Before we get into a little discussion of who the Dallas Cowboys plan to sit for the opening game of the 2013 NFL Pre-season, let us take a brief moment to examine how not to approach any pre-season game.
Now, BIG B (who some might say is probably compensating for something, but I certainly won't go there) is missing something key about all the games played before the start of the regular season: They don't count. Final scores mean diddly-poo. Won-loss records in pre-season are as significant and real as Justin Bieber's chest hair. The Miami Dolphins stand to gain absolutely no bragging rights in this game. Nor do the Cowboys.
Pre-season games have completely different purposes than the regular season, or "real" football games. The are designed for teams to evaluate their own personnel while playing against another team. For established players like Romo, or the other players that likely will sit this one out, such as Dez Bryant, DeMarcus Ware, and DeMarco Murray, it is really just a chance to practice full-speed, full-contact football that is much like real games. But when you have players that are known quantities, that the coaches are confident about their performance, and that have some injury history, all of which are true of the players named above, the team has to think about what limits to put on the exposure the stars have. Remember, they will be lined up against another team, who players don't necessarily care about what injuries might occur to someone wearing the Star. Some late reports have the Cowboys sitting almost all the starters and going straight to second string. Perhaps the reported concussion Terrance Williams had during the practice gave a little impetus to that idea.
The HOF game is a bonus for the Cowboys because they got to start training camp earlier than they would have otherwise. Its real value in in those extra practice sessions, especially with a new methodology for the offensive play calling and a revamped defensive scheme to implement. And the Cowboys can work on those things against the Miami Dolphins whether Romo is throwing to Bryant, or Alex Tanney is throwing to Anthony Armstrong. As OCC explained in his post on not watching the football in preseason, the evaluation of the down-roster talent is one of the major objectives in preseason, and with an extra game added, that is how the team is best able to use its time. Having Romo and some of the other major stars sit actually benefits the staff and the guys who are not certain to make the final 53 with the extra evaluation.
The Dolphins' head coach Joe Philbin has stated that their starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, will play in the game. Even if the Cowboys do not play pass rusher supreme Ware, they still are going to be trying out the Monte Kiffin/Rod Marinelli defensive philosophy, which starts with getting to the quarterback and hitting him. Hard and repeatedly. And even down-roster players like Nick Hayden and George Selvie have been demonstrating that they have a knack for getting to the passer. This is their chance to get some of that good tape that Jason Garrett talked about in the quote in OCC's article. I know that you have to give your starter some playing time somewhere in the preseason. I just don't know if this is really a good place to do that.
I do admit I have not studied the Dolphin's offensive line, so they may be very comfortable with them. I have, as you may have noticed, been paying a whole lot of attention to what I am now thinking of as Dallas' thin blue line. There is an almost inarguable logic in deciding to dangle the backups in front of the Miami pass rush while seeing just how the few blockers standing can hold up in this game. And the team can be expected to try and get the scant backups out there to find out if they will be able to handle anything if they are called on.
The same idea of course applies to the other starters, and I would really like to see almost all of them on the sidelines as soon as possible. I do worry about the offensive line not having the bodies to do that. Mackenzy Bernadeau is expected to be practicing today, but is not supposed to be ready for Sunday. It is a good thing I am not running the Cowboys, because I would be tempted to put him in anyway just to get David Arkin off the field so he doesn't get worn down the way he did last year.
As a complementary approach to OCC's recommendation, I would suggest you try to watch how the coaching carries over on the field. When the Cowboys are on offense, you want to keep an eye on the play clock. See if the wristband system is helping get the plays in quicker, and whether whoever is quarterbacking is able to get the team lined up and ready to go. If they use the hurry-up, watch for whether it is smooth or confused. And see how effective the play selection is. Do they catch the defense off guard? Even if a bad throw or a drop results in an incompletion, was it a play that should have succeeded if Romo and Bryant or Witten were involved?
For the defense, everything should be riveting. Are the rushmen penetrating? How are the linebackers handling the run or passes over the middle? Do the safeties keep things contained over the top? Are the corners disrupting the routes coming off the line, and then maintaining their position? So far, the new defense has looked good for most of the practices, but now we get to see how they do against someone that does not necessarily know what to expect from them.
Even when all the players on the field are guys clawing to survive the first cut down, I think the way they handle their assignments will give us a clue as to how the coaches are doing their job. And we are going to have a much better idea if the depth we think the Cowboys have developed for many of the positions is real or illusory.
In preseason, we can say one thing that we cannot say at any other time. The Cowboys don't need Romo or Ware or Bryant or Murray. Every snap has things to learn, and suggests new questions to ask. Meanwhile, the team can keep the stars healthy a little longer.