Observation deck: Cowboys-Broncos

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
12:16
AM ET
I'm not sure if there are fans out there who care whether or not their teams actually win preseason games. But if you're a Dallas Cowboys fan and you do, then the ending of Thursday night's preseason opener was fun. Stephen McGee's touchdown pass to Dwayne Harris in the final minute, and the two-point conversion play that followed to give the Cowboys a 24-23 exhibition victory over the Denver Broncos, provided decent (if meaningless) theater for fans happy to have football back after so long.

Of course, if you're enough of a fan to care about the final score, you almost certainly care even more about the stuff that was going on hours earlier, when the first-teamers were in the game. Here's what I saw from the Cowboys in their first preseason game:

1. The defense is a work in progress, and appears to know it. They've had just two weeks, since the lockout ended, to learn and adjust to Rob Ryan's new scheme. They are still learning. Especially in the secondary, there were lots of times early on where guys were looking around or at each other after the play as if they were trying to figure out what should have happened. The safeties got caught looking into the backfield at critical times. They did a fine job on the goal line in the first quarter, holding the Broncos to a field goal after Kyle Orton had marched down the field somewhat easily, and they got some nice pressure from defensive ends Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher. But overall, this looked like a defense that's still learning. And that's fine. No one would have expected them to know Ryan's scheme already. He's keeping things simple, withholding the kinds of complicated blitzes and fake-out looks we'll surely see from him as his players get more comfortable with their assignments. These preseason games will be part of the learning process for a defense that will surely look better one, two and three months hence than it does now, and the Cowboys should not be judged on their inability to stop Orton or Tim Tebow on this particular night.

2. Tyron Smith is talented. The Cowboys' first-round draft pick failed to pick up a safety blitz, and that led to a sack. But overall, he held his own against the Broncos' line. What I liked best may have been the fact that, after almost every play, you could see Smith talking to Kyle Kosier as they walked back to the huddle. Moving the veteran Kosier to the right side to play next to the rookie Smith was a sharp idea, and as Smith also uses these games as learning opportunities, he'll benefit from proximity to the Cowboys' brainy guard.

3. More Victor Butler, please. If they don't think they can snap Anthony Spencer back into his late-2009 form, why not use Butler as a pass-rusher on the side opposite DeMarcus Ware? All reports indicate that he's looked good in practice and has a grasp of the scheme and the playbook. He was everywhere Thursday night when he was in the game. With a new coordinator in town, it makes sense to think guys will have chances to play their way into more playing time and larger roles, and Butler could be such a guy.

4. Felix Jones looks speedy. I mean, real nice bust through the line in his first-quarter action. We didn't see Tashard Choice or DeMarco Murray tonight, and Lonyae Miller failed to impress in what was thought to be his big chance. But Jones looked like a guy who wants to be a full-time starting running back in the league and has the tools to make it happen. Time will tell if this is the year, whether he'll have the opportunity to do so and how much he'll rotate with Choice and Murray. But Jones was fun to watch Thursday.

5. How about Dwayne Harris? There doesn't appear to be an immediate threat on the roster to Kevin Ogletree's hold on the No. 3 receiver spot. But if Ogletree struggles, there are some playmakers further down the depth chart. Harris caught two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and looked tough as he created space and outfought a defender or two for the ball in a couple of spots.

6. Of course David Buehler's field goal was good. Hey, look. As I watched it, I was sure it had missed, too. But the official is standing right there under the upright, and there's pretty much no way to miss that call. It was ugly, but it was good, and it was the only field goal either he or Dan Bailey, his competitor for the kicker job, attempted all night. Buehler made his one extra point attempt and Bailey didn't get a chance at his because of a bungled snap. Bailey handled all the kickoffs, presumably because the Cowboys have no concerns about Buehler's ability to kick the ball through the back of the end zone now that it appears almost everyone can. No blood drawn, it would seem, in the kicker competition Thursday.

7. Stephen McGee. No idea what to make of it, since he was playing with and against backups, but the young man played some very nice football in this game and deserves to be recognized for that. At the very least, he provides potential fodder for the nuts who think Tony Romo should be replaced if the Cowboys don't win the Super Bowl. And that's good. Got to keep the nuts happy.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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