ARLINGTON In an attempt to stay “relevant” for the Sept. 7 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, the Dallas Cowboys sat the majority of their starters and front-line players in Thursday night’s fourth and final preseason game against the Denver Broncos at AT&T Stadium.
Even a plan to give defensive tackle Henry Melton some reps so he could work on technique in live action was scuttled at the last minute.
Melton, who missed the first three preseason games with knee and groin injuries, stood on the sidelines along with the team’s other stars such as Dez Bryant, Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray.
Although starting cornerback Brandon Carr played two series to sharpen his skills after missing the first two weeks of camp because of the death of his mother, health and rest were the Cowboys’ primary focus in a 27-3 loss to the Broncos.
And just under that was analyzing the competition for the final roster spots with cutdown day looming Saturday.
Going winless in the preseason for the fifth time in team and history and the first time since 2000 — the first of three consecutive 5-11 years under Dave Campo — was not the lasting image coach Jason Garrett wanted before the 49ers game.
The game, however, was overshadowed by a story on Jerry Jones in ESPN The Magazine in which the owner, among other things, lamented the team’s decision to not take former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Jones said Manziel was the type of player who could make the Cowboys relevant for the next decade and expressed anger with executive vice president Stephen Jones for making him go in another direction.
“Well, that was a little tongue in cheek with it, but I’m still mad at him,” Jones said. "The reason you take Manziel is to win. We’ve talked a lot about the cache. We’ve talked a lot about the visibility. I don’t think anybody has to back into the fact that this guy is a winner. But I think I’m proud of that decision right now, and I’m proud I was a good listener. ”
The Cowboys chose guard Zack Martin with the 16th overall pick. Martin has been a Day One starter.
Consider Carr getting reps a good sign from Thursday night. The Cowboys need him as sharp as possible, what with cornerback Orlando Scandrick suspended for the first four games of the season and third cornerback Morris Claiborne likely rusty after missing the entire preseason with knee and shoulder injuries.
“It felt good to get a couple of plays under my belt,” Carr said. “I feel good going into next week’s home opener. Now it’s time to polish up the finished product and get ready for next Sunday.”
Another bright spot was middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who flashed physical play and quickness during a stint in the first quarter.
It was McClain’s third preseason game since coming out of retirement in July to join the Cowboys after sitting out all of last season
With each outing, he has slowly showed flashes of the potential that made him the ninth overall pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2010. The Cowboys are still deciding whether to start him or rookie Anthony Hitchens at middle linebacker in the opener against the 49ers.
"I don’t think Rolando is going to be the savior of this team," Jones said. "We don’t have Sean Lee, but Rolando does have the skill level to come in here and really add to what we can do. We’re going to need him. But I don’t want anybody to think I expect him to be Dick Butkus or even Sean Lee. That’s not there. You’re a little excited when you see some of the things he does physically, but he hasn’t played for a year and a half."
If there was any cause for concern coming out of Thursday’s game it was the uninspired play of backup quarterback Brandon Weeden, who began the game 1 of 5 passing for 14 yards and an interception before finishing 6 of 12 for 75 yards and a quarterback rating of 35.1.
As Romo’s primary backup, the Cowboys need to be confident that Weeden can come in and win games.
Weeden finished the preseason completing 34 of 57 passes for 388 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 77. 2 passer rating.
“He had that one interception on that naked bootleg where the guy came off the outside receiver and made a play on an out route on one of the inside receivers,” Garrett said of Weeden’s performance. “Sometimes that’s hard to see. He missed some throws, but he also made some good throws. I think he's played well at times and other times you can see why he needs to play more. But we're certainly comfortable and confident in him if he does have to go play.”
The Cowboys’ first three possessions ended with a third-and-14 incompletion, a third-and-13 incompletion and an interception.
Weeden directed a 14-play, 74-yard scoring drive on the fourth possession.
He completed passes of 26 and 18 yards on the drive that ended with Dan Bailey’s 24-yard field goal after Weeden came up short on a third-and-13 scramble.
“We had a hard time getting into a rhythm,” Weeden said. “The most important thing is we were able to get 4 or 5 yards on some runs and put us in second-and-manageable [plays]. It gave us the ability to convert second down instead of third down — which we didn’t do on the first drive.
“We did some good things with a lot of young guys in there that are playing positions they might not be familiar with. Overall, I thought everyone handled it pretty well. That’s one of the difficult parts of this fourth preseason game.”
The focus now for Garrett and Cowboys is trimming the roster down from 75 to 53 on Saturday and then signing 10 players for practice squad then gearing up for the 49ers.
Garrett said the Cowboys try to win every game but he was non plussed about the loss to the Broncos and the winless preseason because evaluations were the most important focus.
"We will be ready for the the 49ers," Garrett said. "We didn't play as well as we wanted as a team. But thing in a game like this is to go back watch the tape and watch individual guys. There are a lot of decisions we have to make in the next 12, 24 hours. A lot of individual players have had good preseasons. They are ready to go. The biggest thing we have to do is cut the team down the right way and then get ready to work on San Francisco.”