In Irving, Texas the 2006 San Francisco 49ers found themselves in a good old fashioned Texas Roadhouse barbecue of sorts, with a performance that brought back not-to-distant memories of the worst of 2005. Absolutely gut wrenching is what I have to say about watching our defense wither away under the intense heat index of 100 degrees.

Certainly this performance can’t be blamed on the weather, right? The mandate of this game was to show instant improvement over the second exhibition loss we suffered at the hands of the Oakland Raiders. Head coach Mike Nolan made it very clear that preseason games still do mean something, and that winning should still be the ultimate team goal. Bright spots in this contest with the Dallas Cowboys were few and far between. We not only played flat, we didn’t seem to want to play at all in hindsight. The Dallas Cowboys (minus Terrell Owens) still managed to kick some dehydrated 49er butt in more ways then one.

Dallas Cowboy quarterback Drew Bledsoe went 12-for-17 for 200 yards, with one touchdown and a quarterback rating of 129.5. He was never pressured and certainly never sacked. He had literally all day to step back and scan the horizon for potential targets. He connected with wide receiver Terry Glenn on one play for a 28 yard touchdown pass and a 52 yard pass play later in the second quarter.

The San Francisco 49er defense allowed 300 passing yards and 189 rushing yards in this contest. They were squashed from the line of scrimmage on almost every play and every time through the air. Never have I seen such uncharacteristic tackling like I’d seen in this game. Everywhere you looked, Cowboy running backs and wide receivers were getting away completely unscathed. It was a chapter right out of the yearbook of the 49ers of the past.

“We looked a little bit like we did last year, to be honest with you,” 49ers head coach Mike Nolan said. “Tonight, we were running around, but it just wouldn’t come out in our favor. I want to see signs that we’re better than we were a year ago, not the same.”

In all, the 49er defense surrendered a ton of first downs, even more yardage and an accumulation of two touchdowns and one field goal to lose 17-7. On third downs, the Dallas Cowboys converted 7-of-13 for a 54% efficiency rating.

The 49er defense was on the field literally all evening and couldn’t find the right chemistry to turn back the onslaught unleashed by the Dallas Cowboys potent offense. All you could see throughout this game was missed tackles or a tackle that looked promising but suddenly disappeared. Fundamentals seemed missing, and basic knowledge of where one should be on any particular play was questionable almost all the time.

“On defense, the tackling is what stands out as the most disturbing thing,” said Nolan. “We didn’t play flat. We often had a lot of guys around the ball. It was unfortunate, but when we were there, we have to make plays. Playmakers need to make plays. We just didn’t play well. That’s how it was overall. We will continue to work on the defensive side. We need to continue to get a pass rush.”

Continuing to get a pass rush has thus far been nonexistent. It is one notch in the overall defensive problem we currently have. The loss of veteran playmakers like Julian Peterson and Andre Carter is starting to sting. Rookies Manny Lawson and Melvin Oliver can only develop so fast.

It got so bad at one point that veteran linebacker Derek Smith had to leave the game due to heat exhaustion. The horrendous heat was more than enough to scramble what little minds were left among the defensive playmakers that actually weren’t playmakers much at all.

You want to talk about domination? Look at the very first half of this football game and you’ll see utter domination that we can only dream about having at some point in the season. The Dallas Cowboys took total control of the ball in the first half, eating up 20:56 of the clock by manufacturing four offensive drives that resulted in 17 consecutive points.

“It’s a sign we have a lot of work to do on the defensive side of the ball, no question,” Nolan said. “The statistics do a good job of evaluating a football team. They really do.”

“I’m not going to panic,” defensive end Bryant Young said. “I know we’re capable of going out there and doing a better job.”

When you look back and evaluate everything that soaked in that night, you could see that the secondary of the 49ers looked almost identical to that of the past. Last year we had an abysmal unit that ranked last in every statistical category imaginable in the NFL, which is something we definitely want to try and avoid this season in every way, shape or form possible.

The great 28-yard touchdown pass from Dallas Cowboy quarterback Drew Bledsoe to Terry Glenn was a tragedy to watch as 49er cornerback Sammy Davis (playing for the injured starter Shawntae Spencer) fell down. The sky-high 52-yard pass from Bledsoe to Terry Glenn again, that safety Tony Parrish was incapable of getting to in what seemed like all the time in the world, was a tragedy in all itself. Can we blame Tony Parrish for not getting there in time on a newly healed ankle? Probably not in my opinion, but certainly one has to wonder whether that old injury has in fact notched his speed just enough like it was on display at that very moment of time.

“It definitely reinforces the fact that we’ve got work to do,” linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. “To eliminate mistakes and get better, we have to look at the film critically and work on our weaknesses.”

What was even more depressing was the fact that the first string offense remained on the field into the third quarter of this game to manufacture some sort of positive amusement for us fans.

Alex Smith had a less than exquisite performance completing 9-of-14 passes for 93 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He also compiled a quarterback rating of 77.4 and his longest pass of the evening was only for 19 yards. His one beaming moment, although against the second-team defense of the Dallas Cowboys, was his 15 yard touchdown pass to first round pick, tight end Vernon Davis. Davis is someone he has been connecting with on a regular basis throughout this year’s training camp along with big free agent acquisition Antonio Bryant.

The one bright spot in this game was Davis’ touchdown, and the only score for for the 49ers in this game. This is an athlete that can be compared to the late great Terrell Owens and he made that imitation known on game day this past weekend in Texas Stadium. He has been turning heads and raising eyebrows on the sidelines of training camp with his superior athletic abilities and by scoring touchdowns for fun throughout camp.

“Vernon’s getting better as a route-runner and has a much better feel for the way we do things,” 49ers offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “There’s a lot of things he’s done in practice but he hasn’t had a chance to do it in games. Today, he got a chance to run one of those routes, he ran a heck of a route and made a good catch.”

After spiking the ball in the end zone Davis spread his arms wide and arched his back in the end zone in remembrance of what Terrell Owens did not too long ago against his new home and team. Davis has promised that the touchdown he scored against the Dallas Cowboys is one of many more to come. A proposition we all would like to hear and believe and yearn for it to be truth.

What was a seemingly another heartbreaking moment was Vernon Davis running a route pattern down the middle of the field, virtually wide open, and Alex Smith couldn’t see him behind the Dallas Cowboy secondary. He threw the pass instead to Antonio Bryant, who was well covered down the left sideline. It was here that Dallas Cowboy cornerback Anthony Henry made the interception.

But as with all things in the NFL, Alex will get better with time and more repetitions. We cannot abandon what he has done thus far, and we still want to hang our hats on that first exhibition performance he had against the Chicago Bears.

“It’s something, where everyday we get better,” Smith said. “The more we work together, the more we talk, the better we’re going to be. The more I play with him, the more I’ll be able to read his body language. It’s coming.”

Offensively, the San Francisco 49ers only generated 12 total first downs and 197 total net yards. They stayed sidelined for the better part of the game on way too many occasions. They were only three-for-eight on third down conversions, which prompted the 49er defense to gasp for air every time they had to come back out on to the playing field.

Although exhibition games are just that, Mike Nolan has made it clear that they really do mean something after all. They are real barometers to how this team will come together and function just as that a team.

Truth be told, I believe that will happen. These exhibition games will help identify the focal points we need to concentrate on and fix. They will target the weak links and help us make the right choices and decisions we need to make before the regular season is right upon us.

The offensive line continues to shine in this game and the defensive line continues to slide. The variety of weapons at Alex Smith’s fingertips are many, but the only real progress one can make is converting on third down. The show will go on this week as we host the San Diego Chargers.

Being one of the 49er faithful has its advantages and disadvantages at times. But we all can’t deny the inevitable progress that Mike Nolan has instilled in this team. Build this team and lead this team to a brighter horizon my friend, because I’ll always believe, as you should, that our time is closer now than it ever was before.