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HOF game recap: Cowboys edge Cardinals 20-18

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It was a night for the backups and longshots to try and impress, and it was actually not hard to watch.

NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame Game-Arizona Cardinals vs Dallas Cowboys Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NFL Hall of Fame game is done, with the Dallas Cowboys holding on at the end to beat the Arizona Cardinals 20-18. It was a competitive, back and forth exhibition that was certainly better than many such affairs have been in the past. But as always, the score is less important in the preseason than evaluating players, and there was certainly a lot to mull over.

While the game was the first chance for players who are not assured of a roster spot to try and prove themselves to both the Cowboys staff and any other teams watching, the major objective in preseason is to avoid injury as much as possible. The Cowboys did not go unscathed, as Anthony Brown went out with a hamstring problem late in the first quarter. The severity was not known, but the Cowboys have to hope it was not serious, since the plan for the secondary depends heavily on his play. He was the only known injury in the game.

As for the actual play on the field, nothing was decided about the 53 man roster (or who to target for the practice squad). It is far too early for that. But it is the first real data on how the players who got in the game are doing, so let’s look at what we were able to garner.

The first half was a mixed bag for quarterback Kellen Moore. He had some bad throws, including the interception inside the two minute warning for the first half which might have been forced in. But he made some really good ones as well, none more so than the touchdown to Rico Gathers that was perfectly placed for Gathers to use his height. That drive was all on Moore’s arm, with completions of 14 yards to Blake Jarwin and a beautiful 25 yard completion to Brice Butler to keep the ball moving. Moore would finish the half with a stat line of 7-11 for 135 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. He looked comfortable and competent most of the time, but had moments of inconsistency.

Butler looked like he was ready to hold off any challenges, finishing with two catches for 78 yards in limited time. Meanwhile, the expected battle for the RB3 job behind Ezekiel Elliott and Darren McFadden heated up. Alfred Morris had 42 yards on seven carries, for a six yard per carry average. He is clearly not about to go down without a struggle, and had one blitz pickup, as well. But Rod Smith managed a 4.2 yard per carry average in the first half and looked pretty dynamic. He added a pass reception as well, and continued working in the second half. He would finish the game as the leading rusher for the Cowboys, and would also continue to contribute as a receiver.

The offensive line seemed to be having some trouble opening holes early when McFadden was in (he only had one carry for a loss of a yard), but seemed to get on track as time went on. They yielded no sacks in the first half. More importantly, Cris Collinsworth did a quick breakdown of La’el Collins, and noted that his footwork at right tackle looked pretty solid. He was going against second teamers, of course, but it was really a good sign that he was able to hold up so well. Jonathan Cooper also saw action, but didn’t stand out in either way in the first thirty minutes.

Defensively, the Cowboys got off to a very rough start. Blaine Gabbert marched the Cardinals down the field twice with no real resistance to open the game. Gabbert opened the game with eight consecutive completions and looked about as good as he ever has in his NFL career. The secondary was not able to prevent the completions early. But the D did stiffen as the game progressed, with Damien Wilson notching the first sack. (Anthony Brown was credited with another in the first half, but it was on a roll out where Gabbert elected to go out of bounds.) And Chidobe Awuzie almost had the defensive play of the half when he nearly picked Gabbert with nothing but green ahead of him. He lost the handle, apparently when he collided with the receiver, but it was a good sign of things to come.

The defensive line did not have any really outstanding performances, although there were some good plays by Damontre Moore and Charles Tapper. The tackles did not seem to fare well at all, particularly in the first half when the better players were on the field.

Cooper Rush got the ball the second half and was joined by a lot of third stringers. His Cowboys debut went about as well as it could. He marched Dallas on a 75 yard, penalty-aided drive, capping it off with a 14 yard touchdown pass to Uzoma Nwachukwu (normally called “Easy” for a reason). Rush was not outstanding overall, but he was also not lost out there the way some fourth-stringers are. He may be a good choice as a developmental quarterback on the practice squad.

And along the way, the hopes of all the Rico fans got another boost, as Gathers made a really good reception on a low throw, then bounced up and ran right through an attempted tackle for 17 yards. And he was not done for the night, as he would continue to show good hands and running skills in the second half. The progress he has made as a converted basketball player is remarkable, and bodes well for the future of the tight end spot in Dallas. He did make a big mistake with a false start that killed off a drive at the end of the third quarter.

Gathers is definitely fighting for a spot on the 53 (and the team may be forced to use one to avoid losing him), but another player who is a much longer shot had to feel good about his performance. Brian Brown had two catches on the night and looked very good doing it.

Another player that quietly had a good night was Keith Smith, the only fullback on the roster. There has been some discussion of him being worked more into the passing game, and that looked to be in effect as he repeatedly took short dumpoffs for positive yards.

One player that may have made a good impression in an unusual way was Lance Lenoir, who was returning punts in the absence of both Ryan Switzer and Jourdan Lewis. He noticed a punt late in the fourth quarter hitting a Cardinals player, and tried to scoop it and run. He lost the handle, and it looked like a touchdown for Arizona, but the flag was thrown for illegal touching, and Lenoir got a head pat from Jason Garrett for making a good decision.

No one made the team in this game, but there were several who put some good things on video for the coaching staff (and undoubtedly some who do not look so great). We’ll have more detailed looks at the game later. It was overall a fairly entertaining game, especially once the Cowboys got on track after falling behind 15-0. And while it may not be “real”, football is finally back, and that is reason to celebrate.