Observation deck: Cowboys-Dolphins

September, 2, 2011
9/02/11
11:15
AM ET
With the Dallas Cowboys' and New York Giants' games still to go, I picked the Cowboys to watch first because I wanted to see rookie running back DeMarco Murray. So it was nice of the kid to catch a 48-yard screen pass up the left side on the team's first play from scrimmage. We've seen the Cowboys use the screen game a lot this preseason, with Tony Romo throwing to starting running back Felix Jones, and it appears as though the Cowboys would like to use the weapons they have on offense to spread out the defense when possible and trade on their speed.

Murray looks like a guy who can help with that. He looked excellent when they got him on the outside, in space, around the edge, able to pick up big chunks of yardage in those spots. That speaks to his athletic ability, which surely showed up on pre-draft tape, and wasn't really a surprise. What the Cowboys and their fans wanted to see from Murray on Thursday night was how Murray looked running between the tackles. With a little more than a minute to go in the first quarter, after picking up 9 yards on first down on a run to the outside, Murray drove hard through the middle to pick up the first down on second-and-1.

A few plays later, on a first-and-15, he showed good patience and made a critical cut at the line to pick up 3 yards when it looked as if he wouldn't get any. So he showed speed, power and judgment. Maybe a little more of a straight-line guy than you'd like him to be, but he clearly brings a lot to the table and should be a more than adequate replacement for Marion Barber as a changeup guy who can give Jones a breather here and there. I was impressed, and if the Cowboys decide to commit to the run game this year, it looks as though they'll have good options.

Some other stuff I saw in the Cowboys' final preseason game, a meaningless 17-3 loss to the Dolphins in Miami:

1. Speaking of running backs ... Phillip Tanner! This guy has been one of my favorite breakout preseason studs, and it was nice to hear Jerry Jones say on the broadcast that Tanner had made the team. I don't know what it means for Tashard Choice, and it sounds as though the Cowboys have yet to sort all of that out, but Tanner has played well enough to earn his spot. I just really like the way he runs -- strong, determined, feet constantly moving. He already has down some technique aspects of the running back position that coaches have to work to teach more talented guys. Interesting deep bench option for them, and he's good enough to make Choice wonder where he stands in terms of playing time, if not roster spot.

2. Rookie offensive linemen. Right tackle Tyron Smith didn't have his best game, getting beaten around the edge early in the game and picking up a false-start penalty later in the first half. But there are times -- more often than not, actually -- when he looks like an unstoppable mauler on that right side. I believe he'll be fine. Left guard Bill Nagy had a couple of tough moments as well (I believe the sack of Stephen McGee with 5:00 left in the half was on Nagy), but it says a lot to me that he seemed to be the one on the left side making the line calls with the starters (specifically Kyle Kosier) not in the game. The Cowboys consider Nagy a relatively seasoned rookie who knows a lot about how to play the position -- and a lot about the responsibilities of the other linemen as well. It wasn't surprising to see him with extra responsibility in a game full of backups, but I wonder if it affected his own play. Still looks like he could stand to get stronger. And finally, rookie center Kevin Kowalski, who I guess is now Phil Costa's backup at center, lost his helmet on a play early in the second quarter and kept mixing it up. Which isn't super-smart, but if you're looking for tough, crazy offensive linemen it's the kind of thing you like to see.

3. Montrae Holland surprised. He's been reduced to a backup role, but it's going to be an important one given the relative uncertainty with the starters on the offensive line. Holland came to camp overweight and had some injury issues that kept him out of action, so the Cowboys didn't know how much he'd be able to play Thursday night. But he played the whole first half and looked good, and that helps Dallas feel better about the depth it has on the line.

4. Defense? I don't know. Again, backups all over the field. Bryan McCann got beat by Brian Hartline when he tried to jump a route. Guys like Alan Ball and Barry Church missed tackles on Larry Johnson on Johnson's 22-yard touchdown run. Church made a couple of nice plays otherwise. I was a little more locked in on the offense in this one. Not sure there's much about the defense that bears serious analysis.

5. Receivers. Kevin Ogletree made a nifty after-catch move to pick up a first down near the goal line on a third-down play in the first quarter. Dwayne Harris showed some shiftiness on punt returns. And Michael Irvin, who was once a receiver, was pretty impressive in the broadcast booth! I thought he did a nice job of focusing on serious analysis even when the guys in the booth with him (including Jerry Jones) seemed more interested in trying to talk about Irvin and his career. Felt like he was trying to educate, which good color analysts who played the game at a high level should be doing.

Anyway, next game counts. See ya.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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