True, the Cowboys engaged in a brawl that made national headlines and were outscored in their first two preseason games 40--13. In the second of those defeats, against the 49ers, they ran the ball poorly, yielded four sacks, had a punt blocked and made Jarryd Hayne, a 27-year-old Aussie rugby player, look like the second coming of Gale Sayers.
And still, the defending NFC East champs were enjoying, arguably, a superb training camp. Seriously. Coach Jason Garrett limited quarterback Tony Romo and graybeard tight end Jason Witten to one series against the Niners. All-Pro wideout Dez Bryant did not play a snap. Neither did three offensive line starters. Plenty of teams limit their stars' playing time in August, though few are as overt about it as the Cowboys, who went 0-for-August a year ago, and whose message might as well be: We don't give a fig about exhibition results, as long as our key players stay healthy.
By that measure, this preseason was a resounding success ... right up until Aug. 25. That's when feisty, smothering press cornerback Orlando Scandrick tore the anterior and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee during practice. Scandrick, who was equally comfortable covering receivers outside and in the more cramped confines of the slot, will miss the entire season. First-round pick Byron Jones, a 6-foot, 199-pound rookie out of Connecticut, will need to grow up fast. And this would be an optimal time for Morris Claiborne, the oft-burnt, frequently injured former first-rounder who lost his job to Scandrick last September, to salvage his career.
How this defense copes with the loss of its best defensive back now becomes the second-biggest question hovering over the Cowboys. The first: How will Dallas replace departed free agent DeMarco Murray, last year's NFL rushing champion? Nagging, minor injuries to Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle prevented either back from seizing the job. Whether one emerges, or Garrett opts for a committee of ballcarriers, his offense—the league's fifth-highest scoring in 2014, with 29.2 points per game—is going to be very potent yet again. Dallas made its most dramatic off-season improvements on the other side of the ball.
Exhibit A: edge rusher Randy Gregory, the 6'5", 245-pound rookie out of Nebraska, who was described in one scouting report as being "stronger than expected at the point of attack." That was certainly the experience of Rams offensive tackle Isaiah Battle, whom Gregory body-slammed during team drills in a joint practice on Aug. 18. That stunt sparked a donnybrook, video of which swiftly went viral.
It was one of Gregory's few ill-considered moves since joining the team. Widely viewed as the best pure pass rusher available, he scared teams off by testing positive for marijuana at the combine. Confident that they had the support systems in place to keep him on the straight and narrow, and, as it happened, starved for sacks—Dallas mustered a measly 28 last season, fifth worst in the NFL—the Cowboys snagged Gregory with the 60th pick. Early returns indicate that he could be the steal of the draft.
There was Gregory, lined up against Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley in the second quarter of that 49ers exhibition.
After opening with pure speed to the outside, Gregory feigned an inside move, which got Staley leaning, then blew by him with more speed outside, sacking quarterback Colin Kaepernick for a 14-yard loss. Gregory also drew a pair of holding penalties in the game.
He will be a dangerous complement to 6'5", 279-pound defensive end Greg Hardy, whom Dallas signed in the off-season, once he serves his four-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league. Hardy was convicted on charges of assault and communicating threats in July 2014, but the case was later dismissed on appeal when the alleged victim failed to appear in court. To get him on the field with Gregory, DC Rod Marinelli will have the option of moving Hardy inside. At the other end: DeMarcus Lawrence, a second-round pick in '14 out of Boise State who had two sacks for the Cowboys in the playoffs. Joining them in the race to the quarterback will be Lawrence's former college teammate, Tyrone Crawford, one of the NFL's better pass-rushing tackles, and end Jeremy Mincey, who led Dallas in sacks last year with six. Prediction: He won't be the team's sack leader this season. And the guy who is will have a lot more than six.
SI'S PREDICTION: 11--5
ANDY BENOIT ON THE NEW GREAT WALL OF DALLAS
You could argue that the most important element of the Cowboys' dynasty of the mid-1990s was a massive O-line that paved the way for Emmitt Smith and protected Troy Aikman. Twenty years later this team, remarkably, finds itself with a front five that rivals that Great Wall of Dallas. The current group—by far the NFL's best—dominates more through athleticism than through sheer power. Whereas the '90s Cowboys relied on gap-based scheme blocking, with pull blockers and smashmouth runs, today's group is mostly zone-based, with many of its runs designed to reach the perimeter. Dallas has the perfect personnel for this: Tyron Smith (above) is the game's most athletic left tackle; second-year right guard Zack Martin is about as fundamentally sound as they come; and center Travis Frederick is exactly as fundamentally sound as they come. Frederick also has great initial quickness, which propagates the line's collective movement. And things could even get better: Rookie La'el Collins (LSU) was seen by most as a top 20 pick but, due to legal concerns, went undrafted and signed as a free agent. He'll eventually start at left guard or right tackle. With so much talent along the front, it doesn't matter who's running the ball, as long as he hits the hole.
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DE Randy Gregory