The Dallas Cowboys dropped their third straight preseason game in Tony Romo's most extensive action since his season-ending back surgery last year, falling to the Miami Dolphins, 25-20.
A slow game for both first-team offenses produced a 6-3 first half, but the second and third teams exploded to combine for five second-half touchdowns. The Dolphins scored the last two of them, both coming in the final 5:40 to cap off a late comeback.
Romo played all of the first half after appearing in just two series in his preseason debut last week. He led the Cowboys on two field-goal drives and finished 10-of-18 for 87 yards.
Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill was 13-of-21 showing for 119 yards but struggled to sustain drives for the Dolphins. He was off with his passes multiple times in the first half before throwing an interception on his final pass of the game.
The fortunes of both offenses changed in the second half, when each attack was better able to sustain drives and twice get into the end zone—albeit playing and playing against second- and third-team squads. Cowboys backup quarterback Brandon Weeden and Dolphins reserve QB Matt Moore both tossed touchdown passes in relief.
But as usual, much of the attention surrounded Romo as he continues his return from the back surgery that ended his 2013 season. He was unleashed after playing sparsely against the Ravens the week before, throwing 18 times and going with the starters for the whole first half.
His 34 snaps on Saturday were more than double his 14 from the week prior, leading Cowboys fans to believe Romo is just fine if Jason Garrett's comments before the game were any indication.
“We’ll be around that range (14 snaps), maybe bump him up a little more,’’ Garrett said, per The Dallas Morning News' David Moore. “Hopefully he gets a couple good drives in the game and he looks himself. He looks comfortable, he’s sweating, he’s moving around and playing spontaneously. That’s really what you’re looking for as much as anything else.’’
Just seeing Romo stay out there all half is encouraging for Dallas fans, and he did so under some extreme pressure, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Charean Williams observed:
Romo has been sacked three times and hurried countless others. OL having a tough night.— Charean Williams (@NFLCharean) August 24, 2014
The Cowboys netted field goals in each of the first two quarters, but it was a low-scoring affair early on. Dez Bryant was effective in small stretches with four catches for 32 yards, and strong rushes from DeMarco Murray and Ryan Williams gave Dallas an early field-position advantage.
After coming out of the game with the starters, Bryant explained what it will take for the Cowboys to make a step in 2014, per The Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota:
Dez Bryant on CBS11: "We can be great. But..u got to believe u can be great. When I step out on the field I want it more than the next man."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 24, 2014
Miami's skill-position players shined even brighter. Mike Wallace caught six of his eight targets for 67 yards, including a 21-yard gain early on. Running backs Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller combined for 17 carries and 98 yards.
Still, defenses reigned supreme early on, and most drives on both sides ended in a punt formation. That made it a low-scoring, 6-3 game, at the half.
Romo and the Dallas first-teamers didn't return after halftime, but Tannehill and company did for one final drive. It was perhaps the Dolphins' best drive of the game, moving into the red zone before Tannehill was intercepted by Tyler Patmon to end the QB's night.
The third-year quarterback's performance was far from impressive, but preseason stats from Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald suggest he hasn't played too poorly:
Ryan Tannehill this preseason: 28 of 41 (68.3%) for 291 yards with 1 TD, 1 INT. QB rating of 86.5.— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) August 24, 2014
Right after Joe Philbin and company inserted the second-teamers, the offense found some success. Moore connected with Damien Williams on a 54-yard strike, then Williams got into the end zone and converted a two-point opportunity to put Miami up, 11-6.
Weeden answered right back with the help of Williams on the ground. The former Browns quarterback hit a couple of deep passing routes, including finding LaRon Byrd for a 27-yard score as the Cowboys retook the lead entering the fourth.
The Cowboys defense answered the bell, extending their lead when Patmon notched his second interception of the game. Except this time, he took it to the house, increasing Dallas' advantage to 20-11.
After shaking off that poor throw, Moore got back to being effective like he was in his first possession, mounting two drives that won Miami the game. A five-play drive ended with Moore hitting Harold Hoskins for a 27-yard touchdown, and soon after Moore orchestrated a big 12-play drive, capped off by Orleans Darkwa's one-yard score to put the Dolphins in front after the two-minute warning.
Losing a third straight preseason game surely doesn't feel great for the Cowboys, and it reflects the myriad of problems that Dallas still has. The offense is still a work in progress, and even an outstanding offensive attack might not override the team's defensive deficiencies.
With that said, the Dolphins have their own issues to work on despite coming out with the victory. Tannehill is struggling more and more as the preseason wears on, and the problems along the offensive line in front of him are obvious.
The Cowboys have a meeting Thursday with the AFC champion Denver Broncos to close out their preseason slate. Dallas will need a victory to avoid finishing the exhibition season winless.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins will stay at home for their final preseason matchup. They face the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night and will be looking for more success from the first-team offense as the team pursues its third preseason victory.