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The Cowboys and the NFL lost more than just a sloppy exhibition game

The impact of the COVID-19 restrictions hit home on Thursday.

No one sees the HOF game as more than a rough approximation of real football. However, after the long drought of summer, it is still a bit exciting for fans to see players in uniforms doing football things on a football field, even if they need a program to figure out who is actually participating. Starters usually are not risked in the exhibition, a tendency that has just gotten stronger in recent years, and one the Dallas Cowboys seemed likely to have followed.

That all has gone by the wayside. Now we aren’t only missing the HOF game, we are not going to see any preseason action at all. The first football action will happen on Thursday, September 10, followed by the Cowboys playing in the first Sunday Night game of the year on Sunday the 13th at the Los Angeles Rams.

The date that first preseason game would have been played just highlights how far behind the teams are. As one of the participants in that, the Cowboys would have had an extra practice or two beforehand, but last year, when they were on a normal schedule, they had already completed their first five practices by the time the HOF event rolled around. Now, they are just getting into the “acclimation” or conditioning period. Basically this is all they have to replace the entire offseason conditioning programs. It extends until the 11th of August, next Tuesday. Then there are still five days to “ramp-up”, which should be mostly walk-throughs and absolutely no contact. Finally, on Monday the 17th, all NFL teams can start having actual practices with pads, and they will be limited to a maximum of 14 before camps officially end on September 6th, and the teams all transition to a normal weekly practice regime leading up to the season openers.

For further context, that means that the teams will go into week one of the regular season with roughly the amount of practice preparation as they normally have before the second preseason game. And, of course, none of the extra reps that would have come in those preseason games. Even in the limited snaps that starters took in past preseasons, that second game was often beyond sloppy.

Just as importantly, preseason games at least gave the coaches some idea of where their roster was. Now they are going blind, with only a carefully controlled scrimmage for Dallas to try and sort those things out.

The first game may be closer to the so-called “dress rehearsal” preseason game normally conducted in week three of the preseason, or for some teams, week two. The first few series may involve a lot of feeling-out, particularly for the Cowboys’ defense and special teams. New coordinators there mean that a lot will have to be installed in a short period of time. It’s not exactly a recipe for a crisp and efficient start. The offense has the advantage of Kellen Moore returning as coordinator and play-caller, but there will still be some new wrinkles under Mike McCarthy that will still need a lot of ironing.

Having a new head coach and so many new assistants makes the task harder for Dallas. But all teams are facing challenges with their own staff churn as well as incorporating all the new faces on their rosters. Good coaches are going to do a better job, and some staffs are going to be badly exposed.

It’s not pleasant to contemplate, because it could be weeks or a month or longer before we see the kind of football we are accustomed to during the regular season. Restrictions on camp practices had already begun to degrade the quality of the first game or two in recent years, but it is going to be multiplied.

The first month of the season could turn into a survival challenge for all teams. Don’t be terribly alarmed at how bad things might go at first, but do hope that the Cowboys don’t fall too far behind before mid-October, when most of the problems should be at least under control. It is certainly going to be different.

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