Yes, It Matters

The outcome of a preseason game is meaningless. The same people who care which team wins a particular preseason game likely are the same folks who can't wait to hear how Pauly Shore somehow got another TV show.

There is very little in the world that means less.

However, that does not mean the games themselves are without intrigue.

When the Cowboys travel to the Valley of the Sun this Saturday to face the Arizona Cardinals, the final score will be insignificant, at best (although a Dallas loss, or even a less-than-impressive victory, will give head coach Bill Parcells plenty of ammunition to fire shots across the bow of players he deems to be performing below their potential).

While fans might choose to leave exhibition games before halftime when they realize that nearly everyone who plays after the intermission will be unemployed in a few weeks, the games are vital for the coaches and for many of the players themselves.

For those firmly entrenched in the starting lineup -- Julius Jones, Drew Bledsoe, Jason Witten, etc. -- preseason games reflect little more than a roadtrip out of training camp. They go to these games with essentially little more on the line than staying healthy for the games that matter. Yes, they try to iron out the kinks in their game -- Witten's timing with his new quarterback, Bledsoe, or the youthful Jones learning to better read the blocks of his offensive line. But many of these definite starters will be lounging on the bench in a baseball hat before halftime.

However, there are many players for whom this exhibition game -- all exhibition games -- means a great deal. There are guys trying to make the team for the first time, or hang on at the end of a run in Dallas. There are reserves hoping to catch the coaches' attention in an effort to get promoted to the starting lineup. And for the Dallas coaches, these games are equally important. For the starters, they want to see the improved timing, the elimination of penalties and mental mistakes, and more than anything, good health. For the fringe players, it's evaluation time, and the coaches review not only who plays better, but also their approach in the game's waning minutes, an indication of whether the players are still working hard.

Four areas of primary concern for the Dallas coaches:

Stay Healthy
Nothing can ruin a coach's spirits after a preseason game faster than watching one of his regulars go down with a long-term injury in a meaningless game. Last year, the Washington Redskins lost star tackle Jon Jansen for the year when he blew out his Achilles tendon in the season-opening Hall of Fame game, and his absence contributed to an anemic season for the Redskin offense. Two years ago, Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick broke his leg, shelving the Falcons' superstar for the first part of the regular season. It's gotten to where coaches (and general managers and owners) probably would prefer to send their primary players out for the coin toss and then let them call it a day.

Right tackle
At the beginning of training camp, there were several options for the position: Torrin Tucker, who started the season at right tackle last year; Kurt Vollers has emerged as the most versatile tackle, but Parcells wants him available as a backup on both sides, so he's not likely to emerge as the starter; and Jacob Rogers, the 2004 second-round pick who struggled to get near the field last year and now has a banged-up shoulder. Other possibilities include Larry Allen -- who could be moved from left guard to right tackle (if Stephen Peterman proves he can handle the left guard spot) and, more likely, a Free Agent To Be Named Later.

Spotlight

FB Lousaka Polite
Another player who might well feel more heat than just that of the Arizona desert is fullback Lousaka Polite.

Parcells is a fan of the second-year bruiser from Pitt -- when players reported for the team's first mini-camp in April, Polite was the first player cited by Parcells for his superior conditioning and offseason work.

He has better-than-average hands, and runs pretty well for a guy within a few pounds of 250. However, Polite might get caught in a numbers game. The return of Dan Campbell -- one of the league's premire blocking tight ends -- reduces the need for a fullback.

Campbell blocks like a sixth offensive lineman, opening lanes for Julius Jones and helping to protect the quarterback. If he is healthy, Parcells says, the team might open the season without a fullback on its roster. If they do choose to carry one, however, Polite has to be considered the heavy favorite over Darian Barnes and Erik Bickerstaff.
Early in training camp, Vollers showed a lot of ability at both tackle spots, further cementing Parcells' notion that he's a valuable asset as a floating backup. Tucker, on the other hand, might well be playing for his roster spot Saturday night. In last week's team scrimmage, Parcells said the offensive line committed six penalties — three of which were called against Tucker. Few things annoy more than repeated penalties and mental errors, and Tucker has made more than his share of each this year. He also showed up at the team's May mini-camp out of shape, and was the only person called out by Parcells for poor conditioning. To his credit, he did shed some pounds before getting to Oxnard, but a lack of commitment to conditioning ranks up there with penalties and mental errors for the Cowboys' coach. Tucker needs to play well Saturday. The third candidate in camp is Rogers, who had an MRI on his shoulder earlier this week. The results showed no major damage, but his lack of experience and Tucker's struggles make it likely the Cowboys at least will bring in another veteran right tackle once other teams start making cuts.

Backup Quarterback
Drew Bledsoe wasn't signed to sit on the bench, so the starting quarterback job is not a matter of debate. However, who backs Bledsoe up this season is very much up in the air. Drew Henson and Tony Romo each had their supporters last year, but while either or both might end up with a strong NFL career, each showed last year he's not ready to take the reins on a full-time basis … hence the Bledsoe signing.

This, frankly, is too close to call at the moment. At 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Henson is bigger than the 6-2, 219-pound Romo, and Henson does have a stronger arm. Although both players are 25 years old, Romo has the leg up in the experience department, having been in the Dallas system a year longer than Henson, who of course ditched football for a few years in favor of a somewhat bumpy foray into professional baseball. While Henson might have the slight edge, athletically, the coaches seem fond of Romo … although Parcells said both still have a long way to go. Therefore, this is another spot where a veteran might be signed to try to compete for the backup job. The question is: who? Tim Couch? Akili Smith? Danny Wuerffel? How about recent Hall of Fame inductees Steve Young or Dan Marino? They should be available. Or … how about Vinny Testaverde?

Cornerbacks
This is one position where the Cardinals might allow the Cowboys to get a good look at what they have at a position that struggled last year. In Larry Fitzgerald and Anquoin Boldin, the Cardinals have two big, physical receivers with good speed and great hands. Terence Newman, one of the early stars of training camp, will get to show that he was not a fluke two years ago, when he was one of the top defensive rookies in the NFL. Free agent signee Anthony Henry -- signed for big money in the offseason to cover big receivers -- will get to show he was worth the contract doled out by the Cowboys. Both will get plenty of chances. The Cardinals pose a minimal running threat, and with Kurt Warner and Josh McCown running the offense, expect head coach Dennis Green to heavily emphasize the passing game, since it likely will be the foundation of the Arizona offense this year.

Cornerbacks like Nathan Jones, Bruce Thornton and Lance Frazier also can use the Arizona game to audition for a backup role. But don't be surprised if the Cowboys look for an additional veteran when cuts around the league are announced. Want evidence? Earlier this week, Parcells was talking about the difficulty of playing the slot cornerback spot. He said that years ago, he told Ray Mickens that if he could master covering the slot receiver, he could have a long career. Later that day, Mickens was cut by the New York Jets. Could another "Parcells guy" from one of his previous coaching stops be heading to Dallas?

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