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Spagnola: Ain't Preseason Football Just Grand


DENVER – Welcome to the first game of preseason, when nothing is as good as it seems, nor as bad as it seems.

And for the Dallas Cowboys here at Mile High, 17-7 losers to the Denver Broncos, I'm guessing this seemed mighty hard to watch.

The Cowboys having problems sustaining drives, only three out of 10 possessions finishing on Denver's side of the 50, just one in the end zone with 4:46 left in the game, then one on an interception and one on a missed 56-yard field goal attempt.

Then there were the penalties, gobs of them. The Cowboys flagged for 22 of them, while only 17 counted, totaling 129 yards.

And there were the big plays given up in the passing game, the Broncos totaling 155 of their 285 yards passing on just six pass plays, 42, 40, 24, 19, 17 and 13, so gaining just 169 on their other 57 plays from scrimmage. Go figure.

But before you start heading to the windowsill, please remember this: The Cowboys only began the game with six would-be starters on the field, four on offense, three of them on the offensive line, yet one going to start full time for only his second year, one a raw rookie and the other considered a fulltime starter for the first time in his career.

Then on defense, only two would-be starters, although one probably not.

And if you scan the official gamebook, by my count 22 would-be starters or guys considered a prominent players such as Jourdan Lewis, Tony Pollard and Noah Brown, at this point might as well have remained in Oxnard, where the team returned around 3:30 Sunday morning for the final stretch of training camp there, if not for Thursday's valuable practice with the Broncos.

Look, we are talking no Dak, Zeke, Zack, Tyron, CeeDee, Dalton Schultz, Micah, Jayron Kearse, D-Law, Diggs, A.B., LVE, Dono, Hooker, and not even Will Grier or Jabril Cox or Anthony Barr or Gallup or James Washington among them.

And making things equitable, the Broncos only had one starter on the field at the beginning, taking no chances with their prime players either.

Bet they weren't happy the Cowboys ran for 145 yards or that their offense totaled only a whopping 39 yards rushing on 22 carries, er, 1.8 a carry. Like only four of the seven guys who ran the football finished with positive run totals, and one of those just three yards.

But hey, they won, for whatever that's worth.

Just hard to watch.

You, me and Dak, too.

Why early on, QB1 was itching to play.

"I'm not a watcher, I'm not a watcher," Dak said, and likely knowing he won't play against the Chargers next Saturday either. "Early on it got to me.

"You know, I thought I would want to coach, and the more I watch, I don't want to coach."

As for the guy who does coach, Mike McCarthy, he had to stomach this, too, but all along knowing young guys such as Tyler Smith and Sam Williams and Jalen Tolbert and Jason Ferguson, De'Ron Bland, Devin Harper and John Ridgeway, too, the Cowboys 2022 draft choices playing their first NFL snaps, albeit preseason. Same for Josh Ball, Markquese Bell, Dennis Houston, Peyton Hendershot and Alex Lindstrom to name a few.

"This is exactly what we needed," McCarthy said. "There are plays you make or don't make, but I don't get too hung up on that.

"It's preseason."

It's practice.

Just the necessary evils of preseason, of having to construct just a 53 man roster, of having a salary cap where no one wants to chance these frontline players getting hurt while taking basically practice snaps that don't count in wins and losses. How would you like to be the Jets today, knowing their presumed starting quarterback Zack Wilson will miss two to four weeks needing his knee scoped. Or Cleveland, losing their starting center Nick Harris on the second play of a preseason game for the season.

This is the wrestling match the NFL faces, teams knowing they need preseason games to prepare for a season, to better evaluate a 90-man roster, yet have agreed with the NFLPA to reduce the amount of work players are subjected to in the offseason and even during training camp practices.

You realize Saturday night was only the eighth time the Cowboys have practiced in pads and did so not only in mile-high altitude but some heavy rain at the outset of the third quarter. Why bet the Cowboys had half that many practices in pads the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XXVII.

That's why the practice Thursday against the Broncos and the two upcoming ones with the Chargers this week are so vital to the Cowboys preparation. Practice in pads, but in a controlled environment. Not all out balling like in these preseason games.

"They need more of that game action," said Dak of the younger players, pointing out that was the first time he ever had practiced against another team and was a fan of the concept.

Why guarantee you Dak, Zeke and them got more snaps in that practice than if they would have played in this preseason game Saturday night before an announced crowd of 76,476.

And look, this wasn't all bad. Considered the fourth string quarterback Ben DiNucci, fighting to stay on a 53-man roster, had one of his best performances, completing nine of 16 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown for a 99.0 QB rating.

Then there was last year's fifth-round pick Simi Fehoko, playing only seven offensive snaps his rookie season, catching that 12-yard touchdown pass. And there was undrafted rookie running back Malik Davis bursting for 51 yards on eight carries, plus adding another 16 yards on three catches. And Ferguson catching three passes for 29 yards.

Add in kicker Brett Maher, in his first opportunities kicking in a game or practice since being added to the roster last week, making his extra point and booting his kickoff through the endzone for a touchdown while counterpart Lirim Hajrullahu nailed a touchback on his lone kickoff , though missed on a 56-yarder when the low snap was mishandled in the wet conditions.

And as for all those penalties, you know, go back and look at this game. That was the first game for those officials, too, in eight months. Bet their grades won't be super either, especially near the end if McCarthy were handing them out. And let's go easy on the lack of discipline continuing narrative. Minus the pre-snap penalties, a lot of times those others were a product of getting beat, either trying to block or trying to cover or trying too hard, like late hits on the QB.

"Trust me, no one is happy with the number of penalties today," said McCarthy, a bit irritated when comparisons to last year's problems were brought up. "It's just kind of where we are today. This is training camp. This is our first preseason game.

"This is kind of how it goes. We played a lot of young players on Thursday and today."

Then McCarthy finally got around to saying what he really wanted to say about all the flags, "I was a little surprised they called that many penalties in a preseason game."

Especially when you go back and look at some of them.

Remember, though, no one ever said – or should have said – this Cowboys team is a finished project. Far from it. Growing pains, you know.

But also remember this, you don't play all the young guys at once when the season starts as they did Saturday night. A few will have big roles, maybe like Tyler Smith and Tolbert and Houston. Others will be rotation players, as long as the Cowboys stay relatively healthy.

Think the backup swing tackle needs attention. We still don't know about the kicker. There seems to be promise at backup tight end. Fehoko's performance was encouraging. But as for glaring weaknesses on defense, we'll see, but guessing not many if any unless it's depth at the cornerback position.

So, we go forward, enduring preseason while protecting the health of the team the best the Cowboys can. Wins and loses don't matter. Not yet.

But continued grooming does.

So don't be jumpin' just yet.

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