Preseason Starts With 'Thursday Night Live'

IRVING, Tex. -- The star of "Saturday Night Live.'' A chop-blocking wake-up call to Dallas' new-fangled pass rush. The in-state battle for that silly boot trophy. And the Brad Johnson Bowl.

There's your Cowboys prseason schedule, featuring a pair of home games against the NFL's "haves,'' a pair of road games against the NFL's "have-nots,'' and a nice, tight four-game slate that hopefully ends just in time for nobody to get hurt. Now, I don't want to assign too much weight to any of these outings. There are moments in sports that can be taken casually, like NFL preseason games, and to do otherwise would be a mistake. (There are other times in sports that require intense spellchecking, as the members of the NIT championship T-shirt-wearing young men from "West Virgina'' no doubt understand.)

With that light-hearted approach in mind, a quickie examination of each Cowboys preseason week:

GAME 1: Thursday, August 9, home, Indianapolis: The theme: "Saturday Night Live'' on Thursday.

This'll be nationally-televised on Fox (7 p.m. Dallas time), with the Cowboys quite likely taking second-billing to the visiting Colts. As the defending Super Bowl champs, and as an AFC team, Fox will want to milk a rare Colts appearance on their network for all its worth. On the football side of things, new Dallas coach Wade Phillips vs. Indianapolis' vaunted offense -- no strangers to one another -- will get near-the-top billing. (Along with what might be an intriguing "when-will-Dwight-Freeney-sign?'' story.) On the headline-grabbing side of things, Colts-vs.-Cowboys is about as glamorous as a practice game can get. So look for Fox to pull out some tape from Peyton Manning's recent appearance on "SNL,'' where on the Funny Scale he proved to be somewhere just below Jon Lovitz and somewhere way above Horatio Sans.

GAME 2: weekend of August 17-18, home, Denver: The theme: Keep 'em safe, Wade.

Denver, yet another AFC power, at this point still in the process of unveiling what it hopes is a stellar new backfield made up of quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Travis Henry. Again, Wade Phillips has plenty of familiarity with the opponent, as Denver and San Diego are bitter AFC West rivals. (Oh, and 14 years ago Wade was the guy who was fired as head coach in Denver to make room for Mike Shanahan.) More to the immediate point: While the Colts' almost-sack-free passing game won't allow "The Phillips 3-4'' to rack up many numbers, Denver's offensive line is a bit more vulnerable. Unfortunately, Denver's offensive line is also infamous for chop blocks and leg whips and other devious tactics. So while we might look at this game as a way for Demarcus Ware to tune up for a 15-sack season, it might be safer to just make certain he and the 'Boys survive this outing.

GAME 3: weekend of August 24-25, away, Houston: The theme: That Boot thing.

I remember when Jerry Jones' Cowboys and the Oilers' Bud Adams set up the Houston-Dallas preseason games and somebody in Houston noted that the winner traditionally (that is, pre-Jerry) get to claim The Silver Boot or some such nonsense. ... So Jerry had a janitor search all over Valley Ranch for said Boot. I'm trying to remember now: Do the Cowboys and Texans do the Boot thing? Anyway, this is an important business trip for a number of reasons: Reliant Stadium, one of the models the Jones family used in their design wishes on the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, will be worthy of more exploratory poking and prodding; The third preseason game is the tune-up game for the regular season, one Texans coach Gary Kubiak (an ex-Bronco and yet another old Phillips rival from the AFC West) and new QB Matt Schaub will take seriously; and of course, there's that damn Boot.

GAME 4: weekend of August 30-Sept. 1, away, Minnesota: The theme: The Brad Johnson Bowl.
Johnson moves from being Minny's starting QB to being Dallas' backup, and yet it's a major career move upward; the Vikings are in organizational disarray, second-year coach Brad Childress having turned an exciting contender into a boring loser. Brad Johnson was part of that boring loserness last year, and will get his chance to avenge his ouster from Minnesota here, likely getting most of the playing time alongside Cowboys almost half his age. (And not just as a holder, where he is expected to be the New Master of The K Ball.) One more reason this game will not be taken very seriously: The Vikings and Cowboys play one another again in the regular season. Dallas won't want to show too much of its 3-4, it's Romo-to-Owens magic or its two-headed running back tandem. And Minnesota won't want to show too much of its boring loserness.

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