There are those in the media who playfully mock fans who get excited about a preseason game, but educated fans knew that Miles Austin, Jay Ratliff, and Tony Romo had something based on their alleged “meaningless” performances in these games. With that in mind, here’s what mattered from last night’s game:

Denver’s opening drive against the first team defense

Cover art for a fat-fetish erotica novel

There will be severe growing pains as the defense tries to absorb the new, complex Rob Ryan defense. Even when all 11 players have sufficiently grasped the concepts, assignments, and terminology, there will still be several big plays surrendered because of the gambling nature of Ryan’s 3-4 scheme. In the preseason, Sensabaugh will be late a few times when asked to cover a corner blitz and pick up the receiver. I don’t put much stock in the fact that Dallas had some blown coverages against Denver, because I think that is merely the product of learning a new system with no off season. What concerns me about Denver’s opening drive is how the Cowboys simply got manhandled up front against the run. The fact that the Bronco’s young offensive line frequently overpowered the front three for Dallas has to be cause for concern. This was not a product of learning a new scheme; it was simply power and skill, and the Dallas front three looked less than competitive. Certainly plugging Ratliff back in the middle will help, but he has his biggest impact on the passing game. I believe that this defensive line will tell us a lot about Garrett as a coach. He appears to be the kind of coach that does not believe in the “incumbent starter”; if that is true, then Igor Olshansky will not be on the field for the Jets’ opening drive on September 11. In fact, one wonders if, at $3.34 million this season, Olshansky should even be on the roster. The only justification I can see is Hatcher’s injury history, but that seems like an expensive insurance policy.

The kicking game

David Buehler’s value took a serious hit when the NFL decided to move kick-offs up to the 35 yard line. (Doesn’t it seem like kickers should spend more time trying to increase kick-off hang time and force the receiving team to field the ball around the 3 yard-line?). With touchbacks now a foregone conclusion, Buehler is no longer needed for his big leg or his kick coverage. The days of keeping a kick off specialist are over, which means that the kicker’s sole job is to make field goals (and extra points, which I guess we shouldn’t take for granted based on last year). From most reports, rookie Dan Bailey has at worst kept pace, and at best out-kicked Buehler at camp. Though Bailey did not get a field goal attempt in the first preseason game, Buehler did. Is it splitting hairs to say that even though Buehler made his 42 yard kick last night, the fact that it barely, and I mean barely, sneaked through the uprights concerns me? Here’s the bottom line: this team should be favoring younger players at every position. If the talent is close to a push, then the younger player should get the nod. That’s what 6-10 teams do. Buehler was handed the job last year and did not deliver, and he has shown little improvement in camp this season. Again, I’d love to see Garrett favor youth in this situation.

Opportunity is knocking; let the Butler get it

Victor "Jeeves" Butler

I don’t know if Victor Butler is a difference maker, but he was clearly the best player on the field against Denver’s second team. He has shown flashes throughout his Cowboys career, and as far as I can tell, is held down only because of 5-6 good games from Spencer in 2009. I’m not saying I’m ready to replace Spencer with Butler, but I would love to see what Butler can do against a first team offense at some point in the preseason. I do believe that if Rob Ryan decides he wants more Butler, he won’t be told no just because Spencer was a 1st round pick and Butler was a 4th.

Banned from the Arboretum for staring lustfully

Kevin Ogletree will not make the final roster. Harris is still raw, but his speed makes him a potential difference maker as a slot receiver. Garrett specializes in using pre-snap motion in order to get players in space, and while Harris polishes his route running ability, he can contribute with plays like last night (Harris can also be a major factor when Romo decides to improvise). The 4th receiver on any roster must be able to make an impact on special teams, and Ogletree can’t. This is another case where Garrett and Jones need to think of themselves as a 6-10 team that has an opportunity to favor youth and upside over a decent player who has hit his ceiling. Even if Dallas wants to think of itself as a Super Bowl caliber team, cutting Ogletree will likely not be the difference in a playoff game.

On the Hot Seat: Holland is sitting in a Dutch Oven

I liked the starting offensive line last night, and noticed no real difference between what Arkin brought to the table at left guard and what Holland brings at right guard. This is another opportunity for the Cowboys to develop Arkin by starting him. It’s not as though Holland will be missed at guard. At least Arkin is someone who could have a future here, whereas Holland continues to grow older and more injury prone. For that matter, the Cowboys better be ready for Costa to play significant time at center. Gurode is expected to return soon, but a 32 year old offensive lineman less than two months off of arthroscopic knee surgery is a recipe for disaster. Will he trust his knee? Will he be able to generate the same power from his legs? This is a case where I’d rather have a healthy Gurode than the young Costa, but I’m not betting that Andre will make it through a 16 game season.

Back that Thing Up

Does this team still need Jon Kitna? Has McGee shown enough that the Cowboys can save themselves $2.6 million by jettisoning a 39 year old back up quarterback who can only get the ball to his tight ends and running backs? Isn’t Dallas better served having McGee get the 2nd team reps and continuing to develop him? I like what Kitna did for this team last year, now that Garrett is in charge, Kitna’s leadership is not as vital to the offense as it was last year.

Ta-Shardly had a Chance (thought I’d go different way there, didn’t you)

Jason Garrett clearly does not believe in Tashard Choice. I have no idea why, but the fact that Dallas took Murray in the third round when they had so many other holes to fill tells us all we need to know. I’d have been happy with a RB rotation of Felix, Choice, and Miller, but if Choice is cut/traded, then the team is left with two injury prone players (Murrary and Jones), and a very young and unproven Lonyae Miller (or Phillip Tanner, based on last night’s game). I think the team would be crazy to get rid of Choice, but it feels inevitable at this point.

A good start for the Ginger-Bred Man

The bottom line is this: the more I look back on last night’s game and reflect on this team, the more I see them as a 6-10 team that should be favoring youth at every position. I think they can be competitive with Bailey instead of Buehler, Arkin instead of Holland, Harris over Olgetree, McGee as the back up, and so on. Perhaps the most exciting thing about these 2011 Cowboys  is the general vibe that now surrounds the entire organization. It feels like this team has finally been humbled, and for the first time in years, there seems to be no sense of entitlement or unearned arrogance. This feels more like a team than a collection of talented individuals, and Garrett has brought a much more organized and purposeful feel to practices and games. Despite being the first preseason game, penalties were kept to a minimum. I love what Rob Ryan brings to this team, and I love the fact that Garrett wanted him despite their incredibly different personalities. Watching Garrett laugh and playfully slap McGee around at the end of last night’s game spoke volumes to me about his ability to relate to players while still maintaining his authority. I still worry about Garrett as both head coach and offensive coordinator, but the guy did go to Princeton, after all.

It has been a while since the Cowboys entered a season flying under the radar. I’m not sure if they have built a playoff team, but I am confident that this team won’t embarrass its fans the way they often did last year.