Sure, the games don't count, but hey, football is back. Then again, for the young guys trying to earn a spot on the Dallas Cowboys roster, this start to the preseason definitely carried meaning despite a 28-23 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Aside from a few reps given to a handful of starters, such as linebacker Damone Clark, cornerback Daron Bland and tight end Jake Ferguson, the Cowboys largely rested their first-stringers. As expected, the likes of Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb and Micah Parsons took in the afternoon affair from the comfort of the sidelines.
Overall, Mike McCarthy's offense wasn't always quite in sync, which is perhaps par for the course in these exhibition matchups, but the group still totaled 340 yards of offense while converting 33 percent of their third-down chances and all three of their fourth-down attempts. Encouragingly, they also were called for only six penalties.
Cooper Rush got the start behind center and was efficient in his one quarter of work, completing 10 of 12 passes for 86 yards for a passer rating of 95.5. Will Grier then took the reins the rest of the way and showed he's not ready to hand over the No. 2 quarterback job just yet. He finished with 199 yards passing, completing 22 of his 31 attempts, with two touchdowns and a 96.0 passer rating.
Of course, both were working behind an offensive line that didn't exactly bolster confidence in the depth of the unit early on. The running game in particular struggled in the first half, but found more room in the last two quarters. Part of that turnaround came courtesy of rookie Deuce Vaughn, who topped the club with 50 rushing yards on eight carries in his NFL debut.
The Cowboys are expected to have one of the top defenses this season and there appears to be some serious depth for coordinator Dan Quinn to work with. Clark in particular made his presence known, recording five tackles, including four solo, in his limited work while fellow linebackers DeMarvion Overshown and Devin Harper also stood out with six tackles each, the latter also recording a fumble recovery. Second-year safety Marquis Bell topped the squad with 10 takedowns.
And obviously all eyes were on rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey, who was making his NFL debut. The day wasn't perfect for the former USFL star as he was good on his only field goal try while making two of three extra-point attempts.
With the Jaguars letting their starters see some action, including star quarterback Trevor Lawrence, it was perhaps no surprise that the visitors jumped out to an 8-0 lead. Cowboys safety Juanyeh Thomas provided an early spark for the home side with an interception of Lawrence on Jacksonville's opening drive.
But after KaVontae Turpin fumbled on his first punt return of the preseason, the Jaguars traveled the needed 42 yards in six plays. Lawrence found receiver Christian Kirk in the end zone on fourth-and-3 at the Dallas 9-yard line for the score, before then tacking on the two-point conversion with a toss to wideout Zay Jones.
Just before the quarter came to a close, Rico Dowdle took a short pass from Rush across the middle and rumbled 24 yards to the goal line. Unfortunately, before he could reach pay dirt, the ball was knocked loose with Jacksonville's Daniel Thomas recovering at the Jaguars' 1-yard line.
Midway through the second frame, the Cowboys found themselves down 14-0. Jacksonville receiver Jacob Harris made a diving 42-yard catch to set up a first-and-goal at the Dallas 4-yard line with backup quarterback C.J. Beathard then scampering untouched around the right end for the touchdown. The Jaguars attempted another two-point try, but safety Israel Mukuamu played spoiler in breaking up the pass.
The Cowboys finally got on the board late in the half, Grier working the two-minute offense to perfection. The quarterback ran for one first down, then hit Malik Davis on a 13-yard screen, Turpin for 15 yards to move the chains on fourth down and Dowdle for 9 more. And although a penalty negated a beauty of a catch from Jalen Tolbert earlier in the drive, Grier repaid his effort with a 17-yard target for the touchdown.
Aubrey then split the uprights on his first NFL extra-point attempt, the Cowboys heading into the break down only 14-7.
The second half got underway with the diminutive rookie Vaughn showing up big. He gave the crowd a jolt with four carries and two catches during the drive for a combined 17 yards, which set Aubrey up for a 29-yard field goal to narrow the disadvantage to just four points.
After the Dallas defense got off the field with an all-out blitz when the Jaguars went for it on fourth-and-9 at the Cowboys' 15-yard line, Grier and company marched right back the other way. Vaughn helped end the quarter with a nifty 26-yard run to set Dallas up with first down at the Jacksonville 20.
So fittingly, Vaughn got the scoring honors just three plays into the final quarter. He first made a leaping catch down to the 3-yard line before the darting up the middle and into the end zone on the next snap. Aubrey missed his extra point, but the Cowboys had the lead for the first time, 16-14.
The lead didn't last long, however, as the Jaguars came right back with a pair of scores to secure the win. The first was an eight-play, 75-yard series that ended with third-string quarterback Nathan Rourke sweeping around the left end the final four yards for the touchdown.
Rourke then pulled off a Houdini act on Jacksonville's next possession, escaping three would-be defensive linemen to find running back Qadree Ollison behind the defense for a 21-yard touchdown. Sticking with the two-point conversion attempts, the Jaguars were good after the first of those scores, but failed on the second.
After the two sides traded turnovers, a Grier interception followed by linebacker Harper recovering a fumble, the Cowboys kept the final score close when Grier found rookie tight end John Stephens on a 15-yard touchdown pass. Aubrey was good on the extra point to wrap up the scoring, 28-23.