The Cowboys close the preseason Thursday against the Jaguars. But don't look for the starters to play much. Coach Bill Parcells will rest them in preparation for the Sept. 11 season opener against the Chargers.
"Ready," of course, is a relative term, as are happy and comfortable -- at least where Parcells is concerned.
Getting his offensive and defensive starters an extended look against the Texans was a necessity. He played both units well into the third quarter, giving them their longest outing of the preseason.
However, Parcells would be the last to call his team ready for a game. Nor would he consider himself comfortable with his roster or happy with his team's progress.
He has too many injuries, too many unsettled positions and too many unresolved roster issues.
"Happy is a relative term," Parcells said. "Right now, I'm not in all that happy a mood."
Parcells' list of concerns include:
-- Right tackle, where unproven rookie Rob Petitti, a sixth-round draft choice, will likely start ahead of mistake-prone Torrin Tucker in a division that includes Philadelphia's Jevon Kearse and Michael Strahan of the Giants at left end. Carolina's Julius Peppers is also on the schedule.
-- Free safety, where career special-teamer Keith Davis is starting for the first time. The Cowboys have no "comfortable" depth behind him with Lynn Scott (a career back up) and newly signed Rich Coady.
-- Injuries have kept Dallas prize free-agent signees, guard Marco Rivera and defensive tackle Jason Ferguson, out of most of the preseason. Rivera has been nursing a sore hamstring while Ferguson has a sprained ankle. Ferguson's injury has had the biggest impact. It is one reason the Cowboys have backed off plans of fully implementing the 3-4 defense. The idea of playing him next to La'Roi Glover in a four-man front has also been put on hold.
-- Defensive end Marcus Spears, one of the team's two first-round picks, has yet to play in the preseason, having missed the final three weeks of camp with a sprained knee, sprained ankle and pulled groin. Spears needs to play against Jacksonville in Thursday's preseason finale to be ready for the season opener.
What we do know about the Cowboys is that the offense will only go as far as running back Julius Jones takes it.
After rushing for 803 yards and seven touchdowns in the final eight games last season, Jones has picked up where he left off with a strong preseason.
Despite signing quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the off-season, Parcells will feature a run-oriented attack with Jones as the centerpiece. Bledsoe will serve as what Parcells has called a "bus driver," a quarterback the Cowboys hope will be able to make some plays through the air when needed while not making mistakes.
While Jones has looked great in the preseason, the passing game has struggled to untracked. That point was most evident against the Texans, when Bledsoe came up empty on seven third-down attempts.
Defensively, the Cowboys are still in flux with their three-man and four-man fronts. Because they are also counting on a lot of young players, like rookie linebacker Demarcus Ware, growing pains are expected.
But the Cowboys do have enough playmakers to get as well as they give this season.
Ware has had a sack in each of the past two preseason games. He will likely draw double-teams, leaving single blocking for Ferguson, Glover or defensive end Greg Ellis.
The Cowboys should also create more turnovers, a byproduct of an improved pass rush, strong safety Roy Williams being allowed to play closer to the line of scrimmage and cornerback Terence Newman playing like a top-five draft pick again.
All Systems Go
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