In preseason Game #2, the Cowboys slowly ramped up their use of starters to give us our first look in the 2013 camp of Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, and others who will be doing the lion's share of the heavy lifting this season when the games really matter.
Clearly, we saw plenty of things that tell us positive things - like a fantastic delayed blitz from Sean Lee that came free and caused another takeaway (can we all imagine what this thing might be capable of if takeaways are no longer a foreign concept?). It also revealed that there is plenty of work to do with regards to self-inflicted wounds.
Most notably, we are back to an unreasonable amount of offensive penalties that continue to kill drives and put the team behind the chains when trying to make things happen on the scoreboard. This team always has absurd amounts of yardage and not enough points to show for it. That comes down to a number of factors that are all linked together in the offensive game. They are most easily traced back to red zone inefficiency which is often brought down by "drive killers." And what are drive killers? Sacks, negative runs, but most inexcusably, penalties. And what from the penalty family is enough to frustrate everyone? Presnap penalties?
False start of James Hanna. False start of Ron Leary. Holding on Jason Witten. All in the first 2 drives of the Cowboys (the drives where everyone played) that otherwise could have been worth 14 points. Instead, they left with 3 points. That is familiar inefficiency. On a team where Doug Free led all tackles in penalties in the entire league, and where Tyron Smith and Witten both ranked very highly in their positional groups, then to call that an initiative this season is a fair idea.
Beyond that, there were some fine adjustments made between Tony Romo and Dez Bryant when Tracy Porter jumped a slant route and they improved for a big gain and more promising work from Ronald Leary and Travis Frederick inside for most of the night. It should be noted, however, that Frederick is noticeably better at center right now than guard. I would leave him there and not look back. Especially given that Phil Costa still looks overpowered in certain scenarios.
SPECIAL TEAMS ISSUES
One theme that constantly was heard on Friday night was the disastrous manner in which Rich Bisaccia and his special teams took center stage and showed us they have plenty of work to do.
It is important to understand how preseason makes special teams analysis almost ridiculous. A special teams coach does have to prepare his units to be ready to play for preseason - but those units and the group he will actually have in Week 1 are totally different.
I have been told by more than a few personnel people that if you want clues on who is likely to make a team by watching preseason games, watch who they put out to cover kicks to start games. By the 2nd half, it is mostly comprised of players who will not make the club or who have less than a likely chance. But, those in the 1st Quarter are the odds-on favorites to make the team based on their value to the special teams.
If you are new this season to my blog, a quick lesson on special teams. Ask any coach the value of a special teams unit and they will often tell you it is what hinges a fringe team from making the playoffs or not. In the Cowboys case last season alone, 2 games that were lost could have been converted to wins if the special teams group did not bust so badly. The road games at Seattle and Baltimore were both easily sabotaged because of a huge return, a blocked kick, or another moment that broke down without warning. Several other games were affected, and the game at Philadelphia was won with Dwayne Harris putting on a show as a punt returner.
So, if you have 53 players on your roster - with 46 dressed on game-day, you see this is not college football. Every member of the 46 must be ready to contribute to either offense, defense, or special teams (save for your backup QBs). Once you consider those numerical realities, you quickly see that anyone who is not playing 50 snaps or more for their offensive or defensive units, must be strong and solid coverage players on kicks and punts. If they aren't, then you are wasting spots and once injuries hit early in a game, you are in full panic mode as a coaching staff.
Again, filling spots on special teams is not the goal. The goal is to not lose a game and thus a playoff spot because your special teams were just filled with warm bodies and suddenly a kick return ends your season. You must have quality and the end game must be at least to play even-up against an opponent in these 15-20 snaps a game that are often ignored by most fans and fantasy football leagues.
When we fill out our projections for the roster - which I will this week - we must place strong consideration to who can cover and block on kick teams if they are not clear-cut starters. That is why we are foolish to not consider Eric Frampton, JJ Wilcox, Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner, Kyle Wilber, Devonte Holloman, and of course, Danny McCray as very likely spine members of Bisaccia's crew.
Coverage units are usually comprised of backup linebackers, tight ends, defensive backs, and certain running backs and wide receivers. The more you can be trusted to tackle a return man in the open field, the more valuable you make yourself to the team. And the more valuable you are, the more likely you are to make the team - and then to dress on game day.
Some of these guys - like Tanner, Wilber, McCray, and Holloman will play on all 4 teams - punt cover, punt return, kick cover, and kick return. That leads to continuity, which then leads to fewer busts because you are constantly turning things over.
The opposite is what affects guys down the list at safety or wide receiver. Can Cole Beasley help you on special teams? It is tough given his size, unless he is the actual returner. Now that Harris and Dez Bryant are that guy, where can Beasley help you? If he is your 4th or 5th best wide receiver, he will not play many offensive snaps. No snaps plus no special teams contribution mean that despite his talents, it is a tough call to put him on your roster. If Danny Coale can play on your special teams and Cole Beasley cannot, you have to know that Beasley must be significantly better on offense to win that battle. Matt Johnson? Same issues, although we are just guessing because we haven't really seen him cover yet. Lance Dunbar? What if Will Allen is not a starter at safety in October? Reserves with no special teams value are very difficult to justify unless they play on either line.
So, the issues BW Webb showed as a return man or the overall busts in the 2nd half don't trouble me. Those guys won't be in those spots when it really matters. What does concern me is the issues surrounding the units in general. When guys are on the fringe of the roster - ALWAYS ask what they might help you accomplish on kicks and punts. If the answer is nothing, then they will have a very hard time surviving the final cuts.
That is the numbers game that is being sorted out in the personnel rooms around the league right now. You do not want your season to go up in smoke because you got a FG blocked or a punt returned.
If someone makes the team and you can't figure out why, know that it is very likely because Rich Bisaccia argued hard that he needs him on his specialty units. He will assemble a spine group of 5-7 and fill in the gaps with the table scraps from Jason Garrett and Monte Kiffin. And then he will be expected to never lose the Cowboys a game. It is not as easy a gig as some think.