The Dallas Cowboys have cared little about the outcome of the preseason games under head coach Jason Garrett.
But even he couldn’t deny the joy coming out his locker room after the 21-14 victory against the Houston Texans in preseason finale Thursday night at AT&T Stadium.
Sure, it snapped an eight-game preseason losing streak dating to 2013 and gave the Cowboys state bragging rights against the Texans in the traditional Governor’s Cup series.
But it was also one final piece of joy for many of the players who were putting on their uniform for the last time with final cuts to 53 looming Saturday.
Former Texas A&M running back Ben Malena clinched the victory with a 5-yard run with 3:14 left to play.
It’s challenging. It’s the worst part of our job. That’s not easy.
Coach Jason Garrett on cutting players
It was the Cowboys’ first win of the preseason (1-3). Dallas has never gone winless in consecutive preseasons in its 56-year franchise history.
“I thought it was a good night,” Garrett said. “Often times these guys think it’s a great night. It’s the body of work we are evaluating. Having said that, this was a big opportunity. We encourage those guys to go be who you are. Do your job and play with a great spirit, and I think the guys did that. A lot of young guys played in this game. A lot different guys made plays throughout our team.”
With the season opener against the New York Giants nine days away on Sept. 13 at AT&T Stadium, keeping the starters healthy was priority No. 1.
It’s the reason none of their starters and primary backups on offense or defense suited up for the game, including quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Dez Bryant to third receiver Cole Beasley and nickel cornerback Tyler Patmon.
Cowboys will open the season at home on Sept. 13 against the New York Giants at 7:30 p.m. on KXAS/5.
The secondary charge for the Cowboys was trying to round out the final roster spots and seeing who would make a late push for defined roles, the 53 and/or the practice before the final cuts.
Among the positions the Cowboys will look to upgrade via a trade or waiver wire after the cuts are a backup receiver, backup running back, backup offensive tackle and possibly a third quarterback.
In addition to Malena, running back Gus Johnson, cornerback Corey White, receiver Lucky Whitehead, defensive end Ryan Russell and linebacker Keith Smith made impact plays.
Malena finished with 88 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown. Johnson added 68 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown.
Their play was huge considering the team will be looking to add a running back.
The defense had two takeaways that turned the game in the third quarter. White returned an interception 3 yards for a touchdown, and linebacker Keith Smith had a fumble recovery after a sack by Russell, setting up a 21-yard touchdown run by Johnson.
It was Whitehead’s 33-yard punt return that paved the way for Malena’s game-winning touchdown.
Dallas has never gone winless in consecutive preseasons in its 56-year franchise history.
Now comes the hard part as the Cowboys must trim 22 players from the roster, cutting down from 75 to 53.
“It’s challenging. It’s the worst part of our job,” Garrett said of the cuts. “That’s not easy.
“Players get cut. You have to try to help them get their minds right. But we have to do what’s in the best interest of the Cowboys. We will have some hard decisions to make. We appreciate the effort of all the guys.”
The Cowboys appeared on their way to a ninth consecutive preseason loss, trailing 7-0 after a lackluster first half, until the defense came up big with two game-changing turnovers in the third quarter.
White got the Cowboys on the board with his interception return for a touchdown, as he jumped a Tom Savage pass and walked into the end zone. The play was set up by Chris Jones’ 54-yard punt that bounced out at the 1.
It capped what has been a strong preseason for White, who signed with the Cowboys as a free agent in the spring after being released by the New Orleans Saints because of poor ball skills. White clearly saw the ball from Savage.
But it was only the beginning from the defense. Russell got a sack and forced fumble on Savage on the ensuing series. Linebacker Keith Smith picked the ball up and returned for a touchdown, but it was nullified because the play initially ruled an incomplete pass on the field.
It was ruled a fumble after a replay challenge by Garrett. Johnson made it count with a 21-yard touchdown on the next play, putting the Cowboys up 14-7.
The game turned again in the fourth quarter when receiver Nick Harwell muffed a punt, setting up a 16-yard touchdown pass from Savage to Keyshawn Martin,
Rookie cornerback Byron Jones, the 2014 first-round pick who played safety for much of the game, gave up the touchdown to Martin.
But the Cowboys came up with the final two big plays to set up the win. Tackle Davon Coleman sacked Savage, forcing a punt that was returned 33 yards by Whitehead.
Quarterback Dustin Vaughan led the offense down the field, capped by the Malena’s final run.
Vaughan went all the way at quarterback, completing 11 of 20 for 115 yards.
Clarence Hill, 817-390-7760