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Cowboys Face Rams In Dress Rehearsal: What Can We Learn From Tonight's Game?

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We all know that preseason performance isn't any indicator of regular season performance. Or so we've been told. But what the preseason does provide is an indication of what the teams need to work on over the coming weeks until the regular season kicks off.

In part, the preseason is what it is because teams are knocking off the rust on their starters, playing mostly vanilla schemes, and using the games to test their 2nd and 3rd stringers. So looking at the preseason W-L columns and stats is largely meaningless.

But that may be different for the third preseason game. Typically the third preseason game is a ‘dress rehearsal’ for teams around the NFL, a game in which the (healthy) starters see a lot of playing time:

"We anticipate them playing the most that they’ve played in the preseason," head coach Jason Garrett said. "That’s typically what we do. We build up from the first game to the second game and they get their most extended work in Week 3 before dialing back in Week 4. So, we anticipate them playing a lot, but the game situation will dictate that as well. We want quality work for them, we want to make sure the plays they do get are good plays, and then we’ll look at each other and we’ll make some decisions as the game unfolds."

After the break, we review the Cowboys' dress rehearsals of the last three seasons, and wonder how good of an indicator tonight's game against the Rams could be for the coming season.

For this exercise, I reviewed the BTB game summaries for the last three "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 help of Captain Hindsight and his despicable band of hindsight trolls, but so be it.

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.

Incidentally, despite two successive non-winning seasons after their playoff win, the Cowboys have more playoff wins over the last three 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 football stat of choice is the yard, 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. Problem is of course, luck is not a strategy. The Cowboys would go on to play nine games last season tht were decide 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.

It's never wise to read too much into a preseason game. As you sit down to watch tonight's "dress rehearsal", don't focus too much on schemes, play-calling, 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 three years are anything to go by, tonight's game will be a crystal ball that'll show you what the coming season coud hold in store.

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