Previewing Dallas-Denver

All is right with the world again, or at least it's heading that way. At long last — after a seemingly endless waiting period — football really is back.

OK, so Thursday night's exhibition opener won't exactly be laced with the drama and subplots of a late-season showdown with NFC East foes Philadelphia, New York or even Washington. Each team will rest some starters for most of the game, if not sitting out the evening entirely. By some point in the second half, the field will be crawling with players who will be unemployed by the time the season starts. Many starters on each team will be on the sideline and wearing baseball caps before the national anthem stops resonating throughout Cowboys Stadium.

But the game is not without value. The mere fact that a football game is being played is reason enough to watch.

For most players, Thursday is not a do-or-die game. Some who play well won't end up on the team, and some who don't muster up their best performances still will end up on the roster.



Two areas worth watching: • Health: yes, that can be placed at the top of the list in any game, but there is a greater sense of urgency for teams' medical staff and trainers this summer. During the lockout, players were not allowed to work with team doctors or trainers, and while the vast majority worked out individually and worked in some kind of players-only team workouts, it's not the same as working in a bona fide camp, with opponents who will hit.

Players can run all the sprints they want, but doing so while NFL-caliber players are leaning on them, tugging at them and knocking them around requires an entirely different fitness level. Players are rolling ankles and straining knees and even tearing Achilles tendons around the league, in large part because the abbreviated preseason schedule is forcing players to alter their body maintenance routines.

• The running game is far from a finished product, as there are four running backs in camp vying for what is believed to be three spots. Marion Barber was dumped (and subsequently picked up by Chicago), and two other candidates — rookie DeMarco Murray and fourth-year veteran Tashard Choice — have been sitting out of drills in San Antonio because of injuries.

Meanwhile, Dallas coaches have raved this summer about one-year veteran Lonyae Miller, who started last season on the practice squad before being called up to the active roster. Miller entered training camp as the team's fourth running back, but has thrived in the chances he has had because of the injuries suffered by Choice and Murray. The 6-foot, 232-pound Miller has been the primary backup this summer behind Felix Jones, and has channeled his inner Barber in the process, powering his way through heavy traffic on inside power runs and showing the ability to bounce to the outside and to catch the ball out of the backfield better than many believed he could.

Jones also has something to prove. With Barber's exit from camp, Jones is the team's No. 1 back, and head coach Jason Garrett has said several times he thinks Jones can do the job. But when he was drafted out of Arkansas, Jones was identified as a "change of pace" back, a game-breaker whose speed and elusiveness in the open field would add an extra element to the Dallas offense. He delivered, but in an effort to better handle the rigors of playing running back in the NFL, he bulked up last year to 219 pounds — seven more than Choice. He needs to show that he can balance being the team's primary back and still have the electric open-field running style that team officials envisioned when they drafted him.

Jones figures to play very little Thursday, so while the game against the Broncos likely won't make or break his chances to earn a roster spot, it will be a great chance for Miller to show his coaches that he really deserves a roster spot, and a chance to be part of the running backs rotation.

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