Cowboys show signs of semi-optimism in awakening from drowsy August

Tony got it going.

Dez made ’em dizzy.

Miles had a flashback to better days.

And then there was the new defense — Monte and them — giving up exactly nothing on the scoreboard in the first half, a shutout helped along with two takeaways.

So for those who buy stock in exhibition football results, always a risky investment, then go ahead and reach for the hip pocket.

Buyer beware, but when it’s a dress rehearsal Saturday night at the Big Yard, these kind of positive developments definitely flipped a drowsy August for the Dallas Cowboys over to the semi-optimistic side.

The most important news that came out of this thing was no new injury being reported, at least as of postgame, among the front-liners or key backups.

In meaningless news, the Cowboys recorded a 24-18 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, a trendy pick these days as a Super Bowl contender for the upcoming season.

The Cowboys quit being that trendy several seasons ago, and there’s been nothing in August suggesting any breakthrough is on the way for 2013.

For the moment, the objective is to move off the 8-8 mediocrity bubble, and if that’s going to happen, two key elements will have to come into play.

Both did Saturday night.

First, old-timers Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli are attempting to resurrect a defense left in a mess by the previous administration, although let us do mention dearly departed Rob Ryan had injury issues last season.

The new 4-3 scheme has had a good August and had a great Saturday night, at least by exhibition football standards, which aren’t necessarily high standards.

But the Bengals, with a good and balanced offense, were also in dress rehearsal mode, and Cincy’s best offensive threat was snuffed inside the 5-yard line when safety Barry Church jarred loose a fumble.

Otherwise, the Bengals were held to a meager 101 yards of first-half offense.

Beyond the usual names of Ware, Lee, and so on, newcomer free agent Nick Hayden continues to be disruptive in the middle of the line, while Church, as vital as it gets at a thin position, is making up for last season’s lost injury time.

I mentioned defensive upgrade as first in the 2013 “must” category, but actually it’s a tie with the other vital area:

Offensive line.

This, of course, is an ongoing position of weakness, and an area in disarray this month, partly because of a massive amount of injuries.

Out of necessity, the Cowboys shook up the offensive line for Saturday night, changing over three of the five positions for this game. Doug Free was moved from right tackle to right guard, Jermey Parnell, down with injury most of the month, went in at right tackle, and Mackenzy Bernadeau switched from right guard to left guard.

Jason Garrett was putting Tony Romo behind that grab-bag bunch?

But …

Not bad. Not bad at all. There was a slow start, particularly in handling an early blitz that buried Tony. Improvement, however, happened, and it came against a Bengals front seven that is as good as anything in the NFL.

Of note, the much-cussed Free appeared to handle his new assignment rather well.

When Romo hit Miles Austin with a 12-yard TD pass in the second quarter, rookie center Travis Frederick, Parnell and Free handled a defensive stunt flawlessly, chipping at one blitzer and “passing off” another blitzer to Free, who buried him. That allowed Romo to do what he likes to do, and step up in the pocket to find Miles crossing in the back of the end zone.

OK, it was an exhibition game, but despite what appeared to be some desperation in a sudden shuffle of the offensive line — particularly with Free and Parnell — the results were better than anything else we’ve seen this month.

I’ve heard it said Free would be better off, and so would the Cowboys, at guard. It’s definitely worth another look.

If you want negative, however, there was the ongoing case of the Cowboys’ special teams, with the punt coverage unit looking lost on a 75-yard return for a touchdown in the first quarter. And even though it involved a player destined for the first cut list this week, there was also holding called on the opening kickoff. Good grief.

One move to like was Jason Garrett benching starting running back DeMarco Murray after a fumble — not a lost fumble, but a fumble — in the first half.

Phillip Tanner took over and had 14 carries, compared with only four by Murray, at halftime.

But with Romo and the starting wideouts gone at intermission, the starting offensive line came back out to start the third quarter. Murray also came back, and the Cowboys rode him hard, with eight carries. DeMarco responded, too, against the second Bengals defense, with 45 yards rushing in the quarter, then grabbing a 7-yard TD pass from Kyle Orton.

Overall, label it a pretty good evening for a club that’s had a blah August.

At least it was a timely performance. If a team is going to show anything positive this time of year, Saturday night was the right time.

Randy Galloway can be heard on Galloway & Co. weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN/103.3 FM.

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