The Dallas Cowboys play their second preseason game against the Miami Dolphins tonight. And training camp in Oxnard is now done, with the team moving to the new facility, the Star in Frisco. Jason Garrett has said he has a "very positive feeling" about this year’s edition of the team. The game is going to be another test of just how positive we all should feel. But based on the evidence so far, Garrett is certainly justified on the offensive side of the ball.
While there is always a lot to analyze during practices, the preseason games are often a much better gauge of things. They represent full speed play and hitting that are avoided in so much of practice. And there is something that was overshadowed by the ridiculously good performance put up by Dak Prescott during the first game: The offense came out firing on all cylinders, even at greatly reduced strength.
The offense put up 17 points in one half of football. This was despite no Tony Romo, Tyron Smith, Ezekiel Elliott, or Jason Witten. Dez Bryant was still doing Dez Bryant things in the opening drive, but then he sat down as well. Yet without all those starters, and an untested rookie handling things, they were very efficient. And, as Joey Ickes and Landon McCool said in their most recent podcast (and if you aren’t listening to their series, you need to fix that immediately), Jason Garrett likes to play his players down one level compared to the opposition. He tends to have his twos going up against ones as much as possible, threes against twos, and so on. Yet for the first half, the Cowboys offense was performing at a level that looked reassuringly like we hope it will in the regular season.
There is the inevitable caveat that preseason is not always an accurate predictor of what will happen when the games count, but the evidence is looking very convincing that the Cowboys’ offense is locked and loaded this season. Injuries are the only thing that would likely derail them (knock firmly on all the wood). Look at it by position.
Romo keeps talking about how well his camp went. We will hopefully see him for a series or two tonight. Hopefully he will demonstrate that he is indeed going into 2016 in top form, but he is coming in without previous game action. The main concern will be to keep him healthy. Still, we know how good he is when he is on his game. When he is not banged up, the offense is in very good hands. And there is little doubt that he is less hampered by his health than he has been in years for the start of things.
Prescott offers new hope as a potential backup quarterback. The game will be a good test for him, since he is likely to be playing almost all his snaps with the second string (or worse). It is well-nigh impossible for him to post the gaudy numbers he did against the Los Angeles Rams, but if he can continue to demonstrate the poise and decision-making he did then, we can continue to nurture hope for his future with the team. It will be interesting to see how many plays Jameill Showers gets, if any. The team may well elect to keep Prescott in for almost all the series after Romo goes to the bench. His development would be worth making it the priority.
Elliott is not expected to see the field until the third preseason game, but Alfred Morris and Darius Jackson both showed some good play against the Rams. That game was focused more on the passing phase. Any series Romo is in might see more of the running game we expect for the regular season.
Two players that have still not appeared in practice are Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar, and frankly, that may not bode well for either. Morris and Jackson are both doing work to try and have roster spots (and Morris is looking like a lock). For Jackson, the level of work he is getting is pure gold for a low draft pick trying to make a team. That kind of depth at the position is good to have.
Bryant looks poised to have a tremendous year. Terrance Williams is giving indications he could have his best season to date in his contract year. Cole Beasley is also looking to be even better than ever, with some describing him as all but impossible to cover when he is in the pattern. Lucky Whitehead certainly helped his case with his kickoff return touchdown and one of those patented jet sweeps, and looks to be doing a solid job as a receiver as well. Brice Butler has flashed more than been consistent, but when you are the fifth wide receiver, that is not the worst thing. Even Devin Street has been showing up at times. And Andy Jones is a player to watch tonight, because he did not have a good first game and will be looking to give the coaches better video to base their decisions on when cuts come rolling around.
This is the only position that has a big concern with James Hanna undergoing surgery and no word yet on when he is going to be available this season. But Dallas still has Jason Witten, who remains very effective and incredibly durable, despite being in his fourteenth year in the league. Gavin Escobar has amazed just by being available since day one of camp, and may finally pay off as a second-round pick. Geoff Swaim is now in a similar position as Jones, having squandered some very good work in practices with a couple of egregious drops. He needs to get his act together tonight.
They have the reputation of being the best in the league. There is a likelihood that Smith may be held out because of a stinger he suffered in practice, but if Romo does indeed take the field, it may be time to be less deliberate and put one of the best tackles in the league out there to watch his back. Travis Frederick is being called the best center in the NFL, and Zack Martin is also among the elite. At the other guard, La’el Collins is still learning and improving. This season he is trying to add consistency to the occasional flashes of brilliance he showed when he remembered which way the play was supposed to go. And Doug Free is simply a very solid right tackle. If he is, as many consider, the weakest link on this line, then their floor is very high indeed.
We don’t often include this in the equation, but that opening game was an indication that the offensive game plan and play calling is already at a very high level. The most exciting thing was how they used Prescott’s skill set to great effect. Last season, there seemed to be a real problem meshing Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel with the Cowboys’ offense. The fact that they were able to put Prescott in a position to dazzle may be the biggest argument for considering him as the backup quarterback for this season. They have evidence that it can work very, very well with him when he is out there with (most of) the starters. If he does not regress badly, then the team may be onto something, and not doomed to failure if Romo is out for a handful of games this year (may heaven forbid). And we saw convincing evidence in 2014 that Scott Linehan can do very well indeed when his starter is at full capability.
So good feelings are certainly warranted for the offense. While there are still a ton of questions to be answered on defense, there is some hope that there are at least adequate solutions in the offing. Getting players like Benson Mayowa, Damien Wilson, and Maliek Collins in the mix may move that process along.
This game will give us more data to analyze. Hopefully, it will make the good feelings stronger.