Pre-season football is usually a tedious yet necessary routine for players to get back into game shape after a long off-season and a few weeks of internal competition during camp. Most of the time, the only players with anything on the line are the undrafted rookies fighting for their NFL lives while everyone with guaranteed deals or secured roles go through the motions to prepare for the season.
But even with a two-year deal and a strong hold on the back-up quarterback job in hand, Brandon Weeden didn't take the field last night with the sole purpose of getting in some live reps. After two tumultuous seasons in Cleveland, Weeden is on a mission to change the league's perception of him, and his first appearance for the Dallas Cowboys was a great way to kick off his campaign.
To reiterate, this is pre-season football we're talking about, and nearly everything that goes on in the pre-season is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. That said, looking really good in your first pre-season game is a whole lot better than looking really bad, and Weeden had a really nice showing against the San Diego Chargers last night while playing with second stringers on offense and against a good number of San Diego's regular defensive players.
Weeden played the entire first half for the Cowboys Thursday night, throwing for 107 yards and a touchdown while completing 13 of his 17 attempts (two of his passes were dropped). Dallas made it a point to feature fellow Poke Joseph Randle early in the game and spent most of the first half switching between the I formation and some shotgun sets. Predictably, Weeden looked incredibly comfortable in the shotgun and even showed some prowess on play-action plays from under center.
Weeden put his deadly accuracy on display, which is surely still his best quality as a quarterback, and was able to get out of the pocket for a pair of nice throws on the move. As we all know, Weeden has all of the physical tools to be successful in the pros and he proved that last night. What's important in evaluating him now that he's with the Cowboys, a somewhat functional NFL team, is looking at how his understanding of the game is evolving.
His biggest issue in Cleveland - aside from a poor supporting cast and a faulty system - was not being very aware in the pocket and making poor decisions. Going from Oklahoma State, where he was essentially standing on a pitching mound in the pocket without ever having to deal with pressure, to a team that couldn't pass protect like the Browns threw his development off a bit and helped lead to his disappointing tenure there.
Last night, Weeden showed some improvements in both areas, checking down to safer options when his downfield receivers were covered and maneuvering in the pocket when the pressure was on. At times it seemed as if he was a little too conservative, but for the first game of the season, he did a great job of finding open receivers. Weeden even showed off his wheels in escaping from the pocket on this play.
Weeden does a great job here of sensing the pressure from his blindside and stepping into the wide open middle of the field for a productive gain. Last season, this would have been a strip sack because Weeden had a drive derailing tendency to hold onto the ball a beat too long, but here his internal clock seems finely tuned.
Weeden's mobility, though not a strength, was also on display on a couple of play-action rollouts that got him on the move towards the sideline. Both times Dallas had Weeden roll to the right and put two tight ends on out cutting routes - one deep and one shallow - and allowed Weeden to read from deep to short. On the first go around, Weeden chose to go short even though there seemed to be enough room to fit a tight ball into the deeper option - again, he was a tad conservative on the night.
The Cowboys scored a touchdown the next time they ran boot action, although the play didn't develop all that smoothly. On third and goal from the four, Weeden rolled back to about the 15 yardline, taking his time as the play developed in the back of the endzone. After making his initial, planned run towards the back corner of the end zone, tight end James Hanna broke off his route and improvised a cut back that got him free for a toe-tap touchdown on the backline.
Out routes were a theme of the day for Weeden, as he hit slot receiver Cole Beasley on an out on an early third and short and found tight end Gavin Escobar against man coverage on this deep out on third and six.
Weeden was able to exploit the open areas of the field when the Chargers went zone and did a good job of throwing his receivers open against man coverage. Again on play-action, here's Weeden popping up quickly out of his play fake and firing a bullet across the middle for a big gain to Terrance Williams.
It may have been a scripted run through in a game that was played a notch below full-speed, but it's hard to deny that Weeden didn't resemble his old self a bit last night, confidently rocketing the ball to his receivers and showing great poise in the pocket. To say this performance means he's competently adjusted to the pace of the pros is extremely premature, but it's certainly important for Weeden's future to see the kind of results that we did during his first outing for the Pro Pokes.