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Cowboys 2018 training camp: Why preseason narratives are often the wrong thing to focus on

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History suggest that what happens preseason doesn’t always line up with happens during the season.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, California has come to an end and we’re now just over three weeks from Dallas playing real NFL football. And like every previous preseason we’ve seen a few narratives emerge. Parsing through the various media reports provides these primary 2018 narratives:

  • Jaylon Smith is vastly improved over what he was in 2017 and looks like the college linebacking beast we saw at Notre Dame.
  • Tavon Austin is going to be a multi-purpose weapon that threatens teams both horizontally and vertically and will be an integral part of the Dallas offense.
  • The Dallas defensive line has more talent and depth than we’ve seen in years and will be a major strength of the team, especially the end position.
  • Linebacker Joe Thomas has played well enough to provide linebacker depth and allay fears that another Sean Lee injury could again neuter the entire defense.

Now, those are just four, others might list more narratives that have emerged. They might include the impressive play of Dorance Armstrong, the surprising emergence of defensive tackle Antwaun Woods,the return of Randy Gregory or the impact of coaches Kris Richard and Lal Sanjay. Regardless of which story you choose to give more weight, there’s always stories coming out of training camp and preseason that seem to resonate with both the media and fans.

Should we put much stock into such narratives? Skeptics and curmudgeons might say no, but there’s also three good rationales for why you shouldn’t get too excited about such narratives:

  • Training camp narratives, by nature, focus on the “unknowns” of the team and not the “knowns”. I’ll explain that in a minute.
  • In general, what happens in practice and preseason games isn’t all that important.
  • Historically, big preseason story-lines have little to do with any post-season evaluation of what went right (or wrong) with the team

“Knowns” are more important than “unknowns”.

The first point is probably the most important. While the 2018 Cowboys have a lot more “unknowns” than “knowns” than usual, much of the team’s fortunes this season will be determined by how the team’s “knowns” perform. These knowns don’t get a lot of ink or social media attention simply because, well, they’re known. For example, we can all generally agree:

  • Tyron Smith is going to be one of the top five left tackles in the game. Smith has gotten very little ink this pre-season because he’s a “known” entity. But this tweet interested me greatly:

Not much has been written about Smith this preseason beyond how invaluable he is and how he needs to stay healthy. Well, yes, that’s true. But there’s been little discussion about the fact that Smith didn’t play up to his usual standard in 2017 before being injured. Pro Football Focus ranked smith as the 16th best tackle in the NFL last season and the 29th best in pass protection.

Regardless of what you think about PFF’s rankings, most scouts and observers agree Smith simply wasn’t as good as his All Pro performances in years past. Well, if we accept Travis Frederick’s judgement above, Smith could be even better than he’s been in his peak past. If so, at season’s end we’ll be talking about how Smith’s All World play at left tackle was a foundation upon which the team’s offense built any success.

But that’s not a narrative we’ve read much because, well, Smith being really good is already known. And yet I think the difference between a dominant Smith and a merely “really good” Smith is a big difference-maker. It’s much more likely to play a significant role than how Chaz Green plays.

More importantly, it’s when “knowns” don’t perform to expectations that new, unanticipated story-lines emerge. Dez Bryant was supposed to be an All Pro receiver who could be counted on for 1,200+ yards and ten touchdowns. Well, when that doesn’t happen suddenly it becomes a big story. But nobody was really talking about that last preseason; instead all the discussion was about how he was due for a rebound season.

It makes sense that the media and fans focus on the fringes of the team in preseason because those are the “unknowns”. So we debate whether the team will keep Lance Lenoir or a fourth tight end. And we pour an inordinate amount of time and energy focusing on whether Bo Scarbrough will make the team.

But in reality, Smith’s performance is much, much more likely to determine the team’s fate than what Lenoir or Scarbrough do or don’t do.

Practice and preseason performances don’t tell us much

Most fans get this. As do most media members. And yet it’s human nature that when Rico Gathers makes an impressive catch down the seam for a touchdown that we all get excited. But the default general feeling about preseason games should be: Not much concerned with the how players who won’t make the Cowboys perform against players who won’t make the 49ers (or whoever the team is playing).

All of us recognize that starters receive very little playing time in preseason. And yet we all get jazzed about what this player or that player did. The reality is that the players who largely determine the fates of every NFL game in 2018 will see very little action during preseason. The logical flipside of this is that those players who do play in preseason aren’t likely to play much of a role in the team’s 2018 fortunes.

Add the fact that practices have been reduced to flag football while real games involve actual tackling and hitting and we should give even less weight to the practice reports that emerge claiming this player or that player had a good or bad day. They don’t play flag football on Sundays in October. So why should we make judgments based on what happens when they play flag football in August?

History tells us preseason story-lines have little correlation with post-season story-lines

Last season, the three biggest story-lines emerging from Cowboys’ camp were:

  • Rico Gathers is going to be a beast in the NFL
  • Cooper Rush looks like the real deal and should be the team’s backup quarterback
  • Ezekiel Elliott’s pending suspension

This seems like a perfect trio of stories that reflect what is and isn’t important in preseason story-lines. All of the stories were sound, rationale things to focus on and get excited about. Gathers really did look great (playing mostly against players who never saw the field in 2017). Rush was an undrafted quarterback who claimed a spot on the team’s 53-man roster, which is virtually unheard of.

Those are both really noteworthy accomplishments that any reporter would have been negligent not to cover. Fans were also right to get excited about both prospects. In fact, some wrote entire articles about these folks. Yet, the reality is neither of these players played a single significant snap in any game last season. Neither player had an ounce of impact on the team’s fortunes.

Now, the endless coverage of Elliott’s pending suspension turned out to be well-warranted. Why? Because Zeke was the single most important player on the team’s offense and if he was going to be unavailable the team’s fortunes would suffer. Simply, stories regarding the most important players are the most important stories coming out of training camp. What happens on the edges of the roster are interesting and make a difference, but not nearly as much as what’s happening with the the team’s best players.

This is how we should approach preseason story-lines: pay more attention to those regarding the team’s best players and less to those regarding the fourth linebacker. Preseason story-lines are mostly hot air but sometimes completely accurate. It would be foolish to dismiss anything now being written about Jaylon Smith or Tavon Austin. But it’s highly unlikely the vast majority of stories currently being discussed across the many media outlets covering the Cowboys will have any meaning when we look back on the 2018 season.