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We officially have football! Even if it wasn’t a “real” game, and thus wasn’t always pretty, it was football nonetheless. Your Cowboys are back in action.
Dallas opened its exhibition slate against the Arizona Cardinals in the annual Hall of Fame Game that kicks off the NFL’s preseason schedule. In front of 21,126 fans at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium and a national television audience, the Cowboys came away with a close 20-18 victory.
But the main reason for all involved to be on hand was this weekend’s Hall of Fame ceremonies, and before the game got underway this year’s induction class was introduced. That, of course, included Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who was greeted by several current players as he made his way on to the field.
And for those such as Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick who did congratulate their boss, that was about as close to game action as they saw on this night. As expected, nearly all of the Cowboys starters enjoyed the night from the sidelines, the team not taking any chances with injuries.
That’s not to say the Cowboys didn’t come away totally unscathed. Cornerback Anthony Brown, who is expected to be a major contributor to the defense this year after an impressive rookie campaign, left the game early in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. He was to be reevaluated on Friday.
In total, Dallas had three presumed starters begin the game on defense, safeties Byron Jones and Jeff Heath and linebacker Damien Wilson, and they didn’t exactly get off to a great start. The Cardinals scored easily on their first two possessions, as veteran quarterback Blake Gabbert led Arizona on drives of 75 and 64 yards to the end zone, the second of which saw the Cardinals then convert a two-point conversion to go up 15-0 with 5:18 left in the first quarter.
Overall, Gabbert was sacked twice, but also had a relatively easy night, completing 11 of his 14 passes for 185 yards and a 118.8 passer rating. He was also responsible for that two-point conversion, courtesy of a quarterback sneak.
“There were a couple of specific plays by the defense on those first couple of drives – blown assignments on a big third down conversion,” said head coach Jason Garrett. “And it wasn’t physical enough, it wasn’t aggressive enough, it wasn’t assignment sound.”
But after giving up those initial two scores, the Cowboys settled down on both sides of the ball. On offense, only two players considered potential first-stringers began the game, right tackle La’el Collins and left guard Jonathan Cooper, which left the starting quarterback duties to Kellen Moore.
And Moore himself was nearly as good as his Arizona counterpart, completing 12 of his 17 attempts for 182 yards with a touchdown throw and an interception for a 100.6 passer rating. He had completions of 46, 32 and 26 yards the latter of which came on an end zone pass to developmental tight end Rico Gathers, who made a nice fingertip catch at the goal line to get Dallas on the board.
That was followed on the Cowboys’ next drive with Moore getting his team into field goal range, thanks in large part to an impressive diving catch by wide receiver Brice Butler for the 32-yard completion. Sam Irwin-Hill then split the uprights from 23 yards out to narrow the score to 15-10, where it remained at the half.
Said Garrett, “I felt like the offense did a good job coming back. … I thought we played better as it went on.”
The final two quarters of the game were turned over to those fighting for a roster spot. Rookie free agent quarterback Cooper Rush marched the Cowboys down for a score on their first possession of the second half to give Dallas a 17-15 advantage. He then led the team to three more points in the fourth quarter, this time a 43-yard field goal, which countered Arizona’s 40-yarder and gave the Cowboys the lead for good, 20-18.
Perhaps the most exciting play of the night came when the Cowboys decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at their own 48-yard line with only two minutes left in the game. Rush pitched the ball back to Rod Smith, who sprinted around the right corner for a 16-yard gain. Even though wide receiver Brian Brown was flagged for a block in the back penalty, the 10 yards were marched back from the spot of the infraction, giving Dallas a first-and-10 at the Arizona 46-yard line.
Even though the Cowboys couldn’t run out the clock, their defense was able to do its job over the final seconds to secure the victory. For his part, Rush had a nice debut, completing nine of 18 pass attempts for 87 yards and a touchdown. He also ran twice for 23 yards, picking up two first downs. Leading the way on the ground was Smith, who finished with 64 yards off of 18 carries with three catches for 25 more yards.
Now the fun really begins as tomorrow night Jones will officially receive his gold jacket, which will be followed by the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday. The Cowboys will then return to Oxnard, Calif., to continue training camp before visiting the Los Angeles Rams on Aug. 12 for their second of five preseason games.