By far the biggest story of the Dallas Cowboys’ last preseason game hosting the Las Vegas Raiders had nothing to do with the players on the field. It was the addition of QB Trey Lance to the team via trade with the San Francisco 49ers, even though he will not arrive in Dallas until Sunday. The move was a bit of a stunner, but was clearly a continuation of the recent shift in thinking in Dallas about how to best utilize draft capital.
The #Cowboys trade acquisitions since ’22— Brandon Loree (@Brandoniswrite) August 26, 2023
- DT Johnathan Hankins (6th round pick)
- WR Brandin Cooks (5th round pick)
- CB Stephon Gilmore (5th round pick)
- QB Trey Lance (4th round pick)
The front office in Dallas deserves praise for this master class #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/GJtbs0Dov4
There was still a game to play, and the backups for Dallas generally had very impressive performances in a surprisingly entertaining 31-16 win. But even there, the coolest thing of the night didn’t have anything to do with who was in uniform.
This is different and fun: Cowboys QB Dak Prescott to call offensive plays tonight in preseason finale vs. Raiders, two people familiar with decision said. Mike McCarthy has emphasized player ownership of offense all offseason. Play sheet is Prescott’s. https://t.co/CwcADPlsBK— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) August 26, 2023
This is more than just a gimmick. It will help deepen Prescott’s understanding of the offense, and it isn’t unprecedented with Kyler Murray getting the opportunity to call plays last summer, as our Brandon Loree reported.
This also tipped another important thing hours before the game. There will be no “dress rehearsal” for the Cowboys. They have opted to put health first for their starters. Clearly, this game would unfold as a showcase for some bubble players to have one last chance to state their case, and for the rest to be putting an audition on tape for other teams, or to be brought back to the Dallas practice squad. For many, this could be the abrupt end of their NFL dream. All of them want to do their best. And for the handful still fighting to make the 53-man roster, special teams reps may be the most important.
The player most affected by the Lance signing is clearly Will Grier. No longer in line to be QB3, he has already been informed he will not be with the team after the cutdown. This game became his last chance to showcase himself, with Prescott trying to aid him by making some good play calls.
Grier’s opportunity came right away as the Cowboys received the ball to start the game. Of interest, Hunter Luepke was the starting running back and got the first touch for three yards, then carried the ball again on second down to set up a 3rd and 5. Grier’s first pass was a completion to Jalen Brooks to move the sticks. Then he completed his second pass to Dontario Drummond for another first down. He would misfire on a deep pass to Brooks, but on the ensuing 3rd and 7, Grier evaded the pass rush to find Drummond again to get a first down at the 27. Malik Davis would run for a first down in the red zone behind some good blocking up front, another positive development. A false start would make it a bit harder. But Grier again evaded heavy pressure and ran it down to the five-yard line. It was a solid play, but an illegal contact call set Dallas up with goal to go from the two. Then Grier kept himself and ran it into the end zone
It was a great start for both Grier and Prescott to march it in for the first lead of the game. There was bad news, however, as Josh Ball was seen limping off the field.
One reason Brandon Aubrey is the kicker is that he can kick the ball out of the end zone, which is one of those little things in preseason to note.
The defense also came to play, stopping the Raiders on third and a yard as Devin Harper knifed through to stop the runner behind the line and force a punt.
The offense picked up right where it left off, with some nice passes from Grier and Luepke starting to make some nice gains. Grier’s passes were crisp and right on target. Grier did display one weakness, missing what would have been a touchdown. It would lead to something many have been wanting to see, a long FG attempt by Aubrey. He would just miss it, but it did look like he can be reliable at around 50 yards. All signs are that he has the job locked up, and this should not change that.
The second Las Vegas possession was going nowhere until Kelvin Joseph was called for lining up offsides, something he can ill afford being on the bubble with the talent in the secondary. Josh Brooks and Juanyeh Thomas both broke up a pass, and then after converting a fourth down the Raiders pushed themselves back with penalties after they got almost to the red zone. They got a 44-yard field goal to make the score 7-3 with less than a minute gone in the second quarter.
The offense would face a 4th and 1 from their own 34, and Luepke showed his strength to bull his way for the new set of downs, then followed up with a nine-yard gain. Davis would show his receiving chops to get another first down. Grier continued to find his receivers, particularly Simi Fehoko. They rapidly moved into the red zone and this time Luepke managed to go down and scoop a pass up just inches from the turf to give them first and goal. Two plays later Grier got the ball to rookie Luke Schoonmaker with space to operate and he bulled his way in for the second touchdown of the night. Both were methodical 75-yard drives, not something you see that often in preseason. Dak may have a real future as an offensive coordinator, if he chooses that path.
The defense cracked on the next Vegas possession, allowing the opponents to drive 75 yards with comparative ease to cut the lead to 14-10.
Grier continued to show his running ability on the next possession, converting a 3rd and 9 with comparative ease. But Dallas would have their own penalty issues, with Brock Hoffman and Sean McKeon both drawing holding flags. But Grier would again convert a long third down with his legs, then Luepke would take a pass all the way down to the fifteen, and go all the way to paydirt on the next play.
It was an extremely good performance for Grier and the offense, and Prescott did not seem out of his depth at all with the play sheet as the team converted six of eight third downs and did not punt once. The defense was a bit spottier, allowing the Raiders to get close enough for a 62-yard field goal as time ran out in the first half, but it is hard to complain too much about a 21-13 lead. To the credit of the defenders, they only allowed two Raiders third-down conversions all game.
Grier’s halftime stats were particularly impressive, completing 18 of 23 passes for 183 yards and two TDs, and leading the team in rushing with 49 yards and the third score. Luepke was the surprise leader receiving, catching four passes for 62 yards and a TD. If you had thoughts of him maybe filling an H-back role, you are probably very excited about his chances now. Eric Scott led a swarming defense with three tackles.
The Raiders opened the second half with another long field goal, this one from 50, putting the score at 21-16. The offense just picked up right where it left off, as both Davis and Luepke ripped off runs to move the chains and Grier kept finding his receivers, including a left handed pass to Luepke to avoid a sack. There were more of the players at the bottom of the roster on the field, but it didn’t seem to faze anyone. Malik Davis converted the second fourth down of the night inside the red zone, and two plays later Grier used his wheels to find paydirt again, with no one within ten yards of him as he crossed the end line. Somewhat amazingly, this was the fourth 75-yard scoring drive of the game.
In the battle of backups, the guys with the star on their helmets were coming out ahead. There is one bad thing about that, however. A lot of those guys fighting for one of the last couple of roster spots looked good. It did not make the decisions for the cutdown on Tuesday much easier at all. Some of them, like Josh Butler, may have at least played their way onto the practice squad. That’s another important function of these games, and it looks like Dallas will have some really good options when the signing frenzy starts after waivers are cleared.
The Raiders would drive all the way to the Dallas 10, but on fourth and two, Myles Brooks batted the ball away and it was a turnover on downs. The defense was a bit porous at times, but really stiffened when Las Vegas was threatening to score.
Facing 90 yards to go, Grier did not let up at all. He would convert a third and two with his arm, then complete the deepest throw of his night for 29 yards to Tyron Johnson. But a Grier fumble would lose 14 yards. They would be unable to recover from that, and Aubrey got to try again from 59. This time, he got it inside the uprights, and everyone should feel a lot better about him.
After another fourth-down stop deep in the red zone, the Cowboys were able to run out the clock to notch their first win of preseason.
It didn’t count for anything from a team perspective, but this was a magnificent performance by Grier under some harsh circumstances. He is the unquestioned star of the game. He quarterbacked the team to over 400 yards of offense, with 305 passing and 54 rushing. He did all that he could to earn a job somewhere in the league, and he deserves one. And Prescott was a big part of the success. He demonstrated a superb grasp of the playbook.
Now we wait for the final decisions over the next three days. Those are going to be very hard, because this was a game when all the backups played their hearts out, and did so much better than we are used to seeing in the final preseason game. The best of luck to all of them.