Talk about a turnaround.
After a really miserable outing, particularly for the starting offense, the Dallas Cowboys went into San Diego, and for the first half looked like a very effective football team. They put 10 points on the board while shutting out Philip Rivers, largely due to Brandon Carr's two interceptions. Carr was the biggest standout of the game, but he was not only one. There was good news up and down the roster, with established stars playing the way we expect and players fighting for a roster spot stepping up.
While the game deteriorated in the second half thanks to turnovers and a rather ineffective job by Stephen McGee so that San Diego wound up with a 28-20 victory, the beginning of the game was both more important and encouraging . Dallas had nine projected starters out, but the team they put on the field largely outplayed and outclassed the San Diego starters for the entire first half.
Both Tony Romo and Kyle Orton had very good outings. Romo was 9/13 for 75 yards and Orton went 7/10 for 83, with one interception that was primarily due to Andre Holmes bobbling the ball which was then picked on the rebound. But the fact they were able to complete passes was not nearly as significant as the time they got to set up and throw. Although the Chargers were admittedly playing a pretty vanilla D, the pass protection was obviously better. On two plays, Romo dropped back and had so much time, David Arkin got called for drifting too far upfield. The penalties were discouraging, but they came after the pocket had held together for five seconds or more.
The rushing game also showed signs of life against the San Diego first teamers. Perhaps the best thing it showed was after the Cowboys got the first Carr interception. They got the ball down to the five (on a really good Kevin Ogletree reception - more about him later) and then ran it twice, right up the middle. On the second try, Jamize Olawale drove the pile into the end zone for the touchdown. It was something the team was simply incompetent at last year, and even though it was done by a backup running back that may not make the team, it showed a good surge by the line.
The offensive line was not perfect. At least some of the success in the passing game was due to Tony Romo's mobility. But it was so very much better than the first game. This is still a patchwork affair, and the fact that they were able to get things together to this extent in five days, including an off day and a train trip, is the most encouraging thing about the game to me. This looked like a line that would not only keep Romo alive to play another day, but could also give him time for pass routes to develop while opening some running lanes.
The starting defense, which was, remember, missing DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Anthony Spencer among others, also had a really good first half. In addition to the two Brandon Carr interceptions, they bottled the Chargers running game up, allowing only 37 yards on 17 carries.
While Carr's outstanding performance is likely to be the big headline, the name of the game in pre-season is figuring out which down-roster players will make the final 53. And there were some players that took advantage of the opportunity.
One of the best showings was that of Kevin Ogletree. He had four catches for 60 yards, including that beautiful catch in traffic to set up the Cowboys touchdown (on a dead-on-target throw from Orton). At halftime of the game, Jerry Jones was positively effusive about him and the move he was making to become the long-sought-after third wide receiver.
But he was not alone in improving his position in the wide receiver competition. Dwayne Harris grabbed four catches for 42 yards and the last second touchdown from Rudy Carpenter, and Cole Beasley showed the ability to get open and then make yards after the catch, racking up a game-high seven catches for 104 yards, albeit mostly in the second half. TE James Hanna grabbed four passes.
Olawale looked like the team is really interested in justifying a place on the roster for him, with 10 carries for 30 yards and a touchdown and four receptions for 30 more.
Defensively, Mario Butler was all over the field. And, although his place on the squad is hardly in doubt, it was good to see Morris Claiborne come out and not looked overwhelmed in his first NFL game action.
It was not all good news. Andre Holmes, after looking good in the Oakland game, was not effective at all. He was responsible for an interception that bounced off his hands, and Raymond Radway had the same thing happen to him. Stephen McGee, admittedly playing in the second half with the third teamers against San Diego's second and third teamers, really did nothing that would convince anyone that the team needs to keep him on the roster. He had most of the second half, and gave up two turnovers (he did have help on the Radway ricochet mentioned above).
It hardly helped his case to have Rudy Carpenter come in shortly before the two minute warning and promptly put a touchdown on the scoreboard. He marched the ball much more effectively than McGee, and made the scenario of keeping him on the practice squad and cutting McGee even more feasible. Carpenter's 130.8 QB rating compared to McGee's 45.3 doesn't help, if you are into those kinds of stats.
And the game brings up another question mark in my mind. Felix Jones just does not seem to be sharp. He did not look to have the same kind of authority running the ball that either DeMarco Murray or Olawale had, and he dropped another pass he should have caught. Given the well-known story of him coming into camp out of shape, I wonder if his position on the team is not as secure as we might suppose.
But that is what the pre-season is all about. It is time to figure out who the team is taking into the regular campaign. And I did not hear of any injuries coming out of the game (Beasley came out late, but it was apparently just a hard hit and exhaustion for him). This game, unlike the Oakland fiasco, gave the coaches a lot of good material to work with. The score may indicate a loss. Don't be fooled. The Cowboys gained a lot more than they lost.