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Cowboys Still Searching For Too Many Answers After "Dress Rehearsal"

If you had an uneasy feeling about the Dallas Cowboys before the third preseason game, you probably aren't feeling any better afterwards.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

After yet another lackluster performance in losing to the Miami Dolphins 25-20, the Dallas Cowboys now hold a sad distinction.

There are two schools of thought about preseason records. One is that they mean absolutely nothing. The other, more instinctual perhaps, is that they are a predictor of the coming season. However, even if you don't put any stock in the record, you have to take something from the games in the way of evaluating the players and the different units of the team. No matter which way you approach the preseason, there are some things about the way the Cowboys have played that leave a very uneasy feeling in the pit of our collective stomachs.

The real purpose of the preseason is for NFL teams to figure out what they have. They want to know what the strengths of the team are, where there are holes, and how both new and old players fit into the roster. In that aspect, Dallas has not gotten as much done as they should, at least from how things appear. The third game is supposed to be the dress rehearsal, but in too many ways the Cowboys were still mixing and matching things to try and figure something out. There are too many questions that remain unanswered. In a few cases, it almost looks like the team is not sure exactly what question they are trying to ask.

It hasn't been all bad, of course. We now know that Tony Romo didn't fold up the first time he got hit, there are some real success stories among the rookies, and Dez Bryant is still doing Dez Bryant things. But the defense is getting ripped apart, particularly by runs up the middle. The pass rush is still largely theoretical. And, with one game left to go, the middle linebacker position is still the subject of experimentation.

Can all this come together into a team that will make it into the playoffs? Yes, it is possible, because the margin between winning and losing in the NFL is not often a wide one. But a lot of things are going to have to happen, and if they don't, this could be a bad season.

The offense looks like it will be all right, assuming the issues on the offensive line against the Dolphins are transient. But the team can ill afford repeat performances like that, because Romo needs to stay healthy. The offensive line also needs to stay healthy, since part of the issue in Miami was rotating Mackenzy Bernadeau in for Ronald Leary, which seemed to disrupt both players. That doesn't bode well for having to call on the backups. The Dolphins were probably the best defense that the Cowboys have faced so far. The way things went in the game, particularly the first half, were not terribly encouraging.

Outside of quarterback, the skill positions seem pretty deep this year. The biggest issue is going to be the numbers game, since the team is going to need extra slots on defense. It is going to have to release some very good wide receivers. And Ryan Williams is doing everything he can to force them to keep him on the team. Offensively, Dallas is going to be good. The question is whether they are going to be good enough to carry the defense. That has been the theory of how Dallas can win this year. So far, there have been flashes, but the evidence is hardly conclusive.

The Miami game showed that the special teams failures against the Ravens were not what we can expect. We tend to take long returns by Dwayne Harris and field goals by Dan Bailey for granted. And that is a good thing.

Defensively, things border on the depressing. Outside of Davon Coleman, there has been no one on the defensive line who has shown any consistent ability to get pressure. After teasing with a big splash against the Baltimore Ravens' backups, Zach Minter floundered a bit in Miami. (Yes, I meant to do that.) The hopes for getting pressure on the quarterback seem to rest on a bunch of players that are still trying to come back from injury or other issues. This is an uncertain strategy at best. With the team having to hope that Henry Melton, Anthony Spencer, Terrell McClain, DeMarcus Lawrence and Josh Brent are all going to help fix things someday, there are frankly more chances for failure than success.

Linebacker remains a shifting and often confusing thing. After the first two preseason games, it looked like the competition for middle linebacker was between Justin Durant and Rolando McClain. Then, against the Dolphins, the team seemed to looking for Anthony Hitchens to lay claim to the job.

The secondary has so far been the best part of the defense, even with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne seeing very limited action to date. Tyler Patmon's eye-opening game is just part of the story. Quietly, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox have had solid preseasons. Sterling Moore has also been pretty reliable. Even with a rotating cast, this unit at least looks like it can do the job - if there is some help ahead of it.

The last game of the pre-season is typically a last chance for a lot of down roster players to audition for a job. They are playing with the hopes of breaking onto the Cowboys' roster or practice squad, or catching the eye of another team. As far as the 53-man roster, this is only going to be about a handful of positions. Most of the decisions the team has to make about the final roster and depth chart are going to have to be based on what they know already.

And that is the scary part. At so many positions, there has just not been that much to see, at least in a good sense. Too many of the players that the Cowboys may have to rely on, especially early on, are not really starter quality. In a few cases, they may not be really great backups. This is something that is not unique to Dallas, of course. But it is not something that leads to a lot of winning.

I don't have a great feel for things this season. The past few years, I have bought into the plan and thought the team would make the playoffs (obviously, I was a tad over-optimistic). This year, for the first time since I became a writer, I have no real idea. If some things come together, this team could make it to the post-season, especially since the other three teams in the NFC East have their own share of warts.  But there is so, so much that can go wrong. It is all so uncertain. Far too many questions that needed to be answered are still open.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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