One statistical note really jumped out from the 24-20 Hall of Fame game victory for the Dallas Cowboys: Only four of the projected starters for the first game, based on the preliminary (and unofficial) depth chart posted before the game at DallasCowboys.com, saw any playing time at all against the Miami Dolphins. Tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free played on the first series, while Kyle Orton saw his only work, and then came out. Center Travis Frederick was forced to play much of the game by the shortage of offensive lineman, seeing time at both center and guard (and based on initial impressions, the idea of moving him to guard and using Phil Costa at center is probably going to fade away). And for that matter, Ronald Leary made a pretty good argument to move him ahead of the injured Nate Livings, but he still was shown as the second-teamer for now.
On defense, only linebacker Justin Durant saw the field. The game was rather asymmetrical in the approach the two teams took. Dallas was committed to protecting the first team and really only was concerned with getting a good look at the depth. Miami's head coach Joe Philbin played most of his starters early. The Cowboys third- and fourth-stringers managed to hold on in the end and get a satisfying but otherwise meaningless victory.
But the coaches working the game were the same ones that will be handling those duties when the real games start. And the most important thing to come out of this extra pre-season contest was how those things worked.
The Cowboys, after all, have some major changes in the coaching ranks. Monte Kiffin, with his faithful sidekick Rod Marinelli, has brought a new scheme and a different attitude to the defense. Rich Bisaccia is now in charge of special teams. And Bill Callahan, if you missed the subtle and understated media coverage of the fact, is now going to be calling the offensive plays instead of Jason Garrett, who now is in a walk-around mode. So how did they do in the first time against a live opponent? Here is a brief overview of the offensive performance. I'll follow up with another post looking at the defense and special teams.
There was a bit of concern when it was announced that Callahan would be doing the playcalling from the booth, requiring the plays to be relayed to Wade Wilson, who would then send them to the quarterback's helmet. One thing that the team was committed to doing was to cut down on the time getting the plays in and called, speeding up the pace to keep the opponent a bit off balance. The move to the booth seemed to run counter to this, and wristbands for the quarterback, a technique used often by other teams, were introduced to cut down on the time required.
It worked beautifully. I do not recall the play clock ever being displayed during the game (which indicated Miami was also keeping a good pace). There was only one play when the Cowboys had to call time out because of a delay in getting the play off, and that was because the receiver (Cole Beasley, I believe) who was supposed to go in motion missed his assignment, leaving quarterback Alex Tanney stomping his foot like a bridezilla who just found out she couldn't have live doves dropped from a helicopter during the service. Other than that, the pace and execution were crisp, to a degree that is pretty rare for the initial pre-season contest of the year.
One thing that may be a contributor to the efficiency was Frederick's handling of the line calls. The rookie seemed very comfortable with his task. If the Cowboys were this sharp right out of the gate, it bodes very well.
Running It Down Their Throats
Secondly, Garrett promised that the team was going to be committed to the run. And it was. 170 yards on the ground, and Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle all were very effective, each averaging over five yards a carry. Even Kendial Lawrence got one good run in, the seven-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter that wound up providing the winning margin.
It helped that the Cowboys led from early on and at one point had a 17-0 lead in the first half. Still, that kind of running game, and the lack of a need to put the ball up a lot, was encouraging.
It was also good to see some effective work by the patchwork offensive line. They were hardly perfect, but they only gave up three sacks and four quarterback hits, which is not bad given what the team had to work with. This is skewed a little by the fact that Dallas only had 21 pass plays versus 34 rushes, but it still could have been a lot worse. There were several big lanes for the backs to get through, and the runs to the outside, particularly around the left end, often were walled off nicely.
Hang On To The Ball
And there were no turnovers given up. That was partly due to a bit of luck when Alex Tanney was sacked and fumbled the ball on his second play, but Tim Benford alertly grabbed the ball far enough downfield to get a first down. There were no mishandled handoffs by Dallas, and no balls thrown up for grabs. This is something that might be overlooked, but it speaks to coaching the players to protect the football, which is the other half of winning the turnover battle. Miami got no short fields, and the 421 to 266 advantage the Dolphins had in total yardage was for naught.
There is still a lot for the team to work on offensively, but we have not seen Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, or Terrance Williams take the field. With word that Williams did not suffer a concussion in practice and will be available for the upcoming preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, we should get a chance to see how the team will really look this week.
It is a very good start. The new system is working, and the performance of the players who did take the field was not discouraging. Offensive line depth is still an issue, and the receiving corps was a bit underwhelming, although that was also partly a function of the running backs doing so well and reducing the chances. There were some offensive penalties, two on Darrion Weems, but only one false start, plus one illegal shift, if my quick review of the play-by-play is accurate. By and large, the team showed good results from the coaching. The offensive aspect of the game is progressing nicely, and it looks like the extra pre-season game may pay some big dividends.
For an overall evaluation, I think this sums it up nicely:
Next up: The job done by the new defensive and special teams coordinators.
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