Even with Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten not expected to play in the Cowboys’ first preseason game there is still plenty to watch as Dallas plays the Chargers Thursday night.
Here are five things to know going into the game in San Diego:
1. For Cowboys rookies like defensive back Byron Jones, defensive lineman Randy Gregory, and offensive lineman La’el Collins, Thursday night’s game will be one they will never forget. Gregory admitted that he’ll “have butterflies” as he takes the field for the first time wearing an NFL uniform. Veteran Jason Witten said he will always remember his first preseason game, a 13-0 loss to the Cardinals in 2003. That game was also Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo’s NFL debut and the first the time Emmitt Smith wore an Arizona Cardinals uniform.
2. The Dallas running backs playing Thursday night have a chance to make a statement. With injuries plaguing the Cowboys backfield during training camp, undrafted rookie Gus Johnson has taken advantage. Running backs coach Gary Brown said of Johnson, “He’s looked good. Let’s see what he can do under the lights.” Johnson is Stephen F. Austin’s all-time leading rusher, but was not signed by the Cowboys until July 28th. He is expected to start against the Chargers with Joseph Randle likely to be held out of the first preseason game.
3. The underdog story of quarterback Dustin Vaughan will only continue if he plays well in his opportunities in the preseason. Vaughan impressed the Cowboys last summer as a rookie out of Division II West-Texas A&M, so much so, that Dallas kept him on its 53-man roster in 2014. But Vaughan knows that last year has nothing to do with this season. “The preseason is a job interview, and I want to show (the Cowboys) that I haven’t reached my ceiling,” Vaughan said. Even with backup quarterback Brandon Weeden expected to start against the Chargers, Vaughan and rookie Jameill Showers (UTEP) will likely get the majority of the snaps in San Diego.
4. Rookie wide receiver Lucky Whitehead has a chance to show coaches – and Jerry Jones – that they are right to have confidence that he can fill the void left by former Cowboys kick returner Dwayne Harris. Whitehead starred as a returner at Florida Atlantic University, and is expected to be given the first chance to win the job in the preseason. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has been impressed with Whitehead, saying, “Lucky has done a nice job to this point and it will be fun to watch him play Thursday night.”
5. Thursday night, the Cowboys will try to win a preseason game for the first time in almost two years. Or maybe they won’t. It used to be considered a bad sign when an NFL team went winless in the preseason. Before 2014, 29 teams in NFL history won zero preseason games with only six making the playoffs. In 2014, two teams went 0-4 in the preseason: the Cowboys and Colts. Both teams made the playoffs.