The 2013 NFL preseason started for the Dallas Cowboys a whole lot better than last year's regular season ended, as they used a strong first-half effort to defeat the Miami Dolphins, 24-20, in the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
Backup quarterback Kyle Orton played in only one series, opening up his preseason with a 2-of-3 outing for 25 yards. The Cowboys offense was mostly vanilla throughout, not showing any major developments under new play-caller Bill Callahan. Dallas stuck mostly to the ground game, using the festivities in Canton as a proving ground for the team's stable of backups to DeMarco Murray.
Nearly every Cowboys runner had some semblance of success. Dallas averaged 5.0 yards per carry, running the ball 34 times for 170 yards.
Phillip Tanner was undoubtedly the most impressive of the backs. The 24-year-old Tanner rushed for 59 yards on 10 carries, including the game's first touchdown nine minutes into the first quarter. He looked good both inside the tackles and out, scampering for a 17-yard gain and pounding the ball in close to the goal line.
In contrast, Cowboys quarterbacks threw only 21 passes and hovered around the 60 total yards mark until Alex Tanney found Jared Green for a 32-yard completion on the game-clinching drive. Tanney led all Dallas passers with 58 yards on 5-of-11 passing.
The Cowboys were allowed to go conservative with their play-calling, as Miami's offense could not generate any momentum until the final quarter.
Monte Kiffin took over the Cowboys defense this offseason, converting it over to his noted Tampa-2 system. It marks a stark change in language and scheme from Rob Ryan's blitz-heavy 3-4 look, but the Cowboys looked like they were taking the adjustment in stride Sunday.
While Miami passed the ball for 310 yards, its first team looked like a squad playing for the first time in months. Ryan Tannehill lasted only parts of three drives, going 2-of-5 for 11 yards. The second-year quarterback was charged with a fumble on the game's opening drive after a strange exchange with Lamar Miller.
Tannehill was spelled by veteran Matt Moore, who unsurprisingly had a decent amount of success against Dallas backups. The 28-year-old Moore tossed for 238 yards on 19-of-29 passing, helping lead the Dolphins on a futile comeback attempt. His connection to tight end Kyle Miller in the waning seconds brought the score to 24-20, but an unsuccessful onside kick attempt followed.
Pat Devlin also saw extended time under center, looking sharp en route to an 8-of-13 performance for 86 yards. He showed a strong connection with receiver Keenan Davis, connecting on a five-yard score to cap the Dolphins' first touchdown drive of the game.
However, Joe Philbin cannot be happy that it took over 50 minutes for his offense to get in the end zone in a preseason game.
The contest did not do much to resolve the Miami running back situation, either. The Dolphins ran the ball only 26 times, with no back getting more than seven touches. Former Notre Dame standout Jonas Gray was the most impressive of the group, running seven times for 41 yards. Expected starter Lamar Miller received only two carries, gaining 21 yards.
It's hard to take away much from these 60 minutes of football, as is usually the case with preseason football. But coaches finally got to see how their rosters look in a game situation, allowing them to go right to the drawing board during Monday film session.
And for the Cowboys, Sunday marks a nice little feather in their cap for winning the league's most prestigious preseason contest without much of their offensive firepower.
Notable Player Grades
Phillip Tanner, RB, Dallas Cowboys: A-
Tanner shone throughout the contest while sharing reps with Lance Dunbar. Tanner, in his third year out of Middle Tennessee State, scampered his way outside and inside the tackles for a 10-carry, 59-yard performance. He also showed off his goal-line chops by pounding the ball in from the 1-yard line for Dallas' first touchdown of the evening.
DeMarco Murray is entrenched as the starter, but there were plenty of folks impressed with this outing. Dan Hanzus of NFL.com was one of many to note the possible fantasy implications here, citing Murray's penchant to get banged up:
Phillip Tanner's running here matters when you remember DeMarco Murray will be on the injury report by Week 3.— Dan Hanzus (@DanHanzus) August 5, 2013
It's at least worth mentioning that the Cowboys looked strong running as a whole here, though. So maybe there was a bit of duality between a poor defensive effort and good blocking.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins: C-
The Dolphins signal-caller was only on the field for parts of three possessions, so we'll be careful to not get worked up here. The NFL is a league of minuscule sample sizes as it is. That being said, Tannehill certainly didn't look like a guy on the precipice of making "the leap" in his second season.
His day started with an ugly exchange and the night's first turnover. The former Texas A&M standout's night didn't improve much from there, either. He missed the mark on two separate throws to Marvin McNutt and another on a check-down to Miller for a three-and-out on his second possession.
Miami allowed him in for part of the next series—likely to keep the goose egg out of his completions column—but going 2-of-5 for 11 yards isn't going to bring forth Super Bowl visions. He'll likely get a better chance to get in rhythm next week. Here's to hoping he does more with it.
J.J. Wilcox, S, Dallas Cowboys: C-
There are two types of fans: ones who watch the games and know why a player was involved in a particular play, and the others who make their assertions based on the box score and their fantasy results.
How folks perceive J.J. Wilcox's first outing with the Cowboys is a good case in point The third-round pick out of Georgia Southern finished with six tackles (four solo). Of the players who got plenty of action in the first half, his name was likely the one you heard most when Al Michaels got into plays. That's the good.
The bad comes when you realize the reason Wilcox was in on so many tackles. The Dolphins—Matt Moore in particular—carved up the rookie strong safety in coverage. ESPN's Tim MacMahon pointed out the youngster's struggles in keeping the ball out of opponents' hands:
I swear J.J. Wilcox looked good the last two weeks in Oxnard. Rough night for the rookie safety.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) August 5, 2013
Wilcox was a risky, raw prospect when the Cowboys took him. And MacMahon noted that at least he looked strong during camp. But it's safe to say Wilcox will have a long day Monday when coaches show him the game tape.
Dion Jordan, DE, Miami Dolphins: B+
If you’re one of those folks who derided Miami for trading up to No. 3 in April’s draft for Dion Jordan rather than an offensive tackle, Sunday was probably a rough night. The former Oregon standout was really impressive in limited action, recording two solo tackles and spending a good chuck of his evening in the Dallas backfield.
While the Cowboys mostly eschewed the air, Jordan did a nice job of blasting off the ball and creating trouble on the edges when he did. The Miami coaching staff obviously wants to use Jordan as a pass-rushing weapon, as evidenced by its decision to have him in for third-down snaps in the fourth quarter.
The Dolphins shouldn’t be anything less than pleased with their top pick’s ability to fluster opposing quarterbacks as a rookie. However, Jordan gets a bit of a downgrade for his struggles in the ground game. Miami as a team wasn’t up to snuff, but I noticed the Cowboys targeting his side a bit and finding success doing so.
It’s a process, so there’s nothing to worry about here. Just something worthy of mention.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: