Clichés aside, it's here. The games count. Now it means something. However it's said, playtime ends and the serious stuff begins Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
So what should Cowboys fans look for against last year's surprising (12-4) Chargers?
To say the Cowboys need to "stop" San Diego RB LaDainian Tomlinson is like asking the Mavericks to shut out Shaquille O'Neal. It's possible, in theory, but not likely. While the new-look 3-4 Dallas defense might be a vast improvement over last year, to expect the unit -- in its first game -- to shut down the league's most dangerous offensive weapon is not necessarily fair.
The 3-4 defense, initially, should allow the Cowboys to generate more of a pass rush, but with Tomlinson running for San Diego -- which like any Marty Schottenheimer-coached team will gear its offense exclusively around the run, the Dallas defense will have an enormous test in the first game. Known as a home-run threat, Tomlinson also has proven to be a very durable back. He raced for 1,335 yards and 10 touchdowns on 339 carries in 2004, keeping alive his streak of at least 300 carries, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdown in every season of his young career. Bottling him up completely simply is not realistic with a player who has the capability to score, or at least break off a long play, nearly every time he touches the ball. But keeping him under 150 yards and a couple of scores would force QB Drew Brees to beat them with his arm, a theory that plays into Cowboys' strengths.
Brees had a terrific 2004 season -- his quarterback rating of 104.8 was the third-highest in the NFL last season -- but there are those who wonder whether he can repeat the effort this year. Whether he can or not is a matter of debate. What's not up for debate is that he will face the Cowboys without his favorite receiving threat from last year: TE Antonio Gates, who received a three-game suspension (ending after Sunday's game) for holding out from training camp for a new contract. WR Keenan McCardell (31 receptions for 393 yards after joining the Chargers midway through last season) always keeps himself in meticulous condition, but he is 35 years old, which is a little old for a lead receiver now that Jerry Rice has retired. If the Cowboys can keep Tomlinson from running wild, the new CB trio of Terence Newman, Aaron Glenn and Anthony Henry should be able to force Brees into a long day.
Spotlight: Jason Ferguson
The tremors viewers feel Sunday will be the result of collisions
between the 310-pound Ferguson and San Diego's 340-pound LG Toniu
Fonoti. La'Roi Glover might well start in the middle of the Dallas 3-4
defense, but Ferguson was signed to plug the middle of the Cowboy
defense. Watching these two dance will not exactly evoke memories of
Fred and Ginger, and Ferguson might not lead the Dallas defense in
tackles, but this matchup in the trenches will be vital to the outcome
of the game. If Ferguson can collapse the San Diego pocket, he will
occupy blockers, thereby allowing the Dallas LBs to run free to the
ball, which often will be in the hands of RB LaDainian Tomlinson, and
also will allow the Dallas pass rushers to face more single blocking on
their way to Brees.
Ferguson missed part of training camp with an ankle injury, prompting head coach Bill Parcells to admit concern about Ferguson's ability to come back from the injury, and also about his conditioning. But Ferguson insisted Wednesday that he'll be ready to go Sunday afternoon.
"I'm not 100 percent yet, but I will be by Sunday," Ferguson said. "On the first few plays, I'll probably be so excited that I'll get tired, but once I get going in competition, I'll be ready for the rest of the game. You can run all day, but it's not the same as getting the helmet on and getting out there and playing."
The Cowboys must keep QB Drew Bledsoe upright. Head coach Bill Parcells has said since Bledsoe signed that the 13th-year veteran is more mobile than he's given credit for. That may be, but that also might be damning with faint praise. There are some skeptics who have likened Bledsoe's mobility to that of a redwood. So while nobody questions his knowledge of the game or the strength in his arm, he doesn't have a lot escapability.
The offensive line simply must protect him. The left side of the offensive line, with LT Flozell Adams and LG Larry Allen, should be solid. Lining up across from C Al Johnson will be San Diego NT Jamal Williams, who Parcells called earlier this week, "huge and disruptive." The strength of the 3-4 defense likely will be at LB, where the Chargers boast great speed. OLB Steve Foley emerged as a pass rushing star last year with 10 sacks, and Maryland-ex Shawne Merriman was drafted to add speed and strength to the other side. ILBs Donnie Edwards and ex-Cowboy Randall Godfrey both run very well, and should be able to make a lot of plays as long as Williams occupies blockers up front.
Perhaps the prime beneficiary of Bledsoe's continued good health will be RB Julius Jones.
Skeptics can rant all they want about Bledsoe's lack of track star speed, but if he goes down, backups Tony Romo and Drew Henson don't have enough skins on the wall to merit great respect from opposing defenses, which would through eight or nine defenders into the box to stop Jones, daring a backup QB to beat them.
Off the Deep End
The addition of WR Peerless Price could be very significant for the Cowboys, even if he doesn't catch a single pass.
His addition gives the Cowboys two legs of a tremendous sprint relay team. Price and Terry Glenn are pure burners, and in Bledsoe they have a QB that opposing defenses know has the arm strength to get them the ball. Regardless of whether they make the catches, merely the sight of Glenn and Price flying downfield will help open up the action at the line of scrimmage.
Free safety Jerry Wilson (75 tackles in 2004) and CB Quentin Jammer (62) are particularly strong in run support; pushing them back with reminders about the Cowboys' outside speed will force the Chargers to limit the number of players at the line of scrimmage, thereby allowing Julius Jones more running room.