It has been a long time since the final seconds ticked off the clock in Lambeau Field and ended the season for the Dallas Cowboys. Despite the fact that it had ended far, far better than almost anyone expected, it left a bitter taste for players and fans alike. Now after the first couple of weeks of training camp, the Cowboys finally get to take on people in different uniforms. We can hardly wait for something that is just like real football.
Except for all the ways it isn't.
Preseason games in the NFL have very different goals than those in the regular season. The biggest one is that winning and losing really don't matter in preseason. Yes, there is an emotional reaction to the score, but you have to realize that these games are absolutely meaningless. This maxim is repeated every year, but it is one of those things that people may be able to grasp intellectually while never really accepting in their hearts. Perhaps it will help to remember that last year's 12-4 campaign for Dallas was preceded by an 0-4 mark in preseason. This was accompanied by wailing and gnashing of teeth among fans. They should have listened to the major media types who could explain to them that it had no real relationship to how the season would go.
Never, ever overreact to the NFL preseason. Having said that, the Cowboys are the worst team in the NFC.— Adam Schein (@AdamSchein) August 8, 2014
Or not, apparently. (Hat tip to TheJordanRoss for reminding us of this.) While some coaches will make an attempt to win preseason games, many, including Jason Garrett, will focus entirely on the process of evaluating his personnel and ignore the final score. There are frequent imbalances in preseason games. The Cowboys have several starters who are going to see very limited or no action at all, including Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and the top three running backs. Add in the fact that Tyron Smith and Doug Free were non-participants in the walkthrough to get ready for the Chargers, and that Ronald Leary is expected to come out very early both to protect him and to give La'el Collins as much exposure as possible, and it is highly likely that you will see Dallas lining up players for much of the game that are one step lower in the depth chart than the guys across the line of scrimmage. Our old friend and colleague KD Drummond explained this in a bit more detail in his own article detailing what to watch for in preseason games.
Take for example last year's second preseason contest against the Ravens, which Dallas lost 37-30. The Ravens at one point had a 34-10 lead, but all wasn't what it appeared to be. Baltimore left their starters in long after the Cowboys had rested theirs, and as a result, played one depth chart line above the Cowboys for the majority of the game. The Ravens first-team offense played the entire first half. The Cowboys first-team defense (with only one of their top four corners) played two series. Dallas' twos matched up against the Ravens' ones; their threes against Baltimore's primary backups, etc etc. This takes "team versus team" wholesale analysis and flings it out an open window. It's about how individual players perform.
You can take the idea of individual performance and refine it a bit more. The team knows exactly what it has with every starter on the offense outside of the running back position. It does not have to see Romo hook up with Byrant, Jason Witten or Cole Beasley to figure out if the connection is still there. They know that the starting offensive line is more than capable of picking up where it left off last year. The only real value in having the proven starters line up is in making sure the rust is all knocked off in true full-speed action (teams always hold back just a bit in practice, no matter what they call it, to reduce injuries) and to maybe take out a little of the frustration that builds up in camp from having to hold back and facing off against teammates day after day.
There can also be a little bit of checking out how some parts of the scheme work. Teams stick to only the most vanilla of plays, but can still learn things. One good example for the Cowboys is going to be the pass rush. Getting some video of how four linemen do in getting pressure against someone besides the Dallas offensive line will be a valuable tool. Rod Marnielli can also use different combinations of players to see how it affects things.
All of that is really not the true value of these games, however. The preseason is mostly about trying to fill in the knowledge gaps about the rest of the players. It can be players that you are counting on, but that you still want to see in action just to make sure. Greg Hardy, who has not seen an NFL field in almost a year, is the obvious example. This also can be applied to rookies like Byron Jones, Randy Gregory and perhaps Damien Wilson. The team knows they all will have a role this fall, but it will be good to measure them against NFL competition.
The players who are fighting to make the roster are the ones for whom preseason games mean the most. A few players who have a real chance to impress are Gus Johnson, Darrion Weems, Corey White and Lucky Whitehead. All are getting to move up a rung or two on the depth chart due to established players not being available. This means they have better talent working alongside them. Often times players in the nether reaches of the depth chart have a hard time showing what they can do because things don't work very well as a whole. A bunch of third stringers just is going to struggle to execute. That is why you have to be cautious in judging things as the game gets into the later stages. A player may do his job exactly the way he is coached to while the play is blowing up around him. Conversely, someone may stand out in those late stages, but it may be more because the other side is pretty weak. You must be careful not to read too much into these preseason performances either way. After all, once the four games had been played last year, one of the lingering questions about the Cowboys (at least according to some in the media) was whether or not DeMarco Murray was a legitimate starting running back in the NFL, or if he could ever play a full season. And concerns about Romo's back and the entire defense were still very prominent.
But we will all still be reworking our 53-man projections after the game, and in some cases well before it winds to its conclusion. We do get more data in these games than anywhere else. Just remember that the coaches may see things very differently than we do. And don't worry about the outcome. A loss is not a disaster, and a win is not a predictor of great success to come. It is just preseason.