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Spagnola: Cowboys Moving The Ball Without Much Flair

Posted Aug 10, 2013


OXNARD, Calif. – There’s vanilla.

         And then there is Dallas Cowboys double-secret ultra-vanilla.

         That’s exactly what we saw Friday night at something called O.co Coliseum from that Cowboys offense in a 19-17 preseason game No. 2 loss to the Oakland Raiders.

         Not surprising to say the least.

         Generally, teams do not like to show much of anything they are planning new for the upcoming season in a mere preseason game, especially just the second of what will be five for the Cowboys this summer. And that’s doubly especially when playing an opponent they will be facing at some time during the regular season.

         So no way was head coach Jason Garrett going to give the Oakland Raiders any hint of what might be coming down the pipe during the 2013 season from this Cowboys offense, even if the two teams won’t meet until Thanksgiving Day at AT&T Stadium, Game 12 of the regular season. Not an entirely new offense, granted, but one with two tight ends becoming the base set and now Bill Callahan calling the plays.

         And, of course, one with quarterback Tony Romo having a little more say in game-planning and the implementation of some new plays he’s partial, too, instead of the 11th-year veteran having to, as owner Jerry Jones likes to say, “draw those plays up in the dirt,” which he could have Friday night quite easily since a good portion of the O’s field is consumed by the A’s infield.

         There likely was some great anticipation on everyone’s part to see just how all this would work with the first-team offense making its 2013 preseason debut since only the first-team offensive line was allowed to work during last Sunday’s Hall of Fame game. You know, Romo and Jason Witten and Dez Bryant and Miles Austin and DeMarco Murray and them finally out there playing together.

         There would be Witten and James Hanna, maybe some Gavin Escobar and Dante Rosario, too, showcasing these two-tight sets we’ve been witnessing here during training camp practices at the River Ridge complex, practices that resume Sunday evening after Saturday’s off day. Then, too, some of these new pass plays that have become a staple of camp workouts. Oh boy.

         And what?

         Nothing. As vanilla as you can get.

         Oh, the Cowboys ran some two-tight sets, but for the majority of the first-team offense’s two series, and even when Kyle Orton was in there running things behind the first offensive line with backups galore at running back and wide receiver, the Cowboys, of all things for everyone anticipating a hard-charging running attack, seemed to be in three-receiver sets more than anything.

         They weren’t about to expose much of anything, and from my understanding only did so with a couple of plays just to help keep a couple of drives alive to create more reps for some of the younger guys. Secrets are secrets, and no sense putting too much on tape for the Giants to start going to school on at this early date.

         In fact, for all those readily jumping to conclusions about this perceived “new” Cowboys offensive philosophy following that first preseason game in which they ran the ball 34 times and threw it only 21 – you know, see there that Bill Callahan, he’ll emphasize the run more – well, surprise, surprise, in this game against the Raiders the Cowboys ran the ball only 20 times and threwit around 32 times – the very reason no one should draw undeniable conclusions from these practice games.

         Talk about holding the play-call sheet over your mouth to prevent lip reading.

         But having said all this, the Cowboys still piled up 171 yards of total offense in the first half with Romo and Orton totaling three series, scoring on two of them and likely would have scored on all three if not for a blocked 26-yard field-goal attempt Mr. Automatic, Dan Bailey, surely would have made.

         OK, can hear the grumbling in the background already. While that all might be true, you’re screaming, same ol’, same ol’ with the Cowboys offense, three penalties inside the Oakland 30 turned potential touchdown drives into field-goal attempts. The nerve of that Witten to get caught holding, or for potentially first-time starter Ronald Leary to false start and Hanna to do so also.

         And as Garrett said afterward, bemoaning the penalties, the blocked field goal and the game-turning fumbled punt by rookie B.W. Webb, “We’ll continue to harp on that.”

         But did you see, or you should have seen, the ease in which Romo hooked up with Bryant three times for 55 yards; with Austin on slants twice for 22 yards; Orton with Cole Beasley twice, the second for a 15-yard touchdown.

         And guess what? Of the 32 attempts, only three times were tight ends targeted, and only one of those Witten. That ain’t going to happen, Witten targeted just once in a game. Please.

           Just look at the first-half stats alone, a half the Cowboys had a 10-6 lead, for what that matters. Romo and Orton were a combined 12 of 14 for 140 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, one sack, finishing with a QB rating of 132.1. Bryant, Austin and Beasley finished the game combining for eight catches on eight targets, totaling 126 yards and the Beasley touchdown.

         And for the most part Romo and Orton had the time of day in the pocket behind what most perceive as a worrisome offensive line. Hmmm, while the Cowboys are keeping their eyes open for fortuitous opportunities to enhance that crew, particularly at guard, maybe what you saw Friday night isn’t all that bad, from left to right Tyron Smith, Leary, Travis Frederick, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Doug Free. Especially since, unlike the other four, Bernadeau was playing for the first time after returning from injury.

         Maybe their main problem up front is really who is playing behind these guys, especially at tackle since with Jermey Parnell injured (hamstring) and veteran Demetress Bell still trying to get in shape, there isn’t much to write home about. As Jones said after the game, making a move up front “would be determined by the opportunity” available, meaning he’s not necessarily desperate to sign just anybody at this moment.

         Romo did get sacked once, but did you see how long he had in the pocket before everything collapsed? And he did have Austin wide open in the end zone, but explained later, on that particular play that Austin was his third read and by time he got there, Austin was covered and pocket time had expired.

         “I don’t want to get away from here without talking about the offensive line,” Romo said. “There were a couple of times I had all day and we had a sack, an incompletion on those two plays, so that’s going to help us a lot if we’re able to do that.

         “That’s different. I know what it’s like to play behind that, and having that ability like they did tonight would be a huge bonus for us.”

         So with three more preseason games to play, another five training camp practices this week, resuming Sunday evening, there is time to clean things up while still playing peek-a-boo with play-calls and offensive intentions.

          And oh, by the way, if now your concern is the ability to run the ball more efficiently, at the conclusion of the first half, when the first-team offensive line retired for the evening, the Cowboys had run the ball six times for 36 yards with Murray, Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner, a 6-yard average following last Sunday night’s 5-yard mark.

          "It was good," Romo said of what took place in the team’s first three offensive series. “We did what we’ve been doing in training camp and moved the ball real well. We were holding back on a lot of our stuff, red zone stuff and some other things. We would have liked to have scored a touchdown, but we got hurt by penalties more than anything, and that aspect of it is just going to hurt you no matter what.

          “So we have to avoid that [and] stress that this week, and we’re going to make sure that stops.”

           But probably not the double-scoops of vanilla approach.

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