We received our first taste of the 2010 Dallas Cowboys last night as they took on the Cincinnati Bengals in the Hall Of Fame Game on NBC. Overall, it was nice to just be able to sit back and watch football that wasn't saved on my DVR for a change, and I, for one, love to hear Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth break down a game. Sure, Collinsworth made a few mistakes, but overall it was enjoyable.
Of course, we instantly start to dissect what happened on the field and try to project that to what the Cowboys will do this season. For a game that had the starters play just one series each, that's a very dangerous game to play. Still, there are always some good and bad things to take away from what we see from the backups and reserves and overall I was pleased with what I witnessed.
Here are some extended thoughts on yesterday's 16-7 "win."
Martellus Bennett -- Your time to shine
Never before have I seen a No. 3 tight end get so much attention as John Phillips has. Now that it's confirmed he has a torn ACL, I've seen some fan reaction that makes it seem as if we just lost a Pro Bowl tight end. Let's temper the enthusiasm here.
Fans enjoy seeing a young and promising player put it all together on the field, and Phillips was showing last night that he had vastly improved upon the solid play he provided last year. That Tony Romo has confidence in this young player and that he was becoming useful not only as a tight end, but as a half-back and fullback as well, made fans start to think that Phillips would become the star player that Martellus Bennett has yet to be.
I was buying the hype myself. After seeing Phillips provide two crushing blocks on long runs, while providing four catches for 60 yards, I was on the verge of writing a column that Phillips had the potential to emerge as the next great tight end for these Dallas Cowboys. Yet at the same time, I was going to be quick to point out that he's still behind Martellus Bennett on the depth chart.
Last year, fans were promised that Bennett was headed for a breakout season after a strong training camp; instead, Bennett caught just 15 passes and had no touchdowns. Statistically, Bennett took a step back from his rookie season and instantly fans started to call for Phillips to replace Bennett as the No. 2 tight end behind Jason Witten.
Fans saw Bennett fail to catch a touchdown pass and called the season a failure. I saw Witten catch 94 balls for 1,030 yards while the Cowboys enjoyed the most prolific offensive year in team history. Witten wouldn't have been able to accomplish that feat if Bennett -- and Phillips -- had not taken a step up in the undervalued part of being a tight end: blocking.
I've gone back and watched all the games from last season, and I watched Bennett closely. While he certainly underperformed in the passing game, and that's extremely disappointing, I venture to say he was the best blocking tight end on the team last year. Better even than Jason Witten, who many say is one of the best in the game. Bennett is so strong and so athletic, he has the ability to stand up linebackers and defensive linemen if called upon, and there were plenty of times he had a brutal pancake block on a running or pass play.
I'm not claiming last season was a disappointment for Bennett, but I am far from calling it a failure. Does he need to improve his all-around game this season? Absolutely, but let's not forget that Witten is still on this team and he's going to be the go-to guy for Romo no matter what.
Unfortunately, Martellus Bennett is on the wrong side of fans' emotions, and the media is seemingly against him as well. He hasn't helped his case with his off-the field antics and his joking persona, which makes what happens (or doesn't happen) on the field stand out more. Yet he's seemingly rededicated himself to the game and is focused on taking that step he didn't take last season; with Phillips gone for the season that's going to be all the more important now.
According to Rafael Vela at Blogging The Boys, Bennett returned from his ankle injury and instantly looked better than Phillips. That's not to say Phillips looked bad, but that it was obvious that Bennett was doing more and doing it better. That's an encouraging sign, but no one will believe it until Bennett shows that progression in actual games.
Losing John Phillips for the season hurts, especially when you see that he was on the verge of being a breakout player, yet it isn't necessarily a full step back for the Dallas Cowboys. Martellus Bennett is the best blocking tight end on the team, and Scott Sicko showed last night he has some ability as well.
John Phillips wasn't going to be counted on to catch anything more than 15-20 passes, not in this offense. As much as we wanted him to "break out," he was still the third TE on this team. I don't buy the theory that the Cowboys need another tight end either; Martellus Bennett and Jason Witten will be just fine.
Stephen McGee showed progress, but let's hold off on the anointing oil
I remember back in 2005, the season before Tony Romo took over full time for Drew Bledsoe, that he stepped into a preseason game and made people sit up and take notice -- this was a baller. Romo showed flashes then of the brilliance we now take for granted and starting that preseason many started to say Romo had a future as the Cowboys quarterback.
We are not at that point with Stephen McGee.
Coming out of college, many compared McGee's skill set to Tony Romo's. Both are agile, have quick feet and can move in the pocket and both have above-average arm strength. Yet that's where the similarities end. Romo set all kinds of records in college and was named the 1-AA player of the year his senior season. McGee spent his college career floundering in an option system after being one of the highest ranked passers coming out of high school.
Stephen McGee is just now learning how to truly be a quarterback, and it shows.
I was encouraged by what I saw last night, however. While he was under duress for most of the night and took some unnecessary sacks, he didn't make many bad decisions with the ball. When he did have time, he showed accuracy and strength on his passes, making several tough throws on deep sideline posts -- supposedly the hardest pass for a quarterback to make.
While I feel good about he did last night, I was also reminded why he won't be challenging Kitna anytime soon. His "QB clock" needs some fine tuning, as he needs to learn to make his reads much, much faster than he was last night. When he had time in the pocket he could make his throws, but if he was forced to make a decision in an instant, he opted to hold the ball and try to make plays with his feet. Romo can do that; McGee cannot.
I'm interested in seeing how McGee does the rest of the preseason and I'd like to see him play behind a line that can actually protect; he showed me he has the tools to be somewhat decent in this league. But did I get that feeling in my stomach that I was watching a budding young quarterback that would challenge for a starting job in the future? Not a chance.
I felt that with Romo. I felt that with Matt Moore. I have not feel that with McGee ... yet.
Impressed by the Williams Bunch
The Dallas Cowboys have for "Williams'" on the team and I was interested in seeing what all four could do last night. All in all, I walked away impressed.
Brandon Williams showed the speed and power people talked about last year when he was drafted and this year in camp, causing all sorts of trouble in the backfield the entire second half. Combined with Victor Butler and Steve Octavien, the Cowboys have five very capable OLB that can not only rush the passer, but make plays in coverage as well; B. Williams showed this with his interception after dropping back into the flat.
Leon Williams and Jason Williams both made plays from the ILB position, with Leon coming away the more impressive player. You can see the athleticism that everyone loves about J. Williams but you also got a taste of his decision making in coverage when he became totally lost in the end zone, allowing the lone touchdown for the Bengals.
Teddy Williams is raw -- extremely raw -- but he certainly didn't look like a cornerback who hadn't played football since high school. The man is fast and closes on the ball and the receiver faster than any player on the team. He'll be on the practice squad this year but I'm encouraged by the potential he showed against the Bengals.
Don't let the playcalling fool you
This morning I woke up to several articles talking about the Cowboys' red zone failures carrying over from last season, after Romo and company failed to punch it in from the goal line. I have to pull back the reigns on this one.
First, the Cowboys would have scored had Felix Jones not fumbled and we all wouldn't be worrying about that right now. Then you have the fact that the Cowboys passed it three straight times instead of going for what should have been the sure thing with a run; the Cowboys were getting a great push in the running game that entire first series.
I contend that Romo and Garrett were working on a couple of red zone plays and that if this were a game they would have run it in. Romo also had Roy Williams open in the end zone on a slant, except the Bengals blitzed and hit Romo as he was throwing the ball.
So you have an offense that is just trying some new things, not showing their hand in the preseason, against one of the better defenses in the NFL that is blitzing at the goal line. Call me crazy, but I'm not worried much.
We'll get to try it all over again on Thursday. Let's see how the team adjusts.