SANTA CLARA, Calif. – As preseason games go, this one was typical.
Some good, some bad, some ugly. Nothing to write home about. Yet nothing to overly moan about.
Best thing about a game like this, here at Levi’s Stadium before way less than the announced crowd of 67,052, the game perilously close to going into overtime didn’t, the Niners holding on for a 17-9 victory over the Cowboys in the preseason opener.
Next best thing for the Cowboys? They suffered only two apparent injuries. One to undrafted free-agent rookie linebacker Luke Gifford, the club fearing the planned MRI will reveal the dreaded high ankle sprain. The other to wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, who took a fierce blow to the head and almost assuredly will enter into concussion protocol.
But for anyone trying to ascertain far-reaching conclusions about who the Cowboys are and what this game might indicate, they are doing a disservice to common logic.
The Cowboys played this game without the 13 players they left behind rehabbing injuries and one who hasn’t found the need yet to leave Cabo. That group included Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Lawrence, Amari Cooper, Zack Martin, Byron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and three one-time Pro Bowlers Zack Martin, Sean Lee and Robert Quinn. And there were three others who made the trip but didn’t play, including starters Jason Witten and Maliek Collins, along with recently arriving Alfred Morris. That’s 10 of 22 starters.
And when it came to the Niners, well we’d like to tell you the Cowboys’ first-team defense held San Francisco to just 25 yards on 10 plays. But that’s what they should have done since the Niners only played one starter listed on their flip card depth chart, and that wasn’t quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
See what I mean, drawing conclusions would be senseless, even for the Niners who were assessed 18 penalties for 216 yards, and that’s assessed, so not counting probably six more that were either double fouls or declined.
But now here are a few things that should be celebrated. Travis Frederick played in his first game of football since the season finale in 2017, appearing to be solidly on the road to recovery from his year-long battle with Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Then the rookie running back Tony Pollard, going out there with the first team offense. The game certainly didn’t look too big for him, and showing he isn’t afraid to pound the ball up in there between the tackles.
Tight end Blake Jarwin seems to be picking up where he left off the second half of last season, getting the start with Witten idle, and I get it, San Francisco only had one defensive starter playing, but leading the team with four catches for 51 yards.
Sure had to be happy with two rookies accounting for a takeaway each, first Gifford picking off a pass and then sixth-round pick Donovan Wilson driving upfield to grab one, too.
How about seventh-round pick Jalen Jelks recording a sack on his first NFL play, OK preseason, but a sack nevertheless. And his pressure drew an offensive holding call a few plays later.
Thought backup quarterback Cooper Rush comported himself nicely, and think about it, Saturday night was the first time he actually played in a football game since last preseason, taking only six snaps in 2018, all handoffs at the end of the lopsided win over Jacksonville.
And maybe the most encouraging performance came from Taco Charlton, starting at right defensive end in place of Quinn. Taco had one quarterback hit, another pressure messing up a pass attempt and forced the Niners into a holding penalty with another pressure. Those are steps in the right direction. Confidence builders, and boy does he ever need them.
Now I get this, too, you would have liked for the Cowboys to score at least one touchdown. Or convert at least one of those four red zone opportunities into a touchdown. Or turn their lone goal-to-go opportunity at the end of the game into a touchdown or convert more than 27 percent of their third down opportunities (four-for-15).
Or not allow my guy Deebo Samuel to total 75 yards on three touches, including that 45-yard acrobatic reception. Or not lose coverage on former Baylor star Jalen Hurd’s 20-yard touchdown reception.
And as for personal disappointments, gosh darn it, I know you’d like your field-goal kicker to be perfect, and Brett Maher did account for all the Cowboys’ scoring with field goals of 25, 40 and 31 yards, but he continues to raise eyebrows with those short misses, this time from 35 yards out. And making just three of four kicks is only hitting at a 75-percent rate. That’s got to be at least in the high 80s.
The Cowboys need to keep any eye on this, though, it’s slim pickings out there in the free-agent kicker world.
Also, after getting off to a great start in off-season practices and training camp, rookie receiver Jon’Vea Johnson has developed a case of the dropsies, two in the Blue & White scrimmage last Sunday and two more Saturday night. That’s no way for an undrafted player to make a 53-man roster.
Then there was second-year quarterback Mike White. Now for most of his time in the pocket the guy was under duress, sacked three times. But even after he smartly drove the Cowboys on their final possession down eight with just 56 seconds to play from his own 7-yard line to a first-and-goal at the 4 with 29 seconds left, much thanks to an interference call, White left three touchdowns on the field.
First, on a first-and-10 from the Niners 39, he underthrew a wide-open Devin Smith for what appeared would have been an easy touchdown. Then on his first attempt from the four, he didn’t see a wide-open Smith crossing the back of the end zone, throwing the ball elsewhere for an incompletion. And on the fourth-down play, White missed seeing Darius Jackson crossing over the middle for what would have been a sure touchdown, although his protection did break down on the game-ending incompletion.
That’s no way to battle for the backup QB job, but again, this White’s first appearance in a game since last preseason, too.
So, if we circle back to where we started, some good stuff, some not-so good stuff and a whole bunch of ugly on both sides.
Maybe Dak Prescott said it best afterward, “There’s a lot to learn from. With the first preseason game, it’s hard to say from the first view at it or the sideline view of it what needs to be done. There’s a lot of things that we’re going to clean up and lot of things to learn from, so it’ll be good for us.”
That’s why it’s imperative to remember, they call this PRE-season.