NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
ARLINGTON, Texas – Say this for the Dallas Cowboys: They follow Jason Garrett’s fight mantra.
So far, the change to Matt Cassel at quarterback has not brought the boost the Cowboys needed when he replaced Brandon Weeden. The Cowboys were held without a touchdown for the second time in three weeks.
The comedy of errors offensively came to a head on the final drive. Cassel had a first-down pass knocked out of his hands, his second-down pass to Darren McFadden was too high, and he was sacked for 6 yards on third down because he was unaware Bruce Irvin was tracking him down from behind. The Cowboys had two cracks at fourth-down success, but their hope evaporated when Cassel’s sideline throw fell incomplete.
Without that play, the Cowboys would be winless at home this year. As it stands, they have lost three in a row at home and welcome the Philadelphia Eagles to AT&T Stadium next week. At 2-5, the Cowboys are beyond desperate for a win.
Slow welcome back: Dez Bryant’s return brought energy to the crowd, but that didn’t translate to the stat column. Bryant finished with two catches for 12 yards, with Richard Sherman shadowing him regardless of which side Bryant lined up on. The only time Sherman wasn’t on Bryant was in the slot. Bryant’s first catch came on a rocket screen in the slot, but Sherman was able to stop Bryant for a 2-yard loss. Sherman drew offensive pass interference on a deep ball, but it was a smart play by Bryant to break up a sure interception. This was just the seventh time since Garrett took over as coach that Bryant had two or fewer catches.
What were they thinking? Like they did against the Atlanta Falcons in the first game without Romo, the Cowboys were unable to attack through the air down the field. They took only a couple shots against the Seahawks. Before the Cowboys’ final drive, Cassel had thrown for 97 yards. Bryant and Terrance Williams had a pair of 15-yard catches, but Cole Beasley was shut out for the second straight game.
One reason to get excited: The Cowboys had an honest-to-goodness takeaway Sunday. They had not had one since Week 2; that's a span of nearly 300 plays. Greg Hardy was able to tip a Russell Wilson pass to himself for a turnover. It was an extremely athletic play that Hardy seemed to time up a few plays earlier when reading Wilson’s eyes. It was the first interception of Hardy’s career and the first takeaway for the Cowboys in what felt like forever.
One reason to panic: For the second time in three games, the Cowboys failed to score a touchdown. They also did not reach the end zone in their 30-6 loss to the New England Patriots. After Hardy’s interception, the Cowboys had to settle for a field goal after taking over at the Seattle 16. Even the return of Bryant was unable to spark much change. The good news? Romo can practice this week for the first time since breaking his left collarbone.
Carry the load: For the third time in his career, McFadden has had 20 carries in back-to-back games. Even so, he wasn’t as explosive Sunday as he was in last week’s loss to the Giants, in which he gained 152 yards on 29 carries. McFadden finished with 20 carries for 64 yards. The last time McFadden was called on this much was in the first two games of the 2011 season with the Oakland Raiders, when he had 22 and 20 carries to open the season.
“Yes,” Garrett said.
The Cowboys failed to score a touchdown in a game for the first time since Week 3 of the 2011 season, when they beat the Washington Redskins on six Dan Bailey field goals. The Cowboys also put up season lows in yards (264) and first downs (18) in Sunday's 30-6 loss to the New England Patriots.
Weeden completed 26 of 39 passes for 188 yards. He was intercepted once and sacked three times.
“Brandon didn’t play well enough,” Garrett said. “We didn’t play well enough. We’re going to watch the tape and evaluate each guy and each unit to see how we can play better. That’s just the process we go through each week. Ultimately, we didn’t score enough points. Brandon was a part of that, but everybody else was a part of it too.”
The Cowboys do not play again until Oct. 25. They will practice Wednesday and Thursday and then be off through the weekend.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he believed Cassel would be ready if the team turned to him but added, “I think we’re a long way from being able to decide to do that. I don’t in any way want to imply that we will consider that or do that.”
But Jones also acknowledged the Cowboys have time before they start preparing for the Giants.
The offensive issues are not Weeden’s alone, but the quarterback is forced to accept the bulk of the blame in a three-game losing streak, as much as he would get the bulk of the credit for a three-game win streak.
“It sucks, to be honest, but you can't control that,” Weeden said. “I can only control going out there and executing. I don’t know. It's frustrating. Like I said, I feel like I came in against Philly, I was prepared, I was ready. I thought I played well against Atlanta. We just couldn't get it down offensively in the second half. [Against] New Orleans, I made a drive at the end of the game to give us a chance to win. We never got the ball back."
Weeden continued and lamented his typical bad luck.
“Norv Turner [Weeden's offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns] told me a long time ago when we were sitting in the quarterback meeting, he said, ‘Brandon, I don't know what you have done to whoever, but you've got the worst luck of any player I have been around.’ I have, ever since I was a little kid. I don't know what I did. But it is what it is. I'm never going to lose confidence in my ability. I wouldn't be here and put in this position if I couldn't play this position.”
Not just offensively but everywhere. For years, he has carried the burden of the franchise. Even last year, when the Cowboys were running the ball so well, Romo made the crucial plays at the big moments.
For all that DeMarco Murray did, Romo was the most valuable. When there were cracks, Romo filled them. When there were shortcomings, Romo compensated.
Romo has the ability to mask the offensive shortcomings and maximize what the defense can be. He was able to fix things so well that people didn't know they needed fixing. Playing quarterback is not just about running the play called. It's about getting the offense into good plays and out of bad plays.
The Cowboys aren't paying for being too reliant on Romo, but they are seeing what life without Romo will be like in the next two, three or four years. Whoever replaces him in 2017, 2018 or 2019 cannot be expected to do all Romo does.
The Cowboys have put up a respectable 48 points in two games without Romo. Scoring 28 in the first half against Atlanta should have been enough for the Cowboys to win. Scoring 20 versus the Saints wasn't great but was good enough. Asking for more from Brandon Weeden would not be prudent. He has played about as well as can be expected, whether fans want to accept that or not.
But Weeden can only do so much.
What makes Romo elite -- yes, elite -- is how he can get the Cowboys into the right plays. His experience makes everybody else better, from the receivers -- regardless of whether Dez Bryant is playing -- to the offensive line. Remember the game-winning drive against the New York Giants in the opener? It came with Bryant hurt.
It's not about how magical Romo is when things break down. That is the easy stuff to see -- the highlight plays that make everybody's jaws drop. That’s offense almost by accident.
Romo likes to say his greatest gift is his ability to process information quickly and act. Early on in his career, he processed things so quickly that he would get himself into trouble. He would make the great play and also the poor play.
Now he can process things and almost always make the correct decision.
It's checking to the right run or right pass, depending on the defensive look. That helps the offensive line get angles on the front in the run game and helps them get an edge in pass protection. Although Romo does not predetermine where he goes with the ball before the snap, he can anticipate coverages and blitzes that allows him to get the ball out more quickly.
All of that makes the defense better because the offense can sustain drives. In the past two weeks, the Cowboys have converted just four of 18 third-down attempts. With Romo, the Cowboys converted 10 of 23 third-down tries.
Weeden does not have that ability, and that's not a knock on him. There are maybe 10 starting quarterbacks in the NFL who have that ability. Teams are paying kingly sums for just potentially princely quarterbacks.
Cam Newton has superhuman abilities but will make silly decisions. Is Ryan Tannehill "the guy" or just a guy for the Miami Dolphins? Colin Kaepernick appears to be more style than substance. Andy Dalton is off to a great start, but the true judgment for him will be in the playoffs.
Romo must feel helpless on the sideline with his left arm in a sling because of a broken collarbone. He is 35 and understands there are only so many realistic chances left to define his career with a Super Bowl.
The season is by no means over for the Cowboys. Romo could possibly be back for the final seven games of the regular season.
In the meantime, the Cowboys must somehow make sure those games will matter. If they can't, Romo might not be able to save them.
All involved should appreciate Romo even more than they already did. The past two games certainly demonstrated Romo's value.
IRVING, Texas -- If all that mattered were stats, then we would have been fawning all over quarterback Brandon Weeden’s performance Sunday against Atlanta.
Instead, we're scrutinizing it.
The problem with Weeden’s performance is that you can tell from his decision-making that he didn’t trust himself to put the ball into tight windows or not turn it over.
If Weeden doesn’t trust himself after more than a year in this offensive system, then he should bench himself. You can’t win playing scared.
He played tentatively, which is not the way to earn respect from opposing defensive coordinators who will study his performance against Atlanta. The reality is Weeden won’t earn respect from opposing defensive coordinators until he starts throwing downfield and threatening opposing secondaries with passes to Terrance Williams, Brice Butler, Jason Witten or Lance Dunbar.
Until that happens, defenses will continue to play a safety close to the line of scrimmage to shut down the Cowboys’ running game. They will continue to attack the line of scrimmage with no fear of reprisal.
Atlanta’s defense, like the Seattle Seahawks' defense the Cowboys will face in a few weeks, plays a scheme that gives the quarterback few opportunities to effectively throw the ball downfield. When those opportunities present themselves, the quarterback must recognize them and let the ball fly.
“We’ll evaluate the quarterback decision-making, but there were opportunities to throw the ball out there and he made some different decisions to throw the ball inside and was effective,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “The guy threw four incompletions the whole game, so he did a good job helping us move the football."
Weeden played scared. We shouldn’t be surprised.
We’re talking about a player with 27 career touchdown passes and 29 interceptions who has lost 12 consecutive starts. Sports at any level is all about confidence. None of us should be surprised if Weeden lacks confidence.
The Cowboys have at least one deep route built into virtually every passing play. In the Cowboys’ system, the coverage dictates where the quarterback goes with the ball unless he decides it’s safer to take the underneath throw instead of forcing the ball downfield.
In the second half, the coaching staff asked Weeden to throw downfield, but he wouldn’t do it for whatever reason. What Weeden must understand is good things can happen when he throws the ball long, especially when virtually all of the rules are designed to help the offense.
Weeden threw deep to Terrance Williams on the game’s second play. The pass fell incomplete, but Williams drew a face-mask penalty; the drive ended with a 37-yard touchdown run by Joseph Randle.
Weeden didn’t throw another pass longer than 20 yards until 39 plays later, when he missed Witten on a seam route.
That’s way too long between deep shots. The more shots downfield the Cowboys take, the more safeties have to at least respect the threat of going deep, making all the underneath throws to Witten, Cole Beasley and the running backs more effective.
In the second quarter, Weeden threw an angle route to Williams, who didn’t run a great pattern, and the ball was tipped into the air. It fell incomplete, but seemingly made Weeden shy away from throwing those types of passes because he didn’t want to throw an interception.
History suggests Weeden can’t play much better than he did Sunday. In 22 starts, he has led an offense to 28 points or more just four times. His 8.92 yards per attempt Sunday was the third highest of his career and the 232 yards was the 11th best of his career.
Sure his interception before the end of the half was an egregious decision, but most quarterbacks make at least one dumb throw each week.
He positioned the Cowboys to win, and if the defense had played anything close to the way it did in the first two games, then that’s what would’ve happened. You have delusions of grandeur if you believe Matt Cassel can spend a week with the Cowboys’ playbook and play at a vastly superior level.
Cassel has been a better player than Weeden in their careers, but since 2011 he’s 10-17 as a starter with 30 touchdowns, 34 interceptions and a 74.0 passer rating.
This is life without Tony Romo for the next seven weeks. Unless Weeden begins trusting himself little will change for the Cowboys’ offense.
Witten suffered sprains to both ankles and sprained his left knee in last week’s victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, but managed to play in 82 of 85 snaps and lead the team with seven catches.
Coach Jason Garrett said Witten would be limited in practice and could be for the rest of the week as the team looks to get him his healthiest by Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. Witten has played in 189 straight games, the longest active streak among non-kickers and punters, and started 133 games.
While the Cowboys don’t want to think about life without Witten for even a week, the topic has to be discussed.
“It’s always day by day with everybody and as you get into the NFL season, there is a lot of different scenarios that come up with the guys who go to practice on Wednesday or Thursday or Friday or what you project for the week and his availability during the game,” Garrett said. “ … You’re always creating those hypothetical situations to be ready and you’re practicing that way. But the biggest thing is the communication throughout the week so that you can make the necessary adjustments as you go.”
Witten’s history plays a factor in what the Cowboys do. In 2012, he missed most of training camp with a lacerated spleen but was able to play in the season opener. There have been other times where he has needed to rest in practice because of ankle, knee and hamstring issues.
“You’re certainly more trusting of a guy like that because he’s shown you many times in the past that he’s going to be there,” Garrett said. “. He has a great credibility with us.”
Tight end James Hanna had knee surgery last Saturday, but hopes to be able to practice by the end of the week. With Witten banged up and Hanna less-than-certain to be available, how the Cowboys attack could change because they rely on so many multi-tight end snaps. Hanna was in full pads for rehab work Wednesday.
Left guard Ronald Leary was not on the practice field as he works back from a groin injury that kept him out of the Eagles’ game. The Cowboys hope he will be able to return this week. La’el Collins took the first-team snaps in the portion of practice open to the media.
Defensive end Randy Gregory (ankle) is not practicing.
IRVING, Texas -- Dez Bryant's return to the field has been a much debated topic since it was learned the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver broke his right foot in the season-opening win against the New York Giants.
The Cowboys have used a four-to-six week recovery time but have acknowledged it could be a little bit longer. Because of the $70 million investment they have made in Bryant in July, they will not rush him back to the field.
Others have wondered if Bryant is looking at a long absence, referencing the injury suffered by NBA star Kevin Durant.
Speaking on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio Tuesday, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White isn't sure Bryant will return at all in 2015. He cited the recovery needed for Julio Jones, who had a similar surgery in 2013. Jones played in only five games and missed the rest of the season.
"Me and Julio were talking about the whole situation and he was like, when he heard that he broke his foot he was like, 'He's got the same injury I got,'" White said. "And, you know, we had to shut him [Julio] down for the whole entire year. So I just don't see him making it back this year. Or if he does make it back it will probably be late in the playoffs, so it'll probably be around January. But it's still a risk. Anytime you are coming off a foot injury, you know, he's not going to be running or anything like that. It'll be weeks before he can actually apply any kind of pressure onto it or even start walking around. So he's got a long haul ahead of him, so he's got to be patient with this thing. Plus he just signed a new contract so he's got to be as patient as possible and just kind of take it easy."
Hakeem Nicks, who worked out for the Cowboys on Tuesday, has not been the same receiver since he had his fifth metatarsal repaired in 2012.
But Jones has recovered just fine. He caught 104 passes for 1,593 yards and six touchdowns last season and caught nine passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday.
IRVING, Texas -- Dez Bryant will be back in 2015. The question is when.
At best, Bryant can return Oct. 25 for the rematch against the New York Giants thanks in part to the Cowboys' bye week coming Oct. 18. Perhaps the more likely return will be Nov. 1 against the Seattle Seahawks.
Without Bryant, the Cowboys' offense will change. It has to. He is too good. While no player is irreplaceable, this is not a case in which the Cowboys can simply go next-man-up and expect the offense to be the same.
As coach Jason Garrett likes to say, when No. 88 breaks the huddle, opposing defenses know exactly where he is. With No. 88 no longer in the huddle for at least five games, that puts more pressure on Tony Romo, more pressure on the offensive line, more pressure on the running backs, more pressure on Jason Witten, more pressure on Terrance Williams and more pressure on the defense.
The loss of Bryant ratchets up the pressure on everybody with the Cowboys.
But it's not an impossible task.
Romo has a history of winning without top receivers such as Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, Roy Williams, Miles Austin and even Bryant.
In 2007, Patrick Crayton filled in for an injured Glenn, starting 13 games and catching 50 passes for 697 yards and seven touchdowns. Austin had 23 career catches before replacing an injured Williams on Oct. 11, 2009, at Kansas City before establishing a franchise record with 250 yards on 10 catches and two touchdowns in an overtime win against the Chiefs. In 2011, Laurent Robinson came out of nowhere to lead the Cowboys with 11 touchdown catches, finishing the season with 54 catches for 858 yards.
In Sunday's win against the Giants, Terrance Williams moved to Bryant's receiver spot and caught three of his five passes for 45 of his 60 yards. With Bryant missing the offseason program while waiting on a new contract, Williams became the Cowboys' de facto No. 1 receiver.
Devin Street moved into the No. 2 role and had a solid spring but an ankle injury suffered in training camp lingered and affected his work as the summer wore on. He has just two catches for 18 yards in his career, and on his lone target Sunday, the Giants came up with an interception.
Witten remains the standard of the passing game.
The Cowboys will miss Bryant in a ton of ways, but Romo has shown he can elevate the play of others.
He will need to do it again in 2015.
He's not just playing the game of hiding information from the other team before kickoff.
"It doesn't matter," Garrett said. "The only thing that matters is everybody getting ready to play and when their number is called upon, be ready to go out there and be their best."
Since the spring, Joseph Randle has taken almost all of the first-team snaps when he and Darren McFadden were healthy. During the brief open period of practice to the media on Wednesday, Randle took the first-team snaps again, but be careful reading too much into those instances.
What appears clear is the Cowboys will go with a committee approach at running back with Randle, McFadden and Lance Dunbar getting some work. The division of labor is something that could change game to game, half to half, quarter to quarter and series to series.
"Sometimes you have one guy who's a featured back and sometimes you have more than one guy doing it," Garrett said. "When you have a couple or three different guys involved running the football over the course of a game, I think the benefits are many. There's a freshness that each of those guys has. Maybe they have different styles. They can attack defenses in different ways and maybe over the course of three of them, they're just more versatile than one guy might be."
The Cowboys were a one-man running game show last season with DeMarco Murray. He carried 392 times for 1,845 yards, setting team marks in both statistical categories.
Randle has 105 carries in two years. McFadden has had more than 215 carries in a season just twice in his seven seasons with the Oakland Raiders. Dunbar has 80 carries in three seasons.
Entering last season, the Cowboys had no idea Murray could withstand the amount of work he received. He was slowed by injuries in his first three seasons.
"I think with any young player before they get an opportunity to be a strong contributor or a starter, you're always betting on what you've seen up to that point," Garrett said. "That happens with our team every year, playing a young guy, playing a rookie, maybe you're playing a second- or third-year guy who hasn't played before. When those roles change you're basing it on evaluation you've had up to that point. Joe's done a lot of good things to give us confidence to think he can do a good job for us."
IRVING, Texas -- The regular season is upon us so it's time for Five Wonders to go weekly instead of intermittently like in the offseason.
There are plenty of things to wonder about: What will be the Dallas Cowboys' final record? Will they make the playoffs? Can they get to a Super Bowl?
In this week's offering, however, we are taking slightly smaller view wonders.
Away we go:
- I thought there would have been more discussions about a long-term deal for defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford leading up to the first game of the regular season. The Cowboys have made it clear they view Crawford as a defensive cornerstone for years to come, and they have taken care of those types of things in training camp, like with Sean Lee and Tyron Smith. So that has me wondering about another defensive lineman: Greg Hardy. He's on a one-year deal and will miss the first four games due to a suspension. The Cowboys have lauded Hardy's work. His teammates like him. You don't get a chance for pass-rushers like Hardy often or at all in free agency. Does it make sense for the Cowboys to do a deal with Hardy sooner rather than later? It doesn't need to be out-of-this-world in terms of guaranteed money, but enough to make Hardy open to wanting to be a Cowboy for the long-term. Just a wonder.
- I wonder if Dez Bryant comes out with a nine-catch, 128-yard, two-touchdown performance Sunday against the New York Giants, if everybody will say, 'Who needs training camp?' Bryant was involved in just 12 practices during training camp (10 in Oxnard, California, two back in Texas) after suffering a hamstring strain. Does anybody wonder if he will be game ready even with lack of preseason work? Some players need the grind of training camp to get ready. Sean Lee is one of those guys. Bryant is so gifted that there's just a feeling he can wake up from a month off and be the best player on the field.
- We hear it every year from every team about how difficult the final cuts can be. Maybe it’s more the emotions involved because you ask the players to work so hard and sacrifice so much only to tell them they’re not good enough to make the team. But I wonder if there has to be at least a little double-taking going on that none of the 20 players cut Saturday by the Cowboys were claimed by another team over the weekend. Some were added to practice squads, but none were claimed off waivers and put on a 53-man roster. That surprised me and has me wondering if the depth of the roster isn't as good as many believe. On Monday, defensive end Lavar Edwards, who was waived Sunday by the Cowboys, was claimed by the Oakland Raiders.
- I wonder who is No. 53 on the Cowboys’ roster. No, not uniform No. 53, but the 53rd player on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys went heavy at defensive tackle and there probably isn’t a need for six defensive tackles. There’s no doubt Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop were among the Cowboys best 53 players but if the Cowboys need a roster spot for another position to can they justify having that many tackles? On Monday, No. 53 was linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who was let go when the Cowboys claimed tackle Jordan Mills. He will make $2 million from the Cowboys and not play a down for them. It’s hard to find quality defensive linemen, so I think Coleman and Bishop would be safe. Danny McCray? Tyler Clutts? Devin Street? Geoff Swaim? If the Cowboys do need a roster spot, it might come down to who they think they will have a better chance of getting back on the roster at a later point.
- Speaking of defensive tackles, I wonder if Ben Gardner wasn't included on the practice squad because it's too difficult to get 11 defensive linemen work during practice. Gardner is certainly practice-squad worthy. He might not have all the measurables to make him a top prospect, but he has skills that can be worked on and he can help a scout team. But if you have 11 defensive linemen on the active roster it's hard to justify keeping another one on the practice squad when you need to fill needs elsewhere.
Here's a player-by-player look at the Dallas Cowboys' 53-man roster:
Tony Romo: He is healthier than he has been in two years and looks primed to have another big season.
Brandon Weeden: He is in the second year in the same system for the first time in his career, but the hope is he doesn't have to take a meaningful snap all season.
RUNNING BACK (5)
Joseph Randle: He has been the leader of the committee since the offseason began and will get the chance to be that guy throughout the season.
Darren McFadden: After seven years in Oakland, the Cowboys are hoping his speed comes through.
Lance Dunbar: This season, the Cowboys swear, will be the season Dunbar gets the ball more on third-down chances, but will they follow through?
Christine Michael: Another runner to add to the committee, but it will be hard for him to get a lot of work, at least early in the season.
Tyler Clutts: He is a dependable player whom the coaches trust in a lot of situations.
TIGHT END (4)
Jason Witten: Entering his 13th year, he is not showing any signs of slowing down as an overall player.
James Hanna: He was slowed the past two weeks of the preseason with a knee injury but is expected to be back to practice this week.
Gavin Escobar: The former second-round pick remains a niche player but will be a factor in the red zone and running the seams.
Geoff Swaim: The seventh-round pick caught attention in the spring and carried that over to training camp, but how does he get on the 46-man roster?
WIDE RECEIVER (5)
Terrance Williams: He had a solid offseason and closed the preseason strong but will have to win one-on-one matchups all season with the attention paid to Bryant.
Cole Beasley: He was arguably the Cowboys' best offensive player in training camp and could have a career year as the slot receiver.
Devin Street: He had some moments in the summer but had trouble getting over a nagging ankle injury. He was active every game as a rookie, but that might not be the case this season.
Lucky Whitehead: He earned a spot with his work at a couple of different receiver spots as well as in the return game.
OFFENSIVE LINE (8)
Tyron Smith: He is the best young tackle in the game, and he is only entering his fifth season.
Travis Frederick: Coming off a Pro Bowl season, he has developed into one of the NFL's best centers.
Zack Martin: He became the Cowboys' first rookie All Pro since 1969 last season and has the look of a star up front. He missed three preseason games with a stinger.
Doug Free: The right tackle's offseason was slowed because of foot surgery, but he played better as the summer wore on.
Mackenzy Bernadeau: His versatility helps him keep a roster spot with his ability to play all three interior spots.
La'el Collins: The most-heralded undrafted signing will have to earn his keep and has signs of a bright future, but people need patience.
DEFENSIVE LINE (10)
DeMarcus Lawrence: He came on strong in the playoffs last season, and that confidence has carried over to his second year in a move to left defensive end.
Tyrone Crawford: The Cowboys believe he is a star in the making and view him as a cornerstone piece of their defense as he enters the final year of his contract.
Nick Hayden: He is criticized by many, but the coaches love his work and leadership.
Jeremy Mincey: He led the Cowboys in sacks last season with six and brings some leadership and wisdom to the room.
Randy Gregory: He might be the steal of the draft if he produces in the regular season the way he produced in the preseason. He might be a better all-around player than many thought.
Jack Crawford: A broken thumb ended his season early last year, but he can produce from the tackle and end positions.
Terrell McClain: If he can stay healthy, he can be a disruptive player on the interior. But he has had a hard time staying healthy.
Davon Coleman: He has the talent to be a decent part of the rotation, but his focus waned last season after making the roster as an undrafted free agent. He can't let that happen again this year.
Ken Bishop: He might not possess the pass rush Rod Marinelli craves, but he is stout against the run and gives the Cowboys needed bulk.
Ryan Russell: The fifth-round pick was always hearing it from Marinelli in camp. The Cowboys see athleticism but want to see more consistency.
Sean Lee: His comeback from a torn ACL is almost complete. He played in one preseason game and has said the knee feels strong. Can he last a full season?
Andrew Gachkar: He was an unheralded free-agent signing but has showed the ability to play all three spots and could be the opening day middle linebacker.
Kyle Wilber: He should open the season at strong-side linebacker. He is dependable, if unspectacular, with his main role coming on special teams.
Anthony Hitchens: A foot sprain has kept him off the field for three weeks, but there is some hope for the opener. If he is healthy, he could start in the middle.
Damien Wilson: He started off strong in camp but slowed a little late, which can happen to rookies, but he has the athleticism to play all three spots.
Keith Smith: He re-joined the team early in camp and played his way on to the roster in part because of his special teams' ability.
Brandon Carr: His future was much talked about in the offseason, but he remains and the Cowboys need him to play the way he did the final six weeks of last season.
Morris Claiborne: With Orlando Scandrick out for the year with a knee injury, the former first-round pick in 2012 gets his last chance to show why he was picked so high. His comeback from a torn patellar has gone better than expected.
Barry Church: The leader of the secondary with actions perhaps more than words, the Cowboys need more big plays from him in 2015.
J.J. Wilcox: He is still growing into the position but has the tools to be solid.
Tyler Patmon: All eyes will be on him because he takes over for Scandrick in the slot. He is feisty.
Byron Jones: The first-round pick might be more of a safety than a corner, but his versatility helps Marinelli juggle different defensive packages.
Corey White: Like Jones, he can play safety and he can also play slot corner if needed. The Cowboys might have a nice find after New Orleans let him go.
Jeff Heath: He is a core special teamer, but his work over the summer was slowed because of a concussion.
Danny McCray: He returned to the Cowboys after a one-year run in Chicago and is in much the same role as when he left: special teamer.
L.P. Ladouceur: He has not had a bad snap since he joined the Cowboys in 2005. That's quite a long run.
Dan Bailey: He is one of the NFL's best kickers and never seems to let the pressure get to him.
Chris Jones: He had his best camp of his career and possesses a strong left leg.
While Weeden's balance and memory tested out fine, he had a headache that was enough to keep him off the field after taking a sack. Weeden has improved, which was evident by his attendance of Tuesday's walk-through even if he didn't participate.
"If you're ankle's hurt, yeah, I'm fine throw some tape on it. But you have a headache? Yes? All right, you want to be smart," Weeden said. "I'm 31 years old and I don't want to be 50 and not be able to know my kids' names. To me that's a lot more important than trying to play it out for one more series in a preseason game. It's not worth it. Super Bowl? Little different deal.
"But I'm good. I'm making good progress."
Weeden isn't sure if he will be able to play in Saturday's preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings. He has to follow the concussion protocol before getting cleared. Tight end Gavin Escobar was able to play against the 49ers after suffering a concussion in practice against the St. Louis Rams.
Weeden completed 2-of-5 passes for 7 yards in three series' of work.
"It takes time," Weeden said. "You can't really put a day on it. You just have to make sure you're symptom free, then you start the process and when that runs its course. When the trainers say, 'Hey, you're good to go today,' I'll throw my helmet on and go practice."
Bryant's return doesn't mean he will be a full participant in practice. As they did with other players, such as Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar, Bryant will likely be worked into practice over the next few days with the possibility of playing Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings.
Bryant will "get involved in individuals and see how he does and how he responds to that," coach Jason Garrett said.
Bryant has missed 10 practices and the first two preseason games. After missing the offseason program as he awaited a long-term contract, the Cowboys did not want to overwork Bryant early in camp. He was held out of one-on-one work and had his snaps monitored but still had moments of dominance in practice.
In the past week, Bryant stepped up his rehab work off to the side during practice with resistance training. He went through the walk-through sessions and the pre-practice 11-on-11 work as well. While not practicing, he also played catch nonstop.
Garrett has been impressed with Bryant's work off the field when not practicing.
"Stayed very engaged, really good in meetings, good at the walk-through, engaged with his coaches, engaged with his teammates," Garrett said. "He's a professional."
What it means: Thankfully for the Cowboys, this means nothing, but it does show there has to be some concern about the depth, especially along the offensive line.
The Cowboys did not have left tackle Tyron Smith (biceps), Zack Martin (stinger) or Ronald Leary (back) on the field Sunday. Doug Free lasted two series. Travis Frederick lasted three. Rookie La'el Collins and Darrion Weems failed to pick up a stunt that led to a sack. The running game averaged 3.3 yards per carry in the first half.
Slow going: Darren McFadden returned to the Bay Area as the Cowboys’ starting tailback and had three carries for 4 yards and caught one pass for 3 yards in two series of work. Lance Dunbar caught Tony Romo's only pass but slipped and lost a yard. Joseph Randle had seven carries for 30 yards. So far the Cowboys have not been able to answer the running back question.
Stat of note: Through two preseason games the Cowboys have scored two touchdowns on 22 possessions. It’s not time to panic but it is worth noting. But remember this: The starters have yet to play a snap together in the preseason. Perhaps things get better next week if Dez Bryant gets on the field.
Injuries of note: Backup quarterback Brandon Weeden went to the locker room after taking a blow to the head on a 9-yard sack from Quinton Dial and Eli Harold. Weeden lasted just nine plays and completed two of five passes for 7 yards.
What’s next: The Cowboys return to Oxnard, California, for the final week of training camp before returning home for their first preseason game at AT&T Stadium against the Minnesota Vikings.
OXNARD, Calif. -- The list of injured Dallas Cowboys continues to grow.
As of Tuesday, it was 25 players long. Here is the rundown:
Cole Beasley (Achilles), Dez Bryant (hamstring), Antwan Goodley (hamstring), Gus Johnson (shoulder), James Hanna (knee), Gavin Escobar (concussion), Ronald Leary (back), Tyron Smith (biceps), Doug Free (foot), Zack Martin (stinger), Ken Boatright (neck, back), Nick Hayden (ribs), Terrell McClain (knee), Tyrone Crawford (back), Sean Lee (knee), Anthony Hitchens (foot), Byron Jones (shoulder), Corey White (unknown), Barry Church (ribs), Brandon Carr (hand), Orlando Scandrick (knee), Ken Bishop (unknown).
Some players are at various points in their recovery. Some could be back today. Others could need a week or more.
Free has taken some team snaps in the past three practices after resting his surgically-repaired foot. Scandrick was in pads for the first time since Aug. 6 on Tuesday but just worked on the side. Bryant was in full pads and was begging for a snap but the hope is he can return to practice next week. The same goes for Tyron Smith.
The numbers of injuries affect practices in terms of quality and quantity. Because of the injuries, the number of snaps was cut back.
"You cross your fingers every day you walk out here in these training camps," executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "...We obviously have a big injury list right now. I think it's over half our team has something they're getting treated right now. We have to continue to monitor it, manage it and do the best we can. As you we all know, a lot of these injuries out here, people missing practice, we are being conservative in terms of not letting them get out here and really let the injury escalate."
The injuries have made the jobs of Jones and senior director college/pro personnel Will McClay challenging. With 90 players in 32 camps, there aren't enough players available.
Since camp started, the Cowboys have added running backs Ben Malena and Michael Hill, wide receiver David Porter, offensive linemen Cody Clay, tight end Brandon Barden, linebackers Keith Smith, Jonathan Brown and Ka'Lial Glaud and cornerback Brandon Smith.
On Wednesday, the Cowboys had players in for workouts on a day off, including a few defensive linemen. The ultimate goal is to find players to possibly help during the season, but the immediate goal is find players to get through practice.
"Everybody's got their nicks and bumps and bruises and you have 90 players on the roster and to find someone to replace that player that you've studied as much and have a new guy come in, it's a very difficult deal," McClay said. "But I think our guys do a good job. We've got lists of players that are not anywhere. We've got a list of players that have been somewhere and we've got their college reports. So we try to find a way to match it. Some positions are harder than others. I mean offensive line? Are you kidding me? Thirty-two teams and 90 players, they've got 15, 16 linemen; they don't make them in college football, so it's hard to find them now."
The Cowboys' No. 1 goal of training camp is keeping players healthy. Their eyes are not on Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers. It's the Sept. 13 regular-season opener against the New York Giants.
But in order to get ready for that game, practice is critical. Before the brawls ended the practices against the Rams, injuries curtailed the number of snaps per practice period.
"This is an important time for us as we're building our team," Jones said. "We all know that this next 10 days leading up and through that third preseason game are going to be a big, big deal in terms of how we get this team prepared for the season. Maybe things [with injuries] will slow back down a little bit, but these next 10 days will be tough. This is part of it. This is when you build your football team and hopefully we'll do a good job doing it."
Of course, it was red zone work where his 6-foot-6 frame makes him a nightmare matchup for defensive backs. In one-on-one drills, Escobar could not be stopped. In the compete period, he plucked a Tony Romo fade over safety Jeff Heath for a touchdown. He had a touchdown negated in team drills because of a push off on Barry Church but there was no doubt Romo was going to him before the ball was snapped.
"I like it because I feel like that's where my strengths are," Escobar said. "My size. My catching ability. I feel comfortable down in there."
Escobar had four touchdown catches last season and all but one came in the red zone. Of his six career touchdowns, four have come from inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
"Dez is going to see a lot of double coverage in the red zone," he said, "so we've got to take advantage of our one on ones."
As he enters his third season, Escobar has just 18 career catches for 239 yards. He has played in every game with two starts, but he was unable to unseat James Hanna as the No. 2 tight end behind Jason Witten in the running game last season.
Run blocking was not Escobar's strong suit when he came to the Cowboys and they continue to work with him on it. He had a key block on a Joseph Randle run in Sunday's practice but he also had a holding penalty in the first preseason game against the San Diego Chargers.
"I mean if I look at film from two years ago, I've definitely made a lot of strides," Escobar said.
What Escobar suffers from mostly, however, is the same thing that afflicted Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett, second-round picks in 2006 and '08. Because Witten does not come off the field, all three have been labeled disappointments.
"Gavin's arc has a lot to do with the guy who is our starting tight end," coach Jason Garrett said. "[Witten] is pretty good. It's hard to get those reps when Jason Witten is in front of you. We recognize that. It's hard for James Hanna to get those reps. To a certain extent it's hard for [Geoff] Swaim to get those reps. The guy [Witten] is good and he plays every snap. He's played every snap for a long, long time around here."
While Garrett has seen improvement, the lack of statistical production leads to an unfair labeling that Escobar has not lived up to expectations when the team has not found a way to utilize him best. When he was picked, the Cowboys were going to move to an offense that featured two tight ends the way the New England Patriots featured Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
It was the same thought Bill Parcells had when the Cowboys took Fasano in 2006 and Wade Phillips had when the Cowboys took Bennett in 2008.
It didn't work for them with the Cowboys. Escobar has two more seasons to make it work for him.
"A lot of people say when you drafted a guy that high, they want him to come in and be an immediate starter," Garrett said. "What he needs to focus on is taking full advantage of his opportunities and trying to get better each and every day, and he's certainly done that. He's the right kind of guy. He works really hard at getting better every day and we've seen that progress. When he gets an opportunity, he'll be ready for it. ...I certainly have no regrets about us drafting him. We like what he's done and he's going to be better and better each and every day he's out there."