In the end, the Cowboys likely achieved their biggest goal going into the preseason opener against the Raiders – they stayed healthy. But in winning 3-0 to Oakland in a nationally broadcast Monday Night Football game, Dallas showed that there are still a number of objectives that are, to put it kindly, a work in progress.
The team came into this game with 15 players already banged up, including starters Miles Austin, Phil Costa, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and Morris Claiborne, with Mike Jenkins still recovering as well. The last thing they needed was anyone else in the trainer's room. Fortunately, other than a thumb injury to linebacker Kyle Wilber, the Cowboys came away unscathed.
Perhaps the greatest concern last year and throughout this offseason, however, was the Cowboys' offensive line. The unit struggled during the 2011 campaign, and with injuries playing havoc on the group in training camp, Tony Romo was literally running for his life at times against the Raiders, the quarterback probably all-too happy to put on a ballcap after three series.
"I think we need to eliminate some of the mistakes that put us in a hole tonight," said Romo. "We have a lot of young guys playing right now and we are just going to be able to evaluate this tape and get better from it. Right now is a time for us to correct the mistakes that are on the tape. I think the effort was there tonight, we just need to have better execution and we will."
Tyron Smith, solid last year at right tackle was making his debut on the left side, Doug Free swapping with him back to right tackle. David Arkin, with all of two weeks of work as a center, was in charge of snapping the ball. He was actually flawless in the quarterback exchange, although he struggled at times protecting the man behind him, often simply overpowered.
Throw in Mackenzy Bernadeau at right guard, who only returned from injury last week, and Derrick Dockery lining up at left guard after being signed by the Cowboys on Sunday, and was there any doubt that the offense would have trouble moving the ball?
For his part Romo finished the game connecting on 3-of-6 passing for 30 yards, of which 24 came on his first toss of the game, a target to Dez Bryant down the right sideline. Tight end Jason Witten picked up right where he left off as Romo's security blanket, catching his quarterback's other two completions.
"It was good to get back on the field and compete against a different team after training camp and going against the same guys every day and every week," said DeMarco Murray, who in his first action since his 2011 season was cut short due to an ankle injury didn't gain a yard on two attempts. "It was a great feeling to get out here and get a couple of plays and just continue to work."
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's unit showed flashes of what could be, perhaps both good and bad. Oakland was able to make several sizeable gains, among them a dump-off to running back Darren McFadden on the Raiders' opening drive that picked up 18 yards.
But, the starters were able to clamp down when they needed to and provided something both the Cowboys coaches and their fans were happy to see, an interception from Gerald Sensabaugh. A problematic area going into camp, Sensabaugh and fellow safety Barry Church, provided evidence that the position may be in good hands.
In all, they held Oakland starting quarterback Carson Palmer to just 33 yards on matching 3-of-6 passing, while McFadden picked up an additional 20 yards rushing on two carries.
"I felt like the first team did pretty good," said DeMarcus Ware. "There are always some things that we need to work on, but I think it was a good first half."
With neither team able to do much through a scoreless first quarter, both sides eventually got their big guns out of the game early in the second, the quality of play correspondingly dropping as the night wore on.
Case in point, the Raiders lined up for a field goal at the Dallas 34-yard line on their first possession of the second quarter, and proceeded to muff the snap. Only Victor Butler was called for defensive offsides, the third penalty by the Cowboys' special teams to that point in the game.
Given a second opportunity, Sebastian Janikowski lined for another attempt, this one blocked by Josh Brent, the closest either team came to putting points on the board in the first half of play.
Backup quarterback Kyle Orton received a chance to work the hurry-up offense as the second quarter came to a close, getting the ball at his own 16-yard line with 35 seconds left. Quick passes to tight end James Hannah and wideout Andre Holmes moved the team to the Dallas 41 with 20 seconds remaining, but that came to an abrupt end when Orton overthrew his receiver, strong safety Mike Mitchell there to pick it off, the half ending with the score still 0-0.
The Cowboys actually opened the third quarter with a little rhythm, Orton marching the team 67 yards on 11 plays before Dan Bailey split the uprights on a 33-yard field goal to get Dallas on the board, 3-0. During the drive, Orton hit tight end Andrew Szczerba for a 20-yard strike and connected with Holmes twice for another 20 yards. They kept things balanced as well, Jamize Olawale and Javarris Williams rushing a combined six times during the drive.
With that, Orton was done, going 7-for-12 on his attempts for 87 yards passing, Stephen McGee taking his turn behind center.
In the battle for the third quarterback spot, if indeed the team even decides to keep one, McGee didn't exactly separate himself from Rudy Carpenter. He finished the game 5-for-9 for 48 yards, but failed to move the team past the Raiders' 40-yard line, the score remaining 3-0, thanks in part to a missed field goal by Oakland in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys now head back for their final days in Oxnard perhaps discouraged with only three points put on the board, but pleased defensively with the shutout. Given the question marks on the offensive line, and the hopes for a strong effort from Ryan's group this year, this may have to be the blueprint for success this season for Dallas.