Camping with the Dallas Cowboys: Road tripping to Canton

Dallas Cowboys running back Rico Dowdle (Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)
Dallas Cowboys running back Rico Dowdle (Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports) /

Fifteen days ago, the Dallas Cowboys held their first practice of the 2021 season. Last Thursday, they participated in their first game of the year. Depending on your perspective, the extra preseason game could be a good thing or a bad thing.

If the play or outcome of Thursday night’s 16-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers is any indication, an extra game certainly could not hurt. Now, before you go thinking I’ve lost my mind, I fully understand that the outcome of any preseason game is non-consequential.

The play can even be somewhat sort of excused. The grocery list of big names absent from game one essentially makes up the entire top ten of talented players on this team and then some. Still, the three-plus hours of game time in football’s most hallowed hall left a lot to be desired.

Still, sitting on the couch and enduring three hours of what the Dallas Cowboys put out onto the field four days ago was a difficult task. It’s my job to perform the challenging task of finding the positive while acknowledging what needs to be improved upon immediately. With that in mind, here are the biggest takeaways from the Dallas Cowboys’ first “real” action of 2021.

By far and away, the biggest disappointment on display was whatever the Dalla Cowboys trotted out onto an NFL field and called it “special teams.” Missed field goals and below-average kick coverage seemed to be the soup du jour. Even the punting of Hunter Niswander seemed to be fool’s gold.

To be fair, head coach Mike McCarthy and special teams’ coach John Fassel have not really spent a ton of time on the kicking game thus far throughout camp. To date, less than five field goals have been attempted and the main kicking option, Greg Zuerlein, is on the PUP list.

All excuses aside, the whole unit was a mess. Niswander missed one field goal badly and knuckle-balled one through from under 30 yards. Pulling double-duty as the placker AND punter, he did boom the crap out of his three punts, which averaged over 50 yards per punt.

The issue, however, is that one resulted in a touchback, while another was fair caught exactly at the twenty-yard line. His only other punt was returned by Pittsburgh for 36 yards. Needless to say, the next week should at least make this unit a focal point of improvement.

A far more troublesome exhibition was provided from the opposite side of the ball. After the starting offensive line, took their one series of play, the backups provided little-to-no inspiration in case they are ever needed.

Tackle Brandon Night, someone who has started half of his career games so far, showed nothing towards earning himself the backup swing tackle position. Free-agent Ty Nyskhe did not do much better. Honestly, the biggest takeaway from this game I had was that starters Tyron Smith and La’el Collins NEED to be healthy for this team to do anything in 2021.

Because of the lackluster offensive line play, the rest of the offense just could not be fairly evaluated.  It’s pretty clear that quarterback Garrett Gilbert‘s has the backup job on lock unless some other team decides to put a capable opposition on the market. The other two options did nothing to impress.

Throughout the less than impressive performance, there were still a few, nice positives to take away from the process. The most obvious plus from Thursday was the play of the Dallas Cowboys’ linebacking corps. Rookies Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox both had good debuts. Meanwhile, veteran Leighton Vander Esch looked much more like 2018 Leighton Vander Esch which, if that is any indication, this defense will receive a huge boost.

On the opposite side of the ball, second-year undrafted running back Rico Dowdle showed why it should be no shock at all when he makes the final roster. Even though he will clearly be RB3 if my prognostication is correct, he did show the juice you want anyone at that position to have. Averaging over five years per tote, over eight attempts behind the line he was given is an impressive feat.

Trending. Watch the Top 10 plays from Cowboys training camp so far. light

So what’s next for this team? This week provides a joint practice with another NFC foe on Saturday, plus three other practices, Tuesday-Friday before game two of the preseason against the Arizona Cardinals. Stay tuned for more updates from training camp as the weeks moves forward.