Back to the Future

Consider this a sort of Back-to-The-Future look at the Cowboys' Saturday preseason opener at Arizona. ... which we assumed would be a loss.

In discussing in advance the Dallas-at-Arizona exhibition game, we came to five conclusions, predictions if you will, regarding what would happen in the game -- and how those five themes might play out over the course of the season. Let's look backwards into that same crystal ball and determine how much we embarrassed ourselves with our predictions:

ITEM 5: The 3-4 Skeleton -- This is the first time, and maybe the best time, to see the Dallas 3-4 in its most raw form. Later will come this defense's meat; right now it a chance to observe the skeleton.

ITEM 5 PREDICTION: There will be very little blitzing in this game, very few exotics, very few gimmicks. In future preseason games, we will see an assortment of wrinkles, and there will come a time when it will be worth keeping count of how often Dallas employs the 4-3 vs. the 3-4, for instance. But here? Says defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer: "We've been spending a lot of time thinking. It's time to start just flying around and being physical. Nobody ever won anything by thinking.''

So DeMarcus Ware gets to cut loose. There have been times in camp when, while impressive, he's looked lost in space, as if he's looking for someone to lock up with. He and fellow rookie Kevin Burnett are bright fellows, but this is their chance to put their brains on the backburner and their athletic talents upfront.

AND HOW'D THAT WORK OUT FOR US? We get a brownie point here. Ware stayed on the field even when Dallas was in the Nickel. Burnett was featured with the first team Nickel. The Cowboys didn't show much in terms of scheme -- but did show something in their ability to contain Arizona's promising offense.

ITEM 4: The Backup QB Monstrosity -- We've said it before in this space: If you have two backup QBs, you have NO backup QBs.

ITEM 4 PREDICTION: The Cowboys will muddle along like this, unfortunately, and there is no good reason why. We've seen nothing from training camp to indicate that the two-headed monstrosity that is Drew Henson/Tony Romo will straighten itself out in Game 1. And in a sense, it doesn't matter which one wins the job. ... because a Dallas team led by one of these kids is not destined to win many regular-season games.

By the way, it's not their fault; Henson, by reputation the more blue-chip of the two, is in the second year of a seven-year deal, so some patience seems appropriate. And Romo is a pick-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps guy of whom virtually nothing should be expected. No, it's not their fault -- the possibility that Dallas will spent a second straight season without an established reserve QB is the fault of Cowboys management.

AND HOW'D THAT WORK OUT FOR US? Romo's numbers will look decent in the boxscore, and with Jason Witten to carry him, he did lead Dallas to a field-goal drive. Henson took the late-game mop-up roll and didn't goof it up too badly, making a couple of smart throw-away decisions.

We're sticking with our thoughts here. This ain't good.

ITEM 3: The O-Line's Musical Chairs -- The Cowboys entered camp believing they were set at four of the five positions. They are now delighted to learn that they were wrong! Instead of just a vacancy at right tackle, Dallas now has legitimate wrestling matches between legitimate starter-types at three spots: The aforementioned right tackle, where Jacob Rogers is trying to take charge; center, where Al Johnson is being challenged by a rejuvenated Andre Gurode (who gets the start Saturday); and even at left guard, where Larry Allen gets a push from Stephen Peterman.

ITEM 3 PREDICTION: We say Rogers stays healthy enough to win the RT job, Johnson-and-Gurode become a tag-team at center, and Larry Allen -- in his last season as a Cowboy (yes, you heard us!) -- forces Peterman to wait until '06 to be a first-teamer.

AND HOW'D THAT WORK OUT FOR US? We look like morons, that's how. Suddenly, Rogers cannot stay healthy. So Rob Petitti gets the RT start and looks overmatched. Johnson and Peterman got pushed around. Torrin Tucker, last year's RT starter, was a disaster. Between the first-team line's inability to help Drew Bledsoe (they went 3-and-out on four of five possessions), the second-team line's inability to avoid moving backwards (on nine straight snaps in the third quarter, Dallas gained zero-or-fewer yards), and even the field-goal blockers' inability to stay put (Peterman's false start in the final minute hurt the Cowboys' chance to hit a game-winner), it looks like we've grossly overrated what this group can do.

ITEM 2: Running Back By Committee -- That's what Bill Parcells says he'll go with in 2005.

ITEM 2 PREDICTION: We're not buying it for 2005 -- not with Julius Jones available to be the chairman of the committee. But we're buying it for the preseason. JuJo is a prized commodity now, and unlike a season ago, has very little to prove in August. The rest of the Cowboys runners, though, are in a wild duel. Not long ago, some assumed Anthony Thomas would be handed the No. 2 job. By the eve of training camp we'd been told the staff favored Marion Barber as the No. 2 guy. And then camp started. ... and Tyson Thompson (who coaches thought so highly of that they'd penciled him as a practice-squad keeper, status meant to be a compliment) raised everyone's eyebrows.

We think the committee thing will die once the bullets start flying, and JuJo will carry a near-league-high load. We think Barber will eventually nudge past Thomas. But immediately, we think TT will gain a foothold on a roster spot tonight when he gets to return kicks -- and that Dallas could therefore end up carrying four RBs.

AND HOW'D THAT WORK OUT FOR US? JuJo didn't do much. ... except stay in on third down, as we predicted -- and as we like to see. Second-turner Barber played tough guy running inside, and took a turn as a punt returner. And TT? We told you so. He is truly electrifying as an outside runner, ripping off 10-yard-plussers almost at will. (Don't spoil the fun by crying that TT was "running against third-teamers.'' He's a "fourth-teamer,'' remember? And the fellas blocking for him couldn't block for anyone else.) September is a loooong way away, and Parcells needs to see more of Thompson as a return man, a special-teams coverage guy, an inside runner, a receiver. ... but so far, TT has not disappointed.

ITEM 1: We credit chum Babe Laufenberg with digging up this info. Historically, Parcells is quite fond of losing the first preseason game. The logic? Winning the meaningless opener causes players, especially young ones, to grow fat and sassy and satisfied. Losing, though, enforces the impression that there is much work to be done, and allows Parcells to chew on people. Now, "losing'' doesn't have to mean 13-0 and 18-0, Bill's two exhibition-opening scores in silver-and-blue. You can lose without looking completely inept, you know.

ITEM 1 PREDICTION: Given that information, and given our knowledge of Arizona coach Denny Green, who is trying to establish a winning atmosphere wherever he can grab it -- in the lunch room, in the newspapers, in a preseason game -- this has the feel of a low-scoring Cardinals victory.

AND HOW'D THAT WORK OUT FOR US? Very well, thank you. (Not that we're happy about being right.) This was so awful that Parcells needn't wait until Monday to start barking; we give him permission to unleash his fury right now, on the red-eye back to Oxnard.

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