The Cowboys closed the door on the preparation portion of the 2013 season with a 24-6 defeat at the hands of their in-state rivals, the Houston Texans. Dallas rested pretty much everyone the casual fan had a chance to identify, and instead left the fate of the game in the hands of those fighting for their professional lives.
With the deadline to make final roster cuts looming on the calendar, most teams probably have between 5 to 15 roster spots up for grabs. The Cowboys basically told their players they'd have to earn it on raw talent, as there was no scheming whatsoever put into this contest.
The most important theme of the day is that Dallas' key backups escaped the game without serious injury. There was a scare when rookie S JJ Wilcox had to be helped off the field. After stretching on the sideline though, he returned to the field one play later. Go ask the Giants and key RB Andre Brown about the importance of escaping the preseason finale healthy.
DB Micah Pellerin, who's been fighting through multiple injuries the last two weeks, and DT Sean Lissemore left the game to be tested for concussion symptoms.
As far as performances, most viewers were interested in seeing whether or not third-string quarterback Alex Tanney would show enough to warrant the team keeping three quarterbacks once they cut down to 53 by Saturday afternoon. One thing every fan now knows, Tanney can take a beating. He was assaulted relentlessly behind the Cowboys reserve linemen. One follower joked that if it kept up, Dallas would be able to keep Tanney on the 53 man roster... via Injured Reserve. The beating would continue all night to the tune of 7 sacks and several more hits.
There's a possibility that Texans DC Wade Phillips put some stunts and game plans in to tweak his former employers.
Tanney started off unimpressive; going 2 for 6 for 8 yards over his first couple drives. On his third drive, he was able to settle in and show some of what he possesses, avoiding the rush and finally getting the Cowboys offense on track.
On second and 6, Tanney escaped a free rusher and throws over the middle for the first down. Joseph Randle escapes outside on the next play for 18, then Tanney went back to work. A short completion to Pablo Escobar for six was followed by a play-fake roll-out and dump off to Hanna for the easy first. A false start put the team into 1st and 15, leading to Tanny throwing a screen to Randle where he kept giving up ground under pressure until the screen developed.
After Randle was stuffed for a TFL, Tanney threw a bullet over the middle to Cole Beasley for a gain of 16. Randle would fight through the line for a gain of three. The next play was almost signature and probably should have been. On a total jail break, Tanney rolled left; surrounded by five Texans, he lofted a ball into the back left corner of the end zone to Escobar. Gavin got one foot in, but the second foot straddled the sideline and the play would be ruled incomplete. It's a play the receiver needs to make and in the coaches mind probably was a successful play by the QB. Tanney had completed his first five passes on the drive. The third down play resulted in a sack and the Cowboys kicked a field goal.
Early in the fourth, Tanney would throw a bad interception on third and 20. However with the game out of reach, Dallas put him in the four-minute offense near the end of the game. He lofted a pretty pass into the arms of Tim Benford, and then put two more balls on the money that Benford dropped. A completion to a crossing Anthony Armstrong, who did little to make Dallas want to keep six receivers, put them in first and goal.
Tanney would finish the night 17 of 31 for 177 yards including an interception he threw on a 3rd and 20 early in the fourth quarter. He looked good in a four-minute drill to end the game until Houston turned the pressure up again.
Another player that entered the game with a chance at the 53 is S Jeff Heath. The UDFA didn't impress much, getting caught in the wash in the run game and looking slow to react on big gains by the Texans. He also missed a special teams tackle. It will be interesting to see what this performance does to his fate.
Caleb McSurdy also had a chance to win a roster spot. Last year's 7th round pick is competing against the film of UDFA Brandon Magee, who has missed the last two games due to a concussion. McSurdy looked overmatched in chasing tight ends and receivers down the seems, and was embarassingly stiff-armed on a run play.
The Cowboys did get some decent individual performances along the line by Jason Vega, who recovered the Cowboys 10th turnover of the preseason, and Ben Bass. Cam Lawrence was also seen all over the place on run defense. Collectively though, the defensive players looked like most of the 75 man roster took the night off.
On offense, we got a heavy dose of Phillip Tanner early. He toted the rock for the first six plays of the game and ran it very well for 35 yards. Tanner didn't show the ability to break away, but there was a nice bounce outside as well as a one-cut in between the center and right guard. This was behind the starting line of Weems - Arkin - Costa - Kowalski - Parnell. Interesting that Parnell got the start here, were they trying to get him reps or do they view him as a second stringer? The drive bogged down, however, when David Arkin had a false start on 3rd and 2. The Cowboys would be punting on the next play.
Alex Tanney and Joseph Randle took over the offense on the second drive. Tanney missed his first two passes and it was a quick three and out. Randle would finish the game with 10 carries for 47 yards.
Tanney's favorite target early was Escobar, who had another 6 yard per catch night; 5 catches for 29 yards.
On defense, the Cowboys "starters" were gashed quickly and often. Kyle Wilber took an too-wide angle and allowed a 29 yard gain as no one else was on the left side. Then BW Webb gave up too big of a cushion on a completion. Most egregious was the effort of UDFA S Jeff Heath who is hopeful to make the 53 man roster. He came up to fill, then stood flat footed as Dennis Johnson bounced it outside for a 41 yard gain. Two plays later, Johnson went up the middle untouched before powering his way into the end zone.
The Cowboys defense calmed down a bit on the next drive, only giving up a 22 yard run on 1st and 10. Thanks to the Texans wanting to get some work on their passing game, Dallas was able to stem the tide, thanks to two nice plays by BW Webb. After a hideous game against Oakland, Webb has improved each week of the preseason and has cemented making the big club out of camp. On this drive, he drove hard and made a sure tackle for minimal gain and then later broke on a third down pass. The receiver actually had to rip the ball out of Webb's arms to prevent the interception.
One key ingredient that could be the determining factor in making the squad is performing on special teams. Dallas' brass has tried to poo-poo their putrid preseason performance under the guise that they are using so many players that will not be on the 53 man roster. Key 2012 contributors Danny McCray and Eric Frampton are on the bubble of the roster. For McCray, his $1.3m salary means that although he is a special teams captain, he is at risk if someone can fill his shoes. Dallas is already down a key teams guy in Alex Albright, who is out for the season after back surgery.
Today's performance on special teams was meh. On the team's second punt, the first two guys down did not wrap up the returner, but still limited him to a small gain. The next punt however was more of the same. After muffing the punt, Dennis Johnson raced past Jakar Hamilton and friends and still got 29 yards out of it. The punt coverage team did have better plays, pinning Houston inside their ten-yard line on a couple of occasions. However, late in the fourth-quarter, a recovered muff kick was nullified by Donte Rosario clotheslining the man he was blocking.
The Governor's Cup series is now tied at 5. Oddly enough, the last Cowboys victory in the series was Week 3 of the 2010 season. It will probably go down as the final victory as a head coach for Wade Phillips, who would go on to lose the next 5 games before being fired by Jones and becoming the Texans DC the following season.
Now, it's 10 days to prepare for the New York Giants as they'll invade AT&T Stadium on Sunday night, September 8th. Real football is finally back.