Gil LeBreton

It wasn’t the worst they’ve played, but Cowboys came close

Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle, right, and teammates reflect a rough night in the second preseason game Sunday night in Santa Clara, Calif.
Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle, right, and teammates reflect a rough night in the second preseason game Sunday night in Santa Clara, Calif. AP

When viewed through the exhausting prism of 36 years of watching the Dallas Cowboys in These Games That Don’t Count, Sunday’s contest admittedly may not have been the franchise’s worst preseason performance ever.

But it, at least, deserves to be in the discussion.

In Tom Landry’s final summer, 1988, the Cowboys lost to the Houston Oilers 54-10. At home, no less.

This came close.

In their 23-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the Cowboys’ special teams imploded. A former Australian rugby player knifed through their defense. Backup quarterback candidate Dustin Vaughan threw two interceptions with fortune sparing him even more.

Alas, the game was nearly 21 minutes old before the Cowboys made their initial first down.

The highlight of the night?

It was starting quarterback Tony Romo playing the Cowboys’ first three snaps and then retiring to the sideline, out of harm’s way.

Vaughan wasn’t as lucky. Pressed into extra duty because Brandon Weeden received a blow to the head in the second quarter, quarterback Vaughan put his third pass of the night right into the ample belly of San Francisco nose tackle Mike Purcell.

The big man returned it 37 yards for a touchdown, and the Cowboys barely managed a whimper in response.

Romo’s brief appearance was one of those “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” cameos. With the Cowboys banged up across their offensive line, there was little reason to throw Romo to the wolves.

Instead, he handed off twice, threw a retreating screen pass to Lance Dunbar for a loss of 1 yard, and then called it a night.

He was given a quarterback rating of 79.2, but apparently didn’t play enough downs to earn either Owner Jones Bonus Bucks or American AAdvantage miles.

Thanks for playing, Tony.

Every Cowboys highlight on this night appeared to be the handiwork of their defense. The score was lopsided, but the Dallas defense kept the 49ers out of the end zone.

The only two San Francisco touchdowns were scored on returns — Purcell’s interception and Quinton Patton’s blocked punt.

The Niners finished with only 11 first downs and 205 total yards. The names of backup defenders filled the Cowboys’ side of the tackle sheet.

But so goes the NFL preseason — liver at steak prices.

For all their effort, the Cowboys defense’s contribution was scuttled by Vaughan and the sputtering offense.

Joseph Randle and Gus Johnson had the most yards rushing for the Cowboys, with 30 and 24, respectively. But Australia-born Jarryd Hayne, a rugby player back in New South Wales, equaled their 54 yards on only eight carries.

The Cowboys planned a late-night return to Oxnard to regroup. At some point, one would think, they have to see what a healthy offensive line, a newly proclaimed No. 1 running back, and a full roll call of injury-free wide receivers would do.

That is still a lot of crossed fingers and maybes. And it means that Romo has to play like Romo.

The first preseason game of the Jerry Jones era, circa 1989, ended with a 20-3 Cowboys victory at San Diego and giddy, college-bro’ hugs between Jones and Jimmy Johnson at midfield.

By now, though, the franchise has gotten the memo. These games don’t count, except when the coaches sit down to grade the game film.

Oh, that should be fun.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton

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