Dallas Cowboys: Three Thoughts

Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys following Sunday's 26-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers:
  • I think everyone at Valley Ranch has expected defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to depart from the moment his best friend Lovie Smith took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job. Jason Garrett can’t miss on this hire, whether it comes from outside the building or he promotes a guy such as linebackers coach Matt Eberflus. Marinelli did a terrific job and the Cowboys need to build on it.
  • I think the Cowboys find themselves in a similar situation as the Cowboys of the early 1990s. They have a lot of pieces on defense but until they get a dynamic pass-rusher they’re not going to be able to play championship defense. The San Francisco 49ers are talking about making sweeping changes. Would they trade Aldon Smith? The Cowboys need a pass-rusher the way those Cowboys needed Charles Haley.
  • I think DeMarco Murray gives this offense a toughness, edginess and a physicality that can’t be easily replaced. He also has a trust and rhythm with the offensive line that can’t be taken for granted. He’s not a special player, but he’ll be a lot more difficult to replace than many think.
Key stat: 1

The Cowboys sacked Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers one time in 35 pass attempts, which is a big part of the reason the Packers were 9 of 14 on third down.

Rodgers' strained left calf made it hard for him to maneuver in the pocket and pretty much impossible to run, which is among his best assets.

Still, the Cowboys couldn’t sack him. They pressured him, and hit him a couple of times, but they never really made him uncomfortable on a regular basis.

Player to Watch: Terrance Williams

After being a non-factor for a couple of months, Williams showed us in the last five games why he’s a big part of the offense.

He’s a dynamic player who stretches the field and has a knack for finding the end zone. With Dez Bryant seeing so much double coverage, Williams is the kind of player who can punish teams deep when he gets single coverage.

In the Cowboys’ last five games, Williams has receptions of 38, 53, 51 and 76 yards (while drawing pass interference penalties of 15, 26 and 40) and five touchdowns.

A player like that needs the ball in his hands. Some how, some way.
Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 33-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday:
  1. Garrett
    Garrett
    I think that everything Jason Garrett has done to change his team’s mentality and get them to focus only on the task at hand will be tested next Thursday against Chicago. Lose this game and it could trigger a free fall that leads to yet another December swoon. Win the game in a difficult environment and the Cowboys will have proved something to themselves.
  2. I think play-caller Scott Linehan might want to use some first-down play-action passes just to create a little impetus for the offense. Linehan has done a terrific job much of the year, but the Cowboys have struggled on third down recently. Instead of relying on converting third downs -- even if they’re manageable -- the Cowboys might be served by trying to notch some first downs on first or second down instead of having to convert third-down plays.
  3. I think it’s incredibly hard to play defense with no semblance of a pass rush. The Cowboys can generate some pressure, when they play with a lead. Other than that, they give opposing quarterbacks way too much time to complete passes.
Key stat: 7

The Cowboys have allowed seven scoring drives on their opponents’ first possession of the game. No team has allowed more. And no team has allowed more than the five touchdowns the Cowboys have given up on their first possession.

This is a trend that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli really has to solve because it affects the Cowboys’ ability to play the game the way they want to play it. Dallas is at its best when it has the lead and uses its strong running game to dominate time of possession, which puts pressure on the opposing offense.

Player to Watch: free safety J.J. Wilcox

Wilcox continues to improve, but the reality is he’s not the kind of player the Cowboys would pick if he were available in this year’s draft.

That’s not a knock on Wilcox, but it’s an example of the way the Cowboys have changed their thought process about the draft over the past couple of years. The Cowboys prefer productive players from big schools.

Wilcox played safety for one year at Georgia Southern before the Cowboys took him in the third round because they had a need at that position.

Wilcox has emerged as a full-time starter this season, and he’d be better if the Cowboys used him in the box instead of free safety. He still makes some mistakes of youth, but Wilcox is becoming more of a physical presence each week.

He had 10 tackles against Philadelphia, and delivered a couple of big hits. He’s been solid, but the Cowboys need him to be better in the last four games of the season.

Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys

October, 31, 2014
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  1. I think the Dallas Cowboys need DeMarcus Lawrence to be a good player, nothing more. It’s unrealistic to expect him to be a dominant pass-rusher based on recent history. There have been 32 defensive ends drafted in the second round since 2004. None have had more than Carlos Dunlap's 9.5 sacks for Cincinnati as a rookie. Most have been average as rookies and increased their sack total by four or five in their second year.
  2. I think I’d rather have Brandon Weeden with a full week of practice and a strong running game than Tony Romo, who hasn’t practiced all week, against a nasty defense that thrives on the blitz and putting quarterbacks under duress. This style of defense requires a quarterback to be sharp. Romo is fine mentally, but without practice he might not be sharp, which could lead to turnovers.
  3. I think some good play calls don’t work and some dumb play calls do work. The easiest play to criticize is one that doesn’t work. It’s about a body of work -- not a play here or there.
Key stat: 25

When this season ends, Justin Durant will have missed 25 of 105 games (23.8 percent) in his eight-year NFL career.

He has played 16 games once and has missed 16 of 32 games with the Cowboys. While he was having a terrific season, the Cowboys must consider his health when deciding whether to sign the 29-year-old linebacker to another deal. Durant will be a free agent at the end of the season.

Durant had surgery to repair a torn biceps he suffered against Washington this week and will miss the rest of the season after being placed on injured reserve. He will be difficult to replace this season.

Player to Watch: Joseph Randle

The second-year running back is doing a good job on special teams and on the field with 21 carries for 143 yards, including a significant 38-yard run against the Seattle Seahawks that helped the Cowboys rally from a 10-0 deficit.

But his off-the-field issues have leaked into the locker room and that’s never a positive.

After he was arrested recently for stealing underwear and cologne from a Dillard’s department store, he made some disparaging remarks about teammates Dez Bryant and Josh Brent that were caught on video.

Well, a few teammates have privately seethed at his comments and he was involved in a skirmish with Bryant during practice on Friday. Jason Witten broke up the skirmish and chastised Randle.

Randle needs to make amends with the teammates he has offended because the Cowboys have a good thing going this season, and they don’t need locker room turmoil creating an issue on the team.
Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 20-17 overtime win over the Houston Texans:

1. I think we spend so much time talking about the three first-round picks on the Cowboys' offensive line that we lose sight of how much left guard Ron Leary has improved since making the team as an undrafted free agent and spending much of his rookie season on the practice squad.

He did an excellent job, for the most part, in his battles against J.J. Watt. He played with power and toughness. He’s a big part of the offensive line success and he’s only 23.

McClain
2. I think it’s amazing that Rolando McClain has become the unquestioned leader of the Cowboys’ defense, considering he didn’t really join the team until training camp.

He brings a physical nature to the defense we haven’t seen in years. When he hits people, he knocks them backward. And at 6-foot-4 with long legs, he covers a lot more space than you think, which is why he can be effective in pass coverage.

He says he really enjoys playing with this group of players and the Cowboys. I would bet it’s because he finds the structure under Jason Garrett and the culture Garrett is creating much like the structure and culture he had at Alabama under Nick Saban.

3. I think the Cowboys’ defense is really starting to understand how to play the Tampa 2 scheme under Rod Marinelli.

These guys are flying to the ball. When an opposing receiver catches the ball, there are four to five defenders on him immediately. Maximum effort won’t compensate totally for talent deficiencies, but it can hide a lot of flaws.

This defense is playing as hard as it can, and Marinelli is getting the unit to maximize its potential. With the offense this team has, the Cowboys’ defense doesn’t have to be great for the team to win. It can be average. Right now, it's a little better than that.

KEY STAT: 15

The Cowboys rank last in the NFL in creating negative plays with only 15 so far -- and it’s not just because they have only five sacks.

Dallas has dropped opposing runners for losses just 10 times in 117 carries. This is not good for a defense that’s based on having a disruptive line that wreaks havoc and forces offenses into long-yardage situations on second and third downs, at which point the Tampa 2 scheme is at its best because it takes away the deep ball and forces teams to throw underneath.

If the Cowboys can create more negative plays, you’ll see this defense take another step forward.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Tyrone Crawford

For some guys, like Crawford, it takes the Cowboys a while to figure out how to maximize their talent.

Now that Dallas understands he fits much better at defensive tackle than defensive end, you’re going to see him making much more of an impact. Henry Melton's groin and hamstring injuries provided an opportunity to play tackle and Crawford has responded well.

He has good pass-rushing moves for a defensive tackle and average moves for a defensive end. He can also play with power, and his average quickness at end translates to good quickness at tackle.

This is a good find for the Cowboys because it means they don’t have to rush Melton back into a larger role. Melton has played 24 and 20 snaps the past two weeks, while Crawford played 42 and 45 snaps.

Three thoughts on the Cowboys' win

September, 30, 2014
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Three thoughts on the Cowboys’ 38-17 win over New Orleans:

Carter
Carter
 1. I think Bruce Carter must wonder what football gods have against him, since a quadriceps strain will probably cost him at least one game.

Two seasons ago, he was playing the best he’d ever played when he suffered a dislocated elbow that ended his season. He spent last season in an unproductive fog but seemed to find his niche again this season after moving to strongside linebacker.

He had six tackles an two pass deflections before getting hurt against New Orleans. The Cowboys hope he’s not out long and that he returns with the same passion and performance.

Randle
  2. I think the Cowboys need to make sure they continue to get Joseph Randle involved, which is admittedly hard to do with DeMarco Murray leading the NFL in rushing and carries.

Murray, who has missed 11 games in his first three seasons, has 99 carries in the first four games. He’s on pace to carry 396 times, a huge number for a dude who has never carried more than 396 times in a season.

Coach Jason Garrett gave Randle the final series of the third quarter, and he responded with three carries for 21 yards and had an 18-yard run negated by a penalty. Garrett said Randle is running confidently and aggressively.

That’s why it’s time to ease Murray’s load just a tad, so he’s still able to grind in November and December.

3. I think the Cowboys’ defensive line is going to be better than I figured.
It’s because they don’t have any bad players in their rotation. You don’t think about it much, but there’s a significant difference between an average player and a bad player.

You can survive with average players in the right circumstance. You can’t survive with bad players.

The Cowboys don’t have any stars, but with the mix of guys they have, there’s little difference when one comes out and another goes in, and the result is the defensive line plays to the same standard the entire game. They can play with maximum effort because they’re getting consistent rest and the offense has been keeping them off the field.

KEY STAT: 50.8

Garrett always talks about having the ability to attack a defense in a lot of different ways.

Well, the Cowboys have achieved perfect offensive harmony during their first four games, as they’re running it 50.8 percent of the time -- and that has helped lead to a three-game winning streak.

The Cowboys are No. 1 in the NFL with 165.0 yards rushing per games and rank fourth with a 5.08 average per carry.

This is the first time under Garrett that the Cowboys have made the running game the epicenter of their offense -- and it’s opening up everything else.

That’s because the more opponents have to use an additional safety to stop Murray, the more the Cowboys can attack downfield with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams or Jason Witten.

Bryant and Williams each scored on touchdown passes Sunday against New Orleans, in part, because they were facing single coverage so the Saints could devote more manpower to stopping the Cowboys’ running game.

Church
 PLAYER TO WATCH: Barry Church

He’s not flashy, but he doesn't mistake that for not being effective. Actually, Church would be really good on a great defense because he could freelance more and put himself in position to make more plays.

But in the Cowboys’ defensive scheme and with their personnel, he tends to play it safe, as he should.

Church is solid in coverage, a willing tackler and a guy who makes the right play most of the time. He had six tackles against the Saints and made a couple of nice tackles that stopped New Orleans from converting third downs.

They weren’t spectacular plays, but they were effective and ended the drive. They were typical Church plays.
Three thoughts on the Cowboys’ 34-31 win over St. Louis:

1) I think Scott Linehan has done a fantastic job, thus far, of getting the ball into the hands of his best offensive players. Of the Cowboys 191 offensive plays this season, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant have touched the ball 103 times, which is 54 percent.

If you add the incomplete passes directed toward the duo, then Linehan has directed 59 percent of the team’s plays toward those two players. And he likes to get each of them involved early.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsDeMarco Murray, above, and Dez Bryant have touched the ball on 54 percent of the Cowboys offensive plays.
Murray has touched the ball within the first two plays of each game, and Bryant has caught a pass within the first four plays of each game.

2) I think Orlando Scandrick is the best blitzer on the team. He has a knack for timing his rush just right out of the slot, and making the most of his opportunities.

Against St. Louis, he forced an incompletion with heavy pressure in the second quarter. And in the fourth quarter, he drilled quarterback Austin Davis contributing to Bruce Carter's interception and subsequent 25-yard interception return for a touchdown.

The Cowboys have two sacks through three games, which is why Rod Marinelli is probably going to be sending Scandrick after the quarterback more regularly.

3) I think it’ll be interesting to see how Murray’s body withstands the rigors of the season, if his current workload continues.


He rushed 24 times for 100 yards against St. Louis and currently leads the NFL in carries (75) and yards (385). In his first three seasons, he had 11 games with 20 carries or more, but he hadn’t done it in consecutive games since his rookie year.

The only real question about Murray has been his durability, since he’s missed 11 games in three years. At this rate, all of those questions will be answered this season.

KEY STAT: 12

Dez Bryant has caught a team-high 20 catches, but 12 have gone for fewer than 10 yards. At some point this season, Linehan will have to stretch the field and give Bryant more opportunities to make plays downfield.

Against the Rams, Bryant caught a 68-yard pass for a touchdown. His other five receptions went for 9,1,5,3 and 3 yards.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Anthony Hitchens

It was good to see a draft pick not taken in the first or second round make a real contribution to a Cowboys’ win as a rookie.

Anthony Hitchens, a fourth-round pick, made his first career start at middle linebacker with Rolando McClain out with a strained groin.

He finished with a team-high 13 tackles. Yes, several of them were more than 5 yards downfield, but he made a huge stop on fourth down in the third quarter and he made a nifty pass deflection in the red zone.

More important, he played as though he belonged. Now, he can ease some of the burden on Rolando McClain and help keep him fresh since he’s already banged up.

Three thoughts on Cowboys' win

September, 16, 2014
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Three thoughts on the Cowboys' 26-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

1. Tony Romo can give me a million different explanations about why some of his passes wobble or lack zip, and I’m probably not going to believe him. He just doesn’t look right. I’ve seen 109 of the 110 NFL starts he has made in person, and I’ve never questioned whether he had a strong arm. Now, I do. Maybe, he’ll get stronger as the season goes on. Perhaps, he’ll adjust the way he plays to protect his back and to limit his deep balls. He can still help the Cowboys win games, but I don’t think he can do it as the focal point of the offense.

McClain
2. Rolando McClain showed me something by playing all but one snap of Sunday’s win over Tennessee, especially when the Titans spent a lot of the game using formations with three receivers. That means McClain spent a lot of time in the nickel, and he seemed to operate just fine. Each of the first two weeks, he has put a hit on an opposing player that we haven’t seen around here lately. He’s tackling with bad intentions. The Cowboys haven’t really had a player do that since Roy Williams.

3. Sterling Moore is the kind of NFL player who’s not quite big enough, fast enough or quick enough to excite the coaching staff. But every time they have to use him, he does a pretty solid job. Jason Garrett wants us to believe it doesn’t matter where you came from or where you were drafted. Well, when Orlando Scandrick returns this week, it’ll be interesting to see how much they use Scandrick on the outside and Moore in the slot, while Claiborne heads to the bench when the Cowboys are in their nickel defense.

Key stat: 12-1

The Cowboys improved to 12-1 when DeMarco Murray gets 20 carries or more in a game. Murray gained 167 yards on a career-high 29 carries against Tennessee on Sunday. It’s no surprise the Cowboys have a winning record when he gets the ball that much because it means the Cowboys are controlling the line of scrimmage and the game. All of that means they can keep handing the ball to Murray. But if all it took was 20 carries to Murray to win the game, then they’d just give it to him the first 20 plays of each game. Zack Martin has given the Cowboys three quality offensive linemen -- Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick are the others -- and two solid players in Doug Free and Ron Leary. The Cowboys feel comfortable running off left or right tackle as well pulling each each guard as well as running wide to each side. That makes their running attack versatile and dangerous and it should result in more games with 20 carries for Murray.

Player to Watch: Joseph Randle

A lot of folks were disappointed when Joseph Randle made the Cowboys’ final roster and Ryan Williams didn’t. You should understand the decision now. Williams is every bit as good as Randle as a runner -- some would argue he’s better -- but there’s no comparison between them as a pass protector or special teams contributor. Randle has been a good special teams player the first two weeks -- not just a guy along for the ride -- and he’s been a much more explosive runner than we was as a rookie. He looks like a player who understands his role, has accepted it and is trying to persuade the coaching staff to give him a bigger role.

Three thoughts from Cowboys' loss

September, 8, 2014
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IRVING - Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 28-17 loss to San Francisco.

Tony Romo won’t be as bad as he was against San Francisco anytime soon. For now, we can chalk this one up to an aberration.

Think about it, Romo threw 10 interceptions all of last season, and he had just two games with more than one interception last season. This is only second time in the last 24 games Romo has thrown three or more interceptions in a game.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe Cowboys are 1-10 in games in which Tony Romo throws three or more interceptions.
In 109 starts, this is only the 11th time Romo has thrown three interceptions or more in a game. The Cowboys are 1-10 in those games with nine consecutive losses, which should surprise no one.

This team can’t win if the offense is going to make the litany of mistakes it did Sunday, whether we're talking Romo’s bonehead plays, DeMarco Murray’s critical fumble or Tyron Smith’s rough night. And the Cowboys can’t kick field goals or commit turnovers in the red zone. These Cowboys need to score touchdowns to keep this defense propped up.

Finally, Romo must understand he doesn’t have to do everything. Sometimes, it’s OK to run he ball against an eight-man front.

2) No one thought the Cowboys would be able to run the ball and push around San Francisco’s front seven, but that’s what they did.

Murray rushed for 118 yards on 22 carries with a touchdown. His performance snapped San Francisco’s league-leading streak of 17 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.

And he did it in three quarters and without a run longer than 15 yards. If the Cowboys keep games close then Murray will be a weapon all season.

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San Francisco allowed just 95.8 yards rushing per game last season. Murray gained at least 5 yards on 12 of his 22 carries, and he was dropped for a loss just once.

They did it against a unit Travis Frederick said the Cowboys would have trouble running against because they were so fundamentally sound.

3) The Cowboys allowed a league-leading 71 completions of 20 yards or more last season.

Not much changed Sunday. Once again, big plays doomed the Cowboys. San Francisco gained 316 yards, but 107 came on four plays.

A 37-yard catch-and-run by Anquan Boldin preceded Vernon Davis’ 29-yard touchdown catch that gave San Francisco a 14-3 lead. A 21-yard completion to Stevie Johnson late in the second quarter set up Carlos Hyde’s 4-yard touchdown run for a 28-3 lead.

The Cowboys must lower that number significantly, or they’re going to give up a lot of points.

Key number: 58 percent

When you struggle to rush the passer, and your best cornerback (Orlando Scandrick) is suspended for the first four games, it should surprise no one the Cowboys struggled with their third-down defense.

San Francisco converted 7 of 12 (58 percent).

Their first three conversions were each 8 yards, which is supposed to be difficult, but with cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr playing off the line of scrimmage it wasn’t that difficult.

Without a pass rush, it’s going to be an adventure on third down all season.

Player to Watch: Bruce Carter

Carter struggled last season and much of the preseason. The Cowboys wanted to draft Ryan Shazier in the first round to replace him, but Pittsburgh selected him one pick ahead of the Cowboys.

He even lost his weakside linebacker job to Justin Durant. But the Cowboys moved him strong side linebacker, and he took Kyle Wilber’s job.

Well, he did a nice job against San Francisco with five tackles, one sack, one pass deflection and a quarterback hit. If he’ll play like that all season, there’s hope this defense won’t be among the league’s worst.

Three thoughts on the Cowboys

September, 5, 2014
9/05/14
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IRVING -- Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys, who open the season Sunday against San Francisco.

1) Tony Romo played one half and 14 plays in the preseason.

Yes, he took a pretty good beating against Miami, but that was only a half.

Romo
He will get the full game against San Francisco’s defense, which remains a physical group even though it’s missing several starters because of injury or suspension. He will get hit and hit hard on a regular basis.

This is the truest test for Romo’s back that we will see. If he survives and has no issues getting ready for Tennessee next week, then you should be able to take a deep breath and relax, because it means Romo is really ready to go.

2) We will get a good feel this week for the Cowboys' alleged commitment to the run.

San Francisco did not allow a 100-yard rusher last season and finished fourth in the NFL in run defense (95.9 yards per game).

"The one thing you notice about San Francisco’s defense is that everyone does his job," Dallas center Travis Frederick said. "There’s no hero ball. If they’re supposed to be in a gap, they’re in it.

"This is a week where it’s going to be ugly. They don’t give up big plays in the running game. A four-yard run is a good play this week."

When the running game isn’t dominant, the Cowboys have a tendency to give up regardless of the score. We will see if play-caller Scott Linehan takes a new approach.

3) Middle linebacker Rolando McClain will get a strong test this week.

San Francisco is a physical running team without a lot of frills. Running back Frank Gore won’t be hard to find. He will be between the tackles, which is where McClain does his best work.

The Cowboys need McClain to be a dominant presence against San Francisco’s running game or the 49ers’ offense will score 35 points.

Key number: 48

Since Jason Garrett took over the Cowboys’ offense, they have usually been among the leaders in completions of 20 yards or more.

Last season, the Cowboys had 48 completions of 20 yards or more, tied for only 17th in the NFL. In 2012, they were 9th with 55.

You could certainly argue that last season's play-caller Bill Callahan, brought up in the West Coast offense, and his dink-and-dunk approach contributed to the lack of big plays in the passing game

Linehan likes going deep. He will challenge San Francisco’s secondary.

Player to Watch: Morris Claiborne

The No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 draft is only starting at cornerback because Orlando Scandrick has been suspended for the first four games after violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Claiborne missed the entire preseason with knee and shoulder injuries, so he will make his debut in the opener.

Claiborne doesn’t have to be great, but the Cowboys need him to be a solid player against a really good group of receivers. Otherwise, the defense is really going to struggle.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 27-3 loss to the Denver Broncos.

1) Brandon Weeden didn’t do much over the last three preseason games to inspire much confidence, if the Cowboys need him to play.

Weeden
Jason Garrett said he did the usual array of good things and bad things in the game, but the troubling thing during the preseason is that he seems to have a habit of staring down his receivers. Other times, he’s not decisive and he either throws the ball late or scrambles because the receiver is no longer open.

He finished the preseason 34-of-57 for 388 yards with two interceptions and two touchdowns.

The reality is that if the Cowboys need him to play this season, he’ll be behind the starting offensive line and he’ll have enough weapons that all he has to do is manage the game.

2) No team wants to go winless in preseason. Jerry Jones did his best to put a positive spin on it by referencing his first preseason as the Cowboys’ owner.

The Cowboys went 3-1 in the preseason and 1-15 during the 1989 season.

“Well, it has always concerned me,” Jones said. “On the other hand, the first year I came in the NFL, we were undefeated going into the Denver game. Dan Reeves was their coach. He was a disciple of Tom Landry and he was hot over the fact that Coach Landry and those things had been done here with the Cowboys.

“He left [John] Elway in all the way through the game and we played into overtime to beat the Cowboys so we didn’t go undefeated.

“We went 4-1. Thought this is going to work. We won one football game that year. So much for preseason.”

3) Dustin Vaughan isn’t going to make the final roster.

This team has too many issues on defense and players such as Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Lawrence need roster spots even though they aren’t playing for several weeks. Vaughan is a great fit for the practice squad, and if the 6-foot-5, 235-pound undrafted free agent gets claimed by another team then that’s just a tough break.

Other teams have issues with their rosters and most teams don’t keep a third quarterback.

Key number: -56

It’s just the preseason and coach Jason Garrett stayed committed to evaluating personnel.

Still, it must be discouraging to get outscored by 56 points, the largest point differential in the league, as the Cowboys went winless in the preseason.

The Cowboys have gone winless in the preseason five times. Only the 1998 team that still had Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders made the playoffs.

Player to Watch: Rolando McClain

McClain
Rolando McClain is the most intriguing defensive player on the roster. He has every physical skill you want in a linebacker, but none of us really knows how much he wants to play.

He says the right things on the rare occasion he speaks publicly, but he’s missed several practices as he gets his body used to playing football again. After all, this is a player who’s retired twice in the past year, so you’re always waiting to see if he’ll retire a third time.

The Cowboys are trying their best not to depend on him, which is good. But they need help at linebacker, so it’s only a matter of time before they get seduced by his talent and put him in the starting lineup.

“I don’t think Rolando is going to be the savior of this team,” Jerry Jones said. “We don’t have Sean Lee, but Rolando does have the skill level to come in here and really add to what we can do.

“We’re going to need him, but I don’t want anybody to think I expect him to be Dick Butkus or even Sean Lee.”
MIAMI -- Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 25-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins

1) Tyler Patmon, an undrafted rookie free agent, intercepted two passes (returning one for a TD) and forced a fumble.

Ultimately, the game is about making plays and he provided the coaching staff with several reasons why he should be on the roster, especially at a position where the Cowboys have a plethora of questions.

[+] EnlargeTyler Patmon
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyTyler Patmon, right, made a number of big plays against the Dolphins, including making two interceptions.
Patmon forced a fumble with a perfect open-field hit at the Dallas 36-yard line, ending one potential Miami scoring drive.

In the third quarter, he intercepted starter Ryan Tannehill's underthrown pass along the sideline at the Dallas 5. Patmon made his biggest play in the fourth quarter, intercepting a swing pass at the Miami 9 and returning it for a touchdown that gave Dallas a 20-11 lead with about seven minutes left.

Each play changed the game, and it will help that Patmon made his first two plays against Miami’s starters.

2) In case you didn’t know it, Dwayne Harris showed why he’s one of the Cowboys’ most valuable players.

He’s a difference-maker on kick and punt returns, the kind of player who will help the Cowboys win a couple of games this season with his work in the return game.

He averaged 38.5 yards on two kickoff returns, including a 50-yard return that he nearly took back for a touchdown. He has outstanding vision and a feel for the soft spots in coverage, and once he sees an opening he attacks it.

3) Right now, safety Ahmad Dixon gets the vote for the player most likely to give Jason Garrett a migraine. Or turn his red hair gray.

Still, there’s something to like about Dixon’s aggressive -- perhaps reckless is a better word -- approach. If it can be harnessed, then Dixon could eventually be a really nice addition to this secondary.

Last week, he didn’t play as punishment for being late to a walk-through practice the day before the Baltimore game. Against Miami, he made a poor decision that resulted in a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness late in the fourth quarter.

On third-and-9 from Dallas' 22-yard line with 2:11 left, Miami quarterback Matt Moore overthrew receiver Matt Hazel near the goal line. Dixon might have been able to intercept the pass if he hadn’t been so intent on punishing Hazel.

Instead, Dixon blasted Hazel in the chest. It was a classic example of hitting a defenseless receiver and drew a penalty.

An incompletion would’ve forced Miami, trailing 20-19, to attempt a field goal and would’ve given Dallas an additional 30 seconds or so to rally had Miami made the kick.

The penalty moved the ball to the Dallas 11 and five plays later Miami scored the go-ahead touchdown.

Key number: 3.4

The Cowboys gained only 110 yards on 32 first-half plays. Tony Romo played the entire first half, so that excuse has been eliminated. The Cowboys didn’t have any pass plays of 20 yards or more or running plays of 10 yards or more, so we shouldn’t be surprised their offense produced just two field goals. More important, they failed to control the line of scrimmage.

Player to Watch: Ryan Williams

Williams is doing his best to make it difficult for the Cowboys to cut him. He finished with 12 carries for 47 yards, a 3.9 yard average per carry, but he’s a more dynamic runner than Joseph Randle.

The problem, of course, is the third running back has considerably more responsibilities than just running the ball since DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar will get the vast majority of carries.

Randle is better in pass protection and he’s better on special teams. Randle delivered a big hit on kickoff coverage against Miami. The Cowboys can suit him up and know he has a role; they can’t do that with Williams.

This is the best competition for a roster spot on the team. Each week, Williams makes it more difficult.

He has one more opportunity to sway the coaching staff, but he needs to do it without the ball in his hands.
IRVING, Texas -- Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys:

1. If you choose to be positive, there are some scenarios where the Cowboys’ defensive line could be solid instead of a disaster.

Spencer
Melton
It all starts with defensive tackles Henry Melton (knee, groin) and Terrell McClain (ankle) and defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee) getting healthy. Spencer and Melton can be good players and McClain can be solid.

Add defensive ends George Selvie, Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey to the mix, along with rookie DeMarcus Lawrence after he returns from his broken foot, and the Cowboys would be pretty happy with that rotation.

It will require considerable good fortune to get Spencer and Melton each playing at a high level early this season, but if it happened, the Cowboys would have a pretty good defensive line rotation without much drop off between the starters and backups.

2. The cornerback situation the first month of the season will be dire.

Morris Claiborne had a strong start to training camp, but he hasn’t been able to sustain it. Knee and shoulder injuries have limited him since the first week of practice.

The Cowboys are trying to get him ready for the first game against San Francisco, but we have no idea how long his body will hold up. They can’t trust him to be healthy enough to play, which is a concern since Orlando Scandrick will miss the first month of the season after violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Heading into the opener, Brandon Carr is the only proven cornerback on the roster the Cowboys know will be ready for the opener. That's scary.

3. Receiver Jamar Newsome had a nice game against Baltimore, as did fifth-round pick Devin Street.

Tim Benford has been on the practice squad each of the last two years, Chris Boyd has good size and potential and LaRon Byrd has been a good special-teams player in the past.

Street, a fifth-round pick, will make the team, but it’s going to be tough for any of the other receivers to make it. The Cowboys will probably keep five receivers: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris and Street. One of the other guys will have to be a beast on special teams to make the roster.

Key number: 20

The Cowboys had only 20 drives of 10 plays or more last season. Only Miami and the New York Giants had fewer. It was the result of the Cowboys' struggles on third down, which prevented them from sustaining drives, and their inconsistent running game. Too many times the Cowboys were in third-and-long situations that didn’t put them in position to convert.

They must do better this season to protect their defense and keep them off the field.

Player to Watch: Tyler Clutts

Jason Garrett has talked all training camp about establishing a physical presence and how much a true fullback will help the Cowboys do that.

Clutts has been doing a good job working with DeMarco Murray and taking advantage of his limited opportunities, but to win the job he must prove himself more valuable to the offense than the third receiver or second tight end.

He needs to be a core player on special teams, and he needs to be a difference-maker on the 12 to 15 crucial goal-line and short-yardage plays the Cowboys will have this season.
IRVING -- Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys’ 37-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens:

1. Play-caller Scott Linehan’s mission during the preseason is to show San Francisco as little as possible of the offense he plans to unveil in Week 1.

But you should like the little we've seen during the first two preseason games.

Linehan is making a concerted effort to run the ball -- the Cowboys starters ran on eight of 14 plays -- and he’s mixed in a liberal dose of play-action passes. He’s using screen passes to slow down the opponent’s pass rush, and it all looks good.

Obviously, you can’t get too carried away because there’s a difference between calling plays in the preseason and calling plays in games that count, but the philosophical approach Linehan is taking bodes well for the regular season.

2. Zach Minter has been with the Cowboys for only a few days, but he made quite an impact against Baltimore with two sacks, two tackles for loss and quarterback hit.

Yes, he did it against Baltimore’s second- and third-team, but that’s still a ton of production.

What it probably means for Minter, who played two games with the Bears last season, is he’ll get a chance against Miami’s starters next week to see if he can make the same type of impact. Whether he does or not, he showed every youngster on the roster how to get the coaching staff’s attention.

3. One of the intriguing questions in training camp revolves around the Cowboys’ long-term view of quarterback Dustin Vaughan.

Do they see the 6-5, 235-pounder as a career backup? A marginal starter? A frontline starter?

The Cowboys haven't kept a third quarterback on the active roster in years because each roster spot is too important to keep a developmental player who’s unlikely to play.

Vaughan, an undrafted free agent from West Texas A&M, turned in his second consecutive good performance during the fourth quarter. The Cowboys would love to add him to their practice squad, but they must first expose him to waivers to do so.

That means every club would have an opportunity to sign him. Based on what we’ve seen from him, thus far, some team would claim him because quarterbacks are hard to find.

Tony Romo, 34, has had two back surgeries in the past year. No one really knows whether his back will hold up for a year, two years or five years. If the Cowboys view Vaughan as a player with a long-term future, even if it’s as a quality backup, they should keep him.

Key number: 141

Detroit quarterback Matt Stafford threw 141 play-action passes last season. Tony Romo threw 73.

Romo was good at it -- he had a passer rating of 111.2 with six touchdowns and no interceptions on those passes. The Cowboys just didn’t give him enough opportunities.

That will change this year.

Player to Watch: Ahmad Dixon

Dixon, a seventh-round draft pick, turned in a terrific performance against San Diego in the Cowboys’ first preseason game with 12 tackles.

He didn’t record any tackles Saturday night because he didn’t play after being benched for missing a walk-through practice.

The first game created a margin of error for Dixon. Well, he’s used it. Now, Dixon needs a good week of practice and a strong game against Miami to sustain the momentum he created against San Diego.
Orlando Scandrick, one of the best players on an abject defense, will miss the first four games of the season after violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

Scandrick
And you thought a defense that allowed 415.3 yards and 27.0 points per game last season couldn’t get worse.

Well, it just did. This is a huge hit for a team with a shaky cornerback situation.

Morris Claiborne hasn’t practiced in more than a week. He has yet another training camp injury that prevented him from playing in the preseason opener for the third consecutive season.

Brandon Carr missed the first three weeks of training camp to be with his family as he dealt with the death of his mother.

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Neither one of those guys plays with the edge Scandrick does, which is important on a unit devoid of playmakers. He’s the one cornerback not afraid to challenge Dez Bryant on every snap of each practice.

He always believes he’s the best player on the field -- even when it’s clear that he’s not. Scandrick’s unshakable confidence has helped make him a good player.

Understand, Scandrick is also one of the smartest players on defense, which is why it’s hard to believe he did something so dumb. He reportedly took a drug that’s on the NFL’s banned list while vacationing in Mexico.

There’s no acceptable excuse for that.

All players have to do is check with the NFL to see whether whatever they’re about to ingest is on the list. If they don’t, they deserve whatever happens.

In this case, it’s a four-game suspension that will force him to miss games against San Francisco, Tennessee, St. Louis and New Orleans.

A bad defense just became worse. And one of its best players is to blame.
OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 16 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

1. You can’t get fooled by anything you see in a preseason football game, especially the first one.

Randle
Several starters, including Tony Romo, didn’t play against San Diego, and the Cowboys did little game-planning for this game. Still, you should be pleased with play-caller Scott Linehan’s first game calling plays for the Cowboys.

San Diego stopped Joseph Randle for no gain on the game’s first carry. Normally, the Cowboys would throw the ball on second down. Instead, Randle carried again. This time he gained 10 yards and a first down. He gained six yards on his third straight carry.

Then Brandon Weeden faked a handoff and thew a deep post to Dwayne Harris, who dropped a pass that was a tad high. Harris had created so much separation that he might have scored had he caught the ball. The Cowboys finished the first half with 17 passes and 15 runs, and that’s with Weeden throwing seven straight times to end the half.

No one expects the Cowboys to have a 50-50 run pass ratio, but anything over 62 percent passes is not a winning number for the majority of NFL teams. Only New Orleans made the playoffs throwing the ball that much -- and they have to be considered an outlier because their team is built to play that way.

2. A defense playing the Tampa 2 scheme isn’t supposed to give up big plays.

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The entire defense is predicated on making the offense drive the ball methodically down the field until it makes a mistake or the defense makes a play. The Cowboys gave up a league-high 252 plays of 10+ yards last season, and the preseason game didn’t reveal much improvement.

Few starters played Thursday, but conceptually it’s still a tad surprising to see the defense allow so many big plays. Dallas allowed 14 plays of 10 yards or more, including five of more than 20 yards. Those 14 plays accounted for 297 yards; the Chargers gained just 98 yards on their other 44 plays.

The defense will obviously improve as the starters begin to play next week, but the big plays will continue to be concerning until they stop happening so frequently.

3. The starting offensive line did a nice job creating running lanes, and the pass protection was nearly flawless.

The one time Brandon Weeden did get pressured, he stepped up into the pocket and scrambled for positive yards. The strength of this team will be the offensive line, and they showed quite a few positives in one series.

Key number: 27

The Cowboys had 27 players who didn’t play against San Diego, including 13 starters or key contributors. Most weren’t hurt, and the Cowboys didn’t want to take a chance anyone would get hurt. Even a key role player such as Lance Dunbar spent the game on the sideline.

Player to Watch: Uche Nwaneri

Nwaneri has started 91 of 95 games the past six seasons for Jacksonville. He will be fortunate to make the roster, an indication the one thing head coach Jason Garrett has done right is re-build the offensive line.

Mackenzey Bernadeau, who plays center and guard, is the sixth offensive lineman and Jermey Parnell will probably be the third tackle and seventh lineman, though he needs to play better.

If the Cowboys keep an eighth offensive lineman, Nwaneri is probably competing against a player such as John Wetzel, a 23-year-old with a year of experience, who can play guard and tackle. Nwaneri is the better player now, but will he be at the end of the season? And do the Cowboys want to pay him $855,000 instead of the $495,000 Wetzel would earn?

Nwaneri is a solid veteran and the Cowboys wouldn’t have any issue using him in a game, but he must be considerably better than a youngster to earn a roster spot. Especially because the Cowboys usually only dress seven lineman on game day, and he would be inactive most weeks because Bernadeau can play two positions.

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