Dustin Vaughan: The biggest story of the Dallas Cowboys’ preseason


It certainly has been an eventful training camp for the Dallas Cowboys. Injuries, fights, scares, controversy. America’s Team rarely disappoints when in search of a good story, and even though a meaningful game won’t be played for more than three weeks, the fan base is locked in.

It isn’t like many Cowboys fans actually need a reason to watch Dallas’ second preseason with even some of the most casual supporters growing weary of football depravity. We all want to see the 2015 debut of quarterback Tony Romo and it is very possible he will start despite injuries on the offensive line. But don’t tune out after he sits on the bench.

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The real story, that could affect this team for years, will just be getting started.

Certainly I’ll be the first to say that I’m not always right. Like most flawed humans, I fail to possess that elusive future-telling time machine. Still, I like to make educated predictions as do many writers and we can’t forget who called (before the draft had even happened) that rookie running back Gus Johnson would start a game for the Dallas Cowboys:

Okay, so maybe I wasn’t entirely serious. Maybe.

But with that forecasting brilliance still in your head, let me say this loud and clear: quarterback Dustin Vaughan will be an NFL starter someday.

Not for awhile. Not necessarily for the Cowboys. But he’ll start, and there’s a good chance he’ll be successful.

Vaughan never played NCAA Division 1 football. Very few players are drafted out of non-D1 schools, and even fewer find success in the NFL (See: Owusu-Ansah, Akwasi). For obvious reasons, Vaughan went virtually unconsidered during the 2014 NFL Draft despite Madden-like numbers at West Texas A&M University. But in addition to just playing against lower competition, he also led a very simple offense; one that relied on a spread pistol, always out of the gun, often with one read. A system that just doesn’t normally transition players well to the NFL.

But Vaughan isn’t normal.

When Dallas signed him as an undrafted free agent, it was size, arm strength, intangibles, and incredible intelligence that gave them hope he could succeed – even at the highest level of professional football. After a preseason that really wasn’t spectacular by any means, the Cowboys kept Vaughan on their 53-man roster for one reason: there was actual potential.

For rookies in the NFL, the learning curb is already intense. For a small school player like Vaughan, learning to take snaps under center and make reads for the first time, the difficulty multiplies. But it wasn’t too much for him.

That’s why despite completing under half his passes in his first preseason, the Dallas Cowboys could see a future in the NFL for Dustin Vaughan.

And that’s why a year later the future is still there.

Vaughan struggled during the beginning of this year’s camp with his accuracy.  A nice and expected rebound during last week’s preseason game again has analysts discussing his future on the team as a backup; but that faith probably shouldn’t have ever been lost considering his ability to make the throws has really never been in doubt. Instead it’s his decision-making and reads – the element missing during his college experience.

Head coach Jason Garrett said it best last week when discussing Vaughan’s development shortly before the game in San Diego:

"Sometimes with quarterbacks you literally see the smoke coming out of their ears [because] their mind is working so hard. The guys who are best at that position, and really the best players at any position, are the guys that somehow someway can simplify the game, trust what they see and be very decisive as they go through a play and make the decisions they need to make. I think Dustin’s getting better and better in those areas."

So many fans like to glare at statistics to draw conclusions. But especially when dealing with prospects, numbers only tell a small part of the story.

On Sunday, watch Dustin Vaughan. See his reads. See how he identifies blitzes. Watch him go through progressions. If he does any of those things, the growth in the past year has been real. If he can confidently pull them off, we already know he can throw.

And he will. Because by all accounts his work ethic and brainpower is exactly what an NFL quarterback’s should be. The game isn’t too big for him and the physical tools are there – they have always been.

Other than to perhaps save a roster spot, the Cowboys don’t need Dustin Vaughan to pass quarterback Brandon Weeden on the depth chart right now. They don’t need him to do anything but take the next step in his development, hold off rookie Jameill Showers, and keep improving in 2015. Romo is the starter for at least a few more years and nobody is in any rush to see that change.

But Vaughan is a young project with a huge upside. When Romo is ready to step aside, that project could be completed if Dallas is patient with him. Cowboys fans get to witness the next chapter in that undertaking on Sunday.

So don’t turn off your TVs when Romo and Weeden make their way to the bench. Watch Dustin Vaughan. There’s a realistic chance you could be watching him on many Sundays to come.

For the future of this franchise, what story is bigger than that?

Next: Dallas Cowboys: Five questions, San Francisco 49ers preview