It is officially over. The long slog of preseason football has ended for the Dallas Cowboys. They almost put up an unblemished 0-4 record, but the backups found a way to beat the Houston Texans by a score of 21-14. I kid, of course, since the team doesn't play to lose, but going 0-4 worked out pretty well for them in 2014.
For the backups, most of whom will no longer be with the team by Saturday afternoon, it was a good way to go out. The team got some good performances in all three phases of the game to notch the victory and retain the "coveted" Governor's Cup. All was not rosy, but it leaves a nice taste to finish up the preseason.
It was a tale of two different halves for Dallas. They were very lackluster in the first half and never got any real offensive rhythm going. They didn't do much better offensively in the second half, but the defense rose up and provided the spark. One touchdown was scored on a pick six, and the other came after a fumble recovered at the Texans' 21, on back to back Houston possessions. They stiffened significantly after that. Although this was the backups, it is an encouraging sign to see the D give the team a huge lift. It would take a muffed punt to give the Texans a chance to score and tie up the game in the fourth quarter on a well thrown ball where Byron Jones showed that he is indeed a rookie.
But this game was much more about evaluating personnel with the final cuts to get to 53 coming in the next two days. Here are a few impressions of how some of the players fighting for their jobs did.
Early in the game, Dustin Vaughan was pretty much what he has been throughout training camp and all but the first preseason game: Ineffective. He only threw one deep ball in the first half, and it should have been picked off. He missed Lucky Whitehead on a possible scoring play early in the second half as well. Vaughan at least was able to hit some short passes, but he could not sustain drives. The Cowboys repeatedly faced third and long, and Vaughan was not often up to the challenge.
Darrion Weems had some good plays, but also had some mistakes He did not do much to build confidence in his ability to be the swing tackle in the game. But John Wetzel was much worse, and Laurence Gibson had his issues. This may be an area where Dallas may be looking for a serviceable tackle on the waiver wire. That is not a good situation
The secondary had a bad stretch at the end of the first half. Running back Chris Polk was completely unaccounted for and strolled in for an easy touchdown. And that was not the only breakdown they had. But Corey White would offer a measure of redemption with a pick six after Chris Jones pinned the Texans right on their own goal line in their second ;possession.
White was not the only bright spot by any means. Several players made some forceful arguments for themselves. Gavin Escobar was clearly the best receiver on the field. He got a first down on a third and 17, first eluding defenders and then carrying a couple of defenders the last yard or so to make the first down. He almost did it again on another third and long. He clearly looked like a starter among the backups.
Terrell McClain also looked that way. I will confess that I thought he was in serious trouble making the roster, but he looked at times like the best player on the defensive line. And he was far from the only rushman to show up. Ryan Russell caused the fumble that allowed Dallas to take the lead in the third quarter (which was weird feeling). Davon Coleman, Ken Bishop, Lavar Edwards, and Ben Gardner all showed up at times, but none of the linemen really looked bad. They harassed Tom Savage throughout the night. It is looking more and more that it may be the deepest unit on the whole team - and some good players are going to be cut in the next couple of days.
Lucky Whitehead helped himself as a returner, although some of his best efforts were nullified by those frustrating preseason penalties. He was surehanded and got good yardage, none more important than the 33 yard return that set up the go ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. If the team can consistently give him blocking instead of holding, he may be the answer in the return game. He didn't hurt his case as a receiver, either. Vaughan started to find him in the second half and he pulled down some good receptions.
Both Gus Johnson and Ben Malena had good runs. Malena had a nice 22 yard burst to get the Cowboys out of the shadow of their own goalposts, and Johnson scored on a 21 yard run following the fumble Russell forced. Johnson then seemed to catch fire after that, with some better blocking helping. He got 68 yards total, with a 4.2 yard average. Malena responded in the fourth quarter with some impressive runs of his own, capping his contributions with a five yard touchdown run and a total of 88 yards. The team is likely to try and get one of them to the practice squad. Or both.
There may be a decision for the Cowboys to make between linebackers Jason Brinkley and Keith Smith. And neither one made that any easier. Brinkley played his best game so far while Smith was solid throughout, including the recovery of that Russell-caused fumble that should have been a touchdown if not for an errant whistle by the refs.
Those are just some of the impressions from the game. Of course, the important ones are those made on the Cowboys' coaches and staff. We will find out soon who will make the initial 53 man roster - and who will stick.