By David Helman
FOX Sports Dallas Cowboys Writer
DENVER — So, you’re an upstanding member of society with better things to do on a Saturday night than watch the Dallas Cowboys’ preseason opener. That’s hopefully the case, anyway.
Never fear. Having braved the tedium of a rainy, sloppy game against the Denver Broncos, here are the things I think you should know.
Lots of laundry
Even by preseason standards, this 17-7 loss would qualify as a stinker. They were shut out for 55 minutes, and they incurred 17 total penalties in a sloppy first showing.
Overreactions to preseason results are pointless and premature, but it’s perfectly fair if you find that number of flags to be a bit high. That tally of 17 flags led the NFL for Week 1 of the preseason, beating out the New England Patriots‘ total of 12 by a wide margin.
As one might expect when a team gets flagged 17 times, the infractions covered a wide range. There were several holding calls, a familiar problem dating back to 2021. There was an unnecessary roughness penalty that got Dante Fowler Jr. benched. There was a brutal false start that turned a Cowboys’ fourth-and-inches into a fourth-and-5.
Perhaps the most frustrating of all came when second-year corner Kelvin Joseph jumped offside on a missed Denver field goal, giving the Broncos a second chance at the kick — which of course Brandon McManus converted.
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy made it clear in his postgame press conference that he had a lot of young players getting their first game action of the year, downplaying the connection to last season when his team led the NFL in penalties.
“This is really the starting point that you go through every year,” he said. “This is preseason, I don’t think this has anything to do with last year. Obviously, you guys get to write what you want, but it’s a starting point.”
He’s not necessarily wrong. It’s one preseason game of three, with most of the starters standing on the sideline in baseball caps. Still, the league average for penalties through the first week of the preseason is 6.5, which means the Cowboys almost tripled the number.
It might not mean anything, but it was awfully disconcerting to watch.
As expected, Smith got a ton of early work, as the coaching staff continues to try to get him ready for a starting role. He played up until halftime, showcasing his power as a run blocker and effectively moving to the second level on multiple occasions. On the flip side, he was also called twice for holding, which was a concern about his game coming out of college. One of those calls looked flimsy and the other looked fair. Regardless, Smith said he has work to do.
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“Only thing I can do is tighten up my technique. And do things I need to do better,” he said.
Tolbert had his share of rookie struggles, as well. The Cowboys tried to get their newest receiver going early with five targets in the first half. Tolbert managed to catch two of those for 10 yards, but the lingering image from this outing will be his drop on a fourth-and-2 in the second quarter.
“It’s a learning experience for me,” Tolbert said. “Overall, I’ve got to make that play. That is all on my back. I’ve got that. I’ve got to make that play.”
Williams didn’t finish with any stats, but the rookie pass rusher showed off his impressive speed on several occasions. He also powered his way into the backfield at least once. Like Smith, though, he was flagged twice on the night. One of those, a roughing the passer call, looked like a questionable interpretation of a clean hit. The other was an offsides flag on third down.
Not the cleanest showing from three guys the Cowboys have high hopes for, but that’s what the preseason is all about.
When the starters sit, you find out a lot about the developing youth. I wrote on Friday that I was curious to see how the Cowboys’ backups at offensive tackle and cornerback played in a setting where they’d be sure to see a lot of work.
“Not great,” is a fair answer to that question. On the offensive side of things, Josh Ball struggled in an extended outing at left tackle. He contributed to an allowed sack in the first half, and he was flagged twice for holding in the second half.
Defensively, Nahshon Wright and Joseph had forgettable nights. Both young corners surrendered touchdowns in the second quarter. Wright also had an interception negated by a defensive holding penalty and surrendered several long completions. As noted above, Joseph’s offside penalty allowed Denver a second chance at points.
It wasn’t all as terrible as it sounds.
For starters, the Cowboys ran the ball shockingly well for a team that got called six times for holding. They ran for an impressive 141 yards as a team, averaging five yards per carry. The best part of that effort was undrafted running back Malik Davis, who had several nifty runs on his way to 51 yards.
At the same time, the Dallas defense allowed nothing on the ground. The Broncos’ longest run of the night was six yards, as guys like Fowler, Neville Gallimore, Trysten Hill, Tarell Basham and Quinton Bohanna helped keep them to just 39 total rushing yards.
Simi Fehoko only caught two balls for 18 yards, but one of those was a 12-yard touchdown to help Dallas avoid the shutout. It was also Fehoko’s first NFL touchdown of any kind, preseason or regular season. Most encouraging for the second-year wideout is that he had to box out his coverage to come down with the catch. It was the type of play he’s been making during training camp, so the Cowboys’ coaches had to have been pleased to see him make the most of the opportunity in a game setting.
Rookie tight end Jake Ferguson also had a nice showing after missing a week of camp with a hamstring injury. The fourth-round pick caught all three of his targets for 29 yards, showing off some solid run-after-catch ability.
Bryan Anger is deserving of a shoutout, too. The Pro Bowl punter averaged 49 yards per attempt on Saturday, pinning two of his five efforts inside the 20-yard line — including one which he bounced perfectly to the Broncos’ 1-yard line.
David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports, providing insight and analysis on the NFL’s most visible franchise. Prior to joining FOX, David spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website, DallasCowboys.com. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State.
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