cowboys were playing was putting Romo's health at risk, an observation that proved painfully true when Romo was carted off in week six with a broken clavicle.

They've become one-dimensional in the pre-season and that hasn't been good for Tony Romo's health. The Texans front seven spent some quality time with Romo, grabbing a few sacks and knocking him down to the point were getting him out of the game was becoming a decision of medical importance.

Almost everything that went wrong that season was already evident in that single preseason game.

2011 Dress rehearsal: Cowboys 23, Vikings 17.
2011 Regular season: 8-8 record, narrowly missed playoffs

This game was much closer than the final score indicates. The Cowboys did not win in the most conventional of ways, but needed points off special teams and defensive turnovers to win the game. Gerald Sensabaugh blocked a field goal and also intercepted a deflected pass to hold Minnesota to a low points total, despite the Vikings marching up and down the field on the Cowboys for 442 yards of offense, 305 of which ominously came through the air.

Kegbearer wrote in his game summary that the football stat of choice may be yards, but football is a game of inches.

The Cowboys were victorious over the Vikings in the "dress rehearsal" preseason game last night though they lost many of the battles on the field. This is partly because they managed to claim many of those elusive inches to take the lead and hold onto it for most of the night.

The Cowboys got all the right breaks, and avoided costly mistakes themselves, to win a close game with some luck. The problem is of course that luck is not a strategy, and luck is not something you can count on over a 16-game schedule. The Cowboys would go on to play nine games in 2011 season that were decided by seven points or less. Their luck held in four of those games and gave out in five, as befits a team that ended up with an 8-8 record, despite being in the hunt for the playoffs for quite a while.

2012 Dress rehearsal: Cowboys 20, Rams 19.
2012 Regular season: 8-8 record, narrowly missed playoffs

This was a game in which the first team marched out to a 20-6 lead by halftime. The offense scored on four of six drives, fumbled once (Dunbar) and punted once, while the defense held the Rams to four drives of five plays or less, only allowing one long drive of 15 plays, which was stopped on downs at the Dallas five-yard line.

Unfortunately, the backups weren't able to accomplish anything in the second half, even allowing the Rams to close to within one point, an ominous sign of things to come during the regular season when the Cowboys increasingly had to rely on their backups due to injury.

The game would also foreshadow the regular season in another aspect, as KD Drummond summarized at the time:

Unfortunately, there were some injuries that occured.

Jay Ratliff apparently suffered an ankle sprain (some reports say "high" variety) and was seen walking on crutches in the locker room. Danny McCray suffered a neck sprain (x-rays negative). Matt Johnson reinjured his hamstring whiffing on a tackle. Somewhere in the process it appears that DeMarco Murray hurt his hand (Update: Murray's hand doesn't seem to be a big deal).

Injuries would become the main theme of the 2012 season, and the injuries to Ratliff and Johnson in the dress rehearsal would set the tone for the remainder of the year.

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It's never wise to read too much into a preseason game. As you sit down to watch tomorrow's dress rehearsal, don't focus too much on the largely vanilla schemes, the meaningless stats or even the final result.

Instead, look for the overall cohesiveness of the separate units; look at how the individual players who'll have a significant impact on this upcoming season are performing; look for evidence of mental toughness that could help the team through some tough spots this year; watch the second and third teamers to get a feeling for how good the Cowboys' depth really is. Chances are, if the past four years are anything to go by, tomorrow's game will be a crystal ball providing us with a glimpse of what the coming season coud hold in store.

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