It was a desultory start to the preseason for the Dallas Cowboys as they dropped their opener to the San Francisco 49ers by a score of 17-9. But given the way they approached things, it is not reason to predict gloom and doom for the real games to come.
The Cowboys usually follow the vanilla plan during preseason, particularly in the first game. And that was evidently still the approach. There was almost none of the pre-snap motion that has characterized all the practices since the OTAs. Most first downs seemed to be runs. The defense did little blitzing. the 49ers seemed to be using a lot more creativity during the game, and it showed as the backups took over for Dallas. It makes it very hard to determine anything about how the team might look in the regular season. But that is par for the course. Jason Garrett has never cared about winning or losing in preseason. It is all about evaluating players under him.
The first string offense only saw one series, and it went well, with Dak Prescott looking accurate and Michael Gallup catching both balls thrown his way. But once again, the team bogged down in the red zone and had to settle for the first of Brett Maher’s three field goals (along with one miss) as Prescott had a pass batted up - and became his own receiver to maintain a perfect 4/4 completion rate. However, if the ball had not been knocked up in the air, it might have been intercepted, so sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.
Those red zone woes would continue throughout the game for Dallas, but it is hard to know how serious they are with no Ezekiel Elliott and lackluster play from the backup quarterbacks.
One thing that can show in preseason is where players are in the depth chart, at least at the time. On offense, it was obvious that Cooper Rush is currently QB2, as he not only came in after Prescott had his one and only series, but returned to start the second half. The staff gave him a real chance to solidify his position, and while he was not consistent, he did lead the team to three field goal attempts, including a pretty decent two minute drill to close the first half. Mike White got on the field for the Cowboys’ second possession of the first half, and had a bad start as he lost the ball on a blindside hit on the first play. He was saved by a penalty, and got more help from the refs to keep things alive. But Rush looked better. And White pretty much killed things when he did lose the ball on a sack halfway through the fourth.
The overall performances of both offenses showed that the 49ers have two pretty good backup QBs in Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard, while the Cowboys are not sure if they have even one.
The fifth wide receiver spot may belong to Cedrick Wilson, if the injury that took him out of the game in the third quarter (and got Adrian Colbert ejected) is not serious. He was catching everything that came his way in the first half. And Jon’Vea Johnson really hurt his chances with some bad drops.
It will be interesting to see what the team plans to do with Blake Jarwin now that Jason Witten is back. Witten was held out of the game, and Jarwin was the leading receiver for Dallas.
Just like Wilson was stepping up only to go out with an injury, linebacker Luke Gifford stood out on defense before he suffered an ankle injury. He got the first turnover of the preseason with an interception of Nick Mullens, helped by a hit from Kerry Hyder just as the ball was thrown. The Cowboys would also get a second interception from Donovan Wilson in the third quarter.
Some other players did not help themselves a lot. Taco Charlton did not impress, and Hyder may be putting a lot of pressure on him. Xavier Su’a-Filo looked like the weak link on the line whenever he was in.
One bright spot for the team as a whole was penalties. San Francisco had multiple drives killed by flags, often on back-to-back plays. The Cowboys only were penalized twice in the first half, and just had five total. The Niners had triple that number accepted, and on some plays the Cowboys had their choice of penalties to accept.
One thing that should be noted was that Tony Pollard was treated like a starter on offense, which certainly tracks with the expectations for his role, even assuming Elliott returns.
Take what you will from it all. But don’t panic. As the saying goes, it is just preseason.