Dallas Cowboys' Most Positive Preseason Surprises so Far
Sporting a record of 1-2 this preseason heading into this weekend's home opener against Cincinnati, Dallas Cowboys' fans have plenty to worry about concerning America's Team. The training camp festivities in Oxnard, Calif. were a strong combination of surprises, both good and bad.
For now, let's take in some positive surprises to be seen from the Cowboys.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones' infamously declared ''uncomfortable offseason” is nearing it's end. Much of what Jones seemed to want he has gotten, especially with respect to the coaching staff. Fourth-year head coach Jason Garrett is easily in the best situation he has seen as the top-dog.
The Cowboys have been able to survive numerous injuries and absences while still finding some possible solutions to previous weaknesses. If the bad surprises stop happening, at least for some time, Dallas could be off to a quick start once regular-season play begins September 8 in Arlington, Texas.
No, defensive end Tyrone Crawford won't be back, nobody knows yet exactly who safety Matt Johnson is and the Cowboys seem to have more questions than answers on an offensive line that obviously plans to throw the football quite a bit this season.
However, here's some things that could carry the Cowboys while several young faces cut their teeth in the NFL.
All stats courtesy of ESPN
Quarterback Play Overall
I have to think that the overall performance from Dallas quarterbacks has been better than advertised.
In obviously limited action, starting quarterback Tony Romo has thrown zero interceptions in his 18 pass attempts in two preseason contests thus far. The Romo-haters might counter with the fact that Romo has not thrown a touchdown pass either.
But there's more to this:
Romo's combined stats in August include 13-of-18 passing for 237 yards.
In other words, if Romo is going to get the ball down-field like this with anything close to his current completion percentage, great things are going to happen. An additional positive indicator could be that Romo has only been sacked once.
Backup Kyle Orton has been solid when he's seen extended action—he only played nine plays last week at Arizona as the Cowboys' six turnovers were simply too disruptive to get much of anything done.
Yes, Orton played a role in those turnovers with a couple of lousy interceptions.
Beyond the Cardinals game, Orton had a nice showing previously against Oakland going 6-of-6 for 52 yards and a sweet rating of 142.4—limited work for sure, but still a good sign that offensive coordinator Bill Callahan is on the same page with his top quarterbacks.
Backup Alex Tanney also performed well against Arizona last week in a second-half effort which was better than it may have looked, especially considering Tanney's late interception that killed Dallas' chance for a win late in the fourth-quarter.
Tanney was perfect for the entire third quarter on his way to going 11-of-11 before finally firing an incomplete pass with about five minutes left in the game. Tanney would finish 14-of-19 for 136 yards, which included a touchdown pass to rookie tight end Gavin Escobar—keep in mind he doesn't get the services of wide receivers Dez Bryant or Miles Austin.
Tanney has shown some chemistry with wide receivers Dwayne Harris and Tim Benford.
This is not to forget rookie tight end Gavin Escobar, who caught his first preseason touchdown against Arizona.
Could the Cowboys go back to carrying three quarterbacks?
Second-Year Running Back Lance Dunbar
Here's a name I certainly did not expect to see so visibly this late in the preseason. I felt somewhat comfortable that third-year veteran Phillip Tanner would separate himself from a pack of running backs led by starter DeMarco Murray and, probably, 2013 fifth-round draft pick Joseph Randle.
In large part, Tanner actually has.
While Tanner has run rather well this preseason, former North Texas running back Lance Dunbar is showing some definite play-making ability that the Cowboys probably can't ignore concerning the 53-man roster.
Dunbar had just two carries last week against the Cardinals, but he caught two passes for an eye-popping 61 yards. His longest of 43 yards, which ended in a freak fumble recovery for Arizona, came extremely close to being a touchdown. His following 18-yard catch just before halftime kept the chains moving towards a scoring drive that never happened—remember all of those turnovers committed in that game.
Dunbar carried three times for 21 yards against the Raiders and added three catches for 15 yards, still taking in at least five yards per catch.
Dunbar was impressive against Miami in the Hall of Fame game in Canton. His four carries for 22 yards was modest in total yards, but his average per rush looked good. He added a catch for seven yards.
It seems the Cowboys might be tempted to use the second-year, undrafted running back as their own version of Darren Sproles. These two runners are similar in build and are both quick and talented enough to provide some spark on special teams as well as out of the backfield.
Remembering that Dallas released fullback Lawrence Vickers prior to training camp, is it possible that the Cowboys could decide to carry four running backs?
Transition to 4-3 Defensive Front
Say what you will about the overall defensive performance of the Cowboys this preseason, one that hasn't been stellar, but if you look in the right places, there's a lot to like so far.
Despite the absence of Pro Bowl pass-rushers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, the starting units have played well against the run and have also created some big turnovers early in games.
The first half performances, for the most part, look pretty exciting when you calculate the expected return of the aforementioned defensive ends.
Important to remember is exactly how much stronger the linebacker position is with the Cowboys now.
Personnel seemed pretty good on paper, but the now-scrapped 3-4 alignment often had weaknesses exposed, such as a smallish defensive line.
First-year defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin now has play makers returning to a system that is both more practical and also more familiar to linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. These two linebackers are both second-round picks that would have likely be chosen much earlier if not for injury concerns.
Both players excelled in 4-3 systems that will be similar to what they'll be involved with now.
Lee and Carter, if healthy, will push Dallas into the playoffs, barring other unforeseen events. While everyone knows what Lee is all about—the Cowboys just extended the former Penn State star with a six-year, $42 million contract extension—it's also going to be interesting to see what kind of impact Carter brings in Kiffin's system.
Carter has the ability to be used like Derrick Brooks was in Tampa Bay while with the Buccaneers—and in the exact same system Kiffin still uses. A quick look at Carter's college highlights at North Carolina offers a glimpse of how this third-year veteran might charge the Dallas defense upon opening kickoff.
If the front seven keeps pace, the Dallas secondary could have a couple of Pro Bowl defensive backs in 2013.
Ratliff Hearing Postponed
Training camp has come and gone and defensive tackle Jay Ratliff has yet to hit the field due to a hamstring injury just before camp opened.
But the nine-year veteran started last offseason with a DWI arrest in January.
DallasCowboys.com staff writer Nick Eatman reports that the trial for Ratliff has been moved to next February, apparently clearing the way for his participation in 2013, if healthy.
It's simple: The Cowboys need Ratliff and they will at least have the privilege of playing him since there won't be any executive action from the NFL or the franchise until then—funny how that timing works out. Super Bowl XLVIII is February 2, 2014 and then Ratliff goes to trial about three weeks later.
A healthy Ratliff might mean close to a dozen sacks for a Dallas defense that has not been considered a strength for years. They were never a shutdown unit during the 3-4 era from 2005 to 2012.
Ware and Spencer will draw the most attention early on where the defensive line is concerned. Chances are better than not that Ratliff is going to exploit some weaker interior linemen, especially early in the season.
I'm not going to compare Ratliff to Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, another former Buccaneer who flourished in Kiffin's system in a Super Bowl championship climate for several seasons. Ratliff doesn't have the mass that Sapp had, but his quickness is a huge problem for opposing pass protection.
Ratliff couldn't offer the same effectiveness in the former 3-4 schemes because he played too much nose guard—he was usually the smallest one in the league.
Well, four defensive linemen are better than three. Ratliff could have a huge comeback season if he's healthy and the rest of the defense follows suit.
Head Coach Jason Garrett
Whether he's actually coaching for his life or not, Garrett is likely not sitting on as warm a seat as we might think. I'll concede that a very large telecommunications company now wants Cowboys games broadcast on television in the Dallas-Fort Worth area like never before. In other words, potential blackouts due to a poor start and lower attendance won't be welcomed.
See, those games appear on equally large television networks that like getting those advertising dollars from said communications giant. Visibility is huge.
Yes, Garrett is motivated to remold his image following Jones' ''uncomfortable'' offseason. Exactly what this motivation is, be it employment or ambition, is anybody's guess.
One thing is for sure: Garrett is trying to engage the entire football team as a first-time head coach free of dealing with offense play-calling. Garrett appears to be a little looser, more relaxed—he even looks like he got some sun while in California.
Garrett allowed Peter King of SI.com to record his opening address to his team as training camp opened last month and even I didn't expect him to be as bold, at least at a few moments during the recording.
Perhaps Garrett is finally getting more comfortable as a coach, at any level. Remember that Garrett essentially went right from playing to coaching following his retirement after the 2004 regular season. Garrett would serve two seasons as quarterbacks coach in Miami before landing in Dallas as offensive coordinator, and obvious future head coach, in 2007.
Experience is a good thing, especially when you want to win football games. Now able to focus on the entire football team while armed with numerous assistants that have also had considerable success, Garrett should certainly feel a degree of comfort, perhaps beyond what one might expect after the kind of offseason he's been through.