CANTON, Ohio– Every year, it's the same thing – without fail.
An abundance of chatter, whether it's emails, radio call-ins or tweets float around suggesting things like "football is back" or "are you ready for some football?"
And then, the first game actually starts and it takes about two minutes to realize it's really not the football game anyone had in mind.
Sure, we knew going in that none of the key players would be out there for the Cowboys. But until you actually see the first play from scrimmage and hear Cowboys legendary radio announcer Brad Sham say, "Orton under center, Harris and Armstrong split out, Beasley in the slot" … that's when you realize that those guys in white look like the Cowboys, but hardly the complete version of the 2013 squad.
Ok, so all that being said, what can we take from Sunday night's Hall of Fame Game – also known as the first of preseason game for the Cowboys?
Well, just look at the two big changes this team made in the offseason. Even without the first-teamers in the lineup, you could see some noticeable differences in a couple of targeted areas:
Again, I know it's early and almost too premature to make a statement about anything. But from this view, how can you not like what you saw from the running game. Actually, it was the entire offensive operation.
Now, we don't know exactly how the Bill Callahan play-calling debut went down, but it definitely looked efficient. With Kyle Orton isn't Tony Romo by any means, and we can say the same for about 10 other guys on both sides of the ball, the way operation of business was clean.
No delay of games. No pre-snap penalties. And more importantly, the plays called were executed effectively, especially in the running game.
Ok, we'll get back to that. Let's not also forget the defense.
The one thing we heard about the 4-3 scheme of Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli is the amount of turnovers their defenses produce. Well, the very first defensive play of the game was ironically a fumble from Miami quarterback Ryan Tanneyhill. Ok, maybe this defense didn't actually force it, but it was a fumble. And defensive tackle Nick Hayden alertly recovered.
And guess what? That helped the running game. But usually, taking over on first-and-goal from the 9 is a tough spot for this team. But a couple of runs from Phillip Tanner and then a pass interference penalty on the Dolphins trying to stop Cole Beasley, set up a Tanner 1-yard run to start the scoring.
It might have been just a short-yardage touchdown on a play filled with backups. But the Cowboys absolutely needed a play like that from their running game. Too many times over the last few years they have been stopped cold trying to punch it in. We've seen Tony Romo have to throw the ball way too many times on third-and-1 situations, especially down in the red zone.
I'm certainly not suggesting the Cowboys' running game woes have been or will be fixed simply because Tanner found a way to score Sunday night, or that rookie Kendial Lawrence found the end zone later in the fourth quarter.
But you had to like what the Cowboys were able to do on the ground, from start to finish. No DeMarco Murray in the lineup, but the backups more than picked up the slack. As a team, the Cowboys rushed for 170 yards on 34 attempts for an even 5.0 yard average.
Rookie Joseph Randle picked up 70 yards, Tanner had 59 and Lance Dunbar rushed for 22 on four attempts. All three had personal averages over five yards a carry. And most of it was done in between the tackles.
Even Sunday night, watching Phillip Tanner running early in the game, I wondered out loud why the Cowboys were continuing to use Tanner and not see what Randle would do in his debut. Personally, I've thought Tanner was a good, solid, hard-nosed back but didn't really have a special quality to him. Well, he proved me wrong Sunday night.
Toughness can be special. Going to the locker room with an arm injury and then rushing to get back and contribute is a trait that should never be overlooked. Tanner ran with some desperation. And why not? He knows Dunbar is getting a lot of reps. He knows Randle was drafted. But he ran like a guy fighting for a roster spot on every snap.
Again, it's way early to start praising this revised running game or to anoint running backs coach Gary Brown as the savior to their rushing woes. And we really have no idea what kind of defense Miami will have when it's all said and done.
But for one game – from start to finish, the Cowboys were able to run the ball efficiently and run it when they not only needed to, but when the Dolphins expected it. We haven't always been able to say that, at least not in recent years.
We all know the Cowboys haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Julius Jones in 2006. They haven't had a 1,200-yard rusher in one year since Emmitt Smith.
But who knows? Maybe that won't change this year. It doesn't necessarily mean the running woes will end. But perhaps the Cowboys have found more than just one rushing option. If or when Murray goes down, this offense could have adequate backups from top to bottom.
While it's early to get excited about the running game, the same could be said for the defense. But forcing turnovers has been a huge problem area for the Cowboys. And even though just one defensive starter (Justin Durant) played in the game, they were able to show an aggressive, all-out approach that gave the Dolphins more than they could handle.
They blitzed on the edge. They blitzed some up the middle. And at times, they didn't blitz at all, but guys like Kyle Wilber, George Selvie, Ben Bass, George Selvie and George Selvie found a way to get after the quarterback. Yeah, I added Selvie three times but he deserves more than a single mention. Selvie was outstanding, getting two sacks but also hurrying the quarterback a handful of other times.
The early fumble resulted in a touchdown and then rookie DeVonte Holloman made the highlight of the night with a 75-yard interception return for a score. That's two turnovers and 14 points.
Turnovers create a short field. Short fields allow you to run the ball better. Running the ball better provides more of a ball-controlled offense. And a ball-controlled offense allows you to dictate the tempo and momentum. Doing that usually means you've got the lead and we know what that leads to. [embedded_ad]
So, obviously it's only one game – and a game that is hard to evaluate because of the personnel.
But let's stick with the facts. The Cowboys struggled to run the ball last year. They struggled to get turnovers. And both areas showed major improvements on Sunday and it led to a win.
Does this mean they've turned the corner? Absolutely not. It only means what it means.
And as we sit here in early August, it means the Cowboys appear to be taking baby steps in the direction of fixing some glaring problems of the past few years.