The NFL preseason is not about wins and losses, which is a good thing for the 0-3 Dallas Cowboys. It is about trying to sort out depth charts and, most importantly, who will make the 53-man roster. While the matchup with the Houston Texans wound up once again with the Cowboys on the short end of the score, there was a lot of information and data to examine. The indominable OCC, to steal a phrase, has done an incredible job of digging into the video of the game and presented a masterful analysis of the starters and key rotational players for the defense. I took a somewhat less intensive look at some things about the offensive work Dallas put in, particularly in the first half, and have some observations of my own to make. The first two are the biggest, but other points also are worth mentioning.
Cooper Rush is the best backup quarterback on the roster, full stop
This point has already been clearly stated, but let’s look a little more at what is going on. The leader coming into this game for the QB2 job was presumed to be Garrett Gilbert. The team had clearly signaled throughout camp and preseason that the job was his to lose. He came out with the starters.
There seems to be a clear shift in this thinking forced by events on the field, as Gilbert was yanked after only two series and a total of 10 offensive snaps. Rush took his place on the third series. This was the only real change in the starting offense at that point and clearly was a chance for him to show what he could do with the best available talent around him. He did not disappoint, taking the team on a five-play, 75-yard drive capped by an eight-yard touchdown pass to Tony Pollard. It was aided by a 26-yard pass interference call, but even without that it was a very efficient drive that sliced through the Texans’ defense without any strain at all.
There is more to this than just raw numbers, however. One thing I was really hoping to see from the Dallas offense this game was some crispness of execution. That was totally lacking with Gilbert on the field, but it was sudden and apparent once Rush took over. And it did not go away as the starters generally exited the game after the first quarter, as the offense added another touchdown just before halftime, driving 85 yards in 13 plays. The score came on what was one of the best passes all night, a perfectly placed ball in the back corner to Cedrick Wilson. In all, Rush was two for four in leading drives on the night.
Gilbert did himself the most harm by losing a fumble to set up a short touchdown drive for Houston on the first series of the game. That seemed to let some air out of the balloon for the offense, and it may have extended to Kellen Moore. On the second series for Gilbert, the failed run on third and eight at midfield looked suspiciously like a give up call designed to make sure the team did not turn the ball over. That obviously is just guesswork, as preseason is also a time for experimenting with things. Still, it just didn’t look right.
In any case, Rush came on and things were energized. Having faith in a player is important for a football team. It is most important for your quarterback. With Ben DiNucci having a truly disastrous showing in the second half, the decision at QB2 no longer looks to be which of the three backups earns the job. It is whether Rush gets it, or the team signs someone from outside to take the duty.
The Connor Williams experiment at center is still ongoing
After the first two preseason games, the attempt to make Williams the backup center was deemed a failure. Many expected the team to move on. That did not happen, as Williams shifted over to replace Tyler Biadasz after the first quarter. He was not perfect, with at least a couple of high snaps that Rush saved by fielding, but he also was snapping the ball on that final scoring drive for Dallas.
It will be very interesting to see if Williams gets work at center in the final preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. If he does, it should be an indication that the staff still looks at this as a learning experience for him, and is not dissuaded by his struggles so far. While flawed, his execution in the Texans game was still an improvement. Given that he is completely new to the most technical job on the offensive line, it may be what the coaches need to see to continue with the idea of having Williams as the primary backup to Biadasz and backfilling him at guard with Connor McGovern.
Since Williams first started practicing at center, there has been a theory that the staff was trying to replace Biadasz with him. It was always a dubious idea, and at this point, it is clearly a dead one if it ever existed in the first place.
On a related note, Matt Farniok was the center to start the second half, as well as apparently playing some guard. With the cutdown to 53 drawing ever closer, that may be valuable work for him to at least have a shot at the practice squad. Given the value the staff places on position flexibility, he may even have an outside shot of sticking on the regular season roster.
The rest of the O line depth
Depth at tackle has also been a major concern for Dallas. It looks like Terence Steele and Ty Nsecke are the main answers if they keep two. Steele played 71% of the offensive snaps, the most of any player on the team, and Nsekhe was in for 51%. His lower number may be more about not wanting to put him at too much risk as he was playing with a minor knee injury.
Besides the players mentioned already, Brandon Knight also seems to be in the mix, possibly as a multi-position option, coming in second in offensive snaps with 60%.
The argument to just carry five wide receivers got stronger
This has been predicted by some, but last year Malik Turner was the often forgotten sixth WR on the roster. But Wilson and particularly Noah Brown illustrated just how strong the top five are for this team. Given how precious every spot on the 53 is in building the roster, it may be a viable approach to just carry the top five and stash some, like rookie Simi Fehoko, on the practice squad. No one has clearly emerged as the best option for a WR6. Maybe they don’t have to pick one.
The shape of tight ends to come
Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin are obvious locks for the roster, and based on the starting lineup from the game Schultz has claimed the TE1 spot. Both were quickly taken off the field in the dress rehearsal to protect them and only had one catch apiece. But those catches may have been exactly what we will see from them this year. Shultz had a nine yard possession type catch, where Jarwin made his where he is best, going down the seam to gain 25. They can both handle either kind of pass. But this may be where each makes his biggest contribution.
No Zeke, no real problem
This is in no way trying to say that Ezekiel Elliott will not have a major role this year. Frankly, it could be a major bounce-back season for him after he played 2020 while still recovering from COVID.
It is just acknowledgement that the team has some legitimate depth at running back. Tony Pollard averaged 4.0 yards a carry, albeit most came on the night’s longest run for 16, and also snagged a couple of passes, including a touchdown. Rico Dowdle was even more effective. He had a 5.2 yard per carry average, aided greatly by a long of 15.
Those two long runs offset a ground game that was mostly not very effective. But it was also mostly backups for most of the contest. Pollard and Dowdle had 51 yards between them while just being out there about half the plays collectively. That is satisfactory in today’s NFL, where the pass remains king. Now add Elliott into the mix, and this ground game should be more than just passable.
Nick Ralston was not exactly overwhelming at fullback, but did convert two fourth and shorts.
A few predictions
These are set in Jello at the moment. Based on the latest data, here is what looks likely to happen.
- Based on his experience with the team and specifically Moore, Rush will be QB2. The Cowboys will only carry two on the 53. Going out on a limb, even Mike McCarthy will bow to the evidence and not try to get DiNucci to the practice squad as the team goes outside the organization to find one.
- Elliott, Pollard, Dowdle, and Ralston all make the team, the latter because McCarthy just loves him some FB.
- They go with just five WRs and sign a couple, including Fehoko, to the PS.
- The backup linemen will be Nsekhe, Steele, McGovern, and Knight. Williams will be the fallback at center as well as the starting LG after getting extensive work snapping to further prepare him in the final preseason game. If they decide to go deep, Farniok will join them, but Farniok should be a PS priority.
- To round out the offense, Schultz, Jarwin, and Jeremy Sprinkle will be the tight ends.
That works out to 23 offensive players, which gives them a couple extra for defense.