Sure starters will play very little, and superstars often don't play at all. Given their choice, coaches and general managers (not to mention check-signing owners) would play fewer exhibition games than they do, for fear of having players get hurt. But since that never will happen – the NFL makes money even when stadiums are virtually empty at these games, because most teams require their season ticket holders to purchase preseason game tickets, too – coaches protect their biggest stars by sitting them out.
When the stars sit, however, that means playing time for the guys on the bubble, players who desperately want to catch the eye of Wade Phillips and his staff. So who has a chance to help himself the most Saturday when the Cowboys meet the San Diego Chargers?
JAMES MARTEN: The Cowboys might have the best starting offensive line in football, but the depth behind the first five is shaky, at best. There are several backups – Marten, Doug Free, Pat McQuistan, Joe Berger – the team is hoping emerge as quality players, but Marten has the best chance to emerge. McQuistan has shown the most of the group, but Marten is listed at second-team left guard, and if there's a starting offensive lineman who might be replaced, it's left guard Kyle Kosier. Chances are, that won't happen – Kosier certainly isn't a liability – but the rest of the Dallas linemen are often dominant. Flozell Adams, Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis all went to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, and many feel right tackle Marc Colombo could have earned a bid as well. But even if he doesn't unseat Kosier, Marten has to prove his worth. He was taken in the second round of the draft last year – 67th overall – and needs to start pushing for more playing time.
ISAIAH STANBACK AND DANNY AMENDOLA: The team has one great wide receiver in Terrell Owens, a prototypical third receiver in Patrick Crayton and a couple of big, young athletic targets in Sam Hurd and Miles Austin, but so far, their biggest contributions have come on special teams. But there's at the second starting receiver spot across from Owens. Crayton has sort of adopted the No. 2 role by default, but he's better suited as a No 3.
When they drafted Stanback, the Cowboys were enamored with his size (6-2, 208) and speed, but moreso by his overall athleticism and open-field running ability. Stanback has improved his route-running exponentially this spring and summer, and has shown flashes of becoming the receiver the team envisioned when drafting him. Amendola, on the other hand, has emerged as the guy who can't be ignored in camp: he's too small and some say not fast enough, but the guy catches everything near him and runs impeccable routes.
If the Cowboys keep five receivers instead of six, Amendola and Stanback might well be battling for the final playoff spot. The Chargers likely won't play their starting defensive backs very long, but they have a lot of defensive talent, and even their backups can provide a good test for Stanback and Amendola.
JAY RATLIFF: He might be Wade Phillips' favorite player, and he has a chance to send shockwaves through the defense. He's big enough to play inside but quick enough to play outside, and if he shows he can do both – and he has been impressive throughout the offseason, mini-camps and the first part of training camp – it will allow the Cowboys an added measure of flexibility. Ratliff could play inside, between Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, or he could slip outside to either defensive end spot, allowing Tank Johnson to anchor the line of scrimmage from the nose tackle spot. In addition, if an injury should occur at another position – and the Cowboys' training camp has been blissfully injury-free thus far – his flexibility could allow the team to make a roster move to acquire a player at another position because of his versatility.
BRAD JOHNSON: Does he still have it? Hard to say. But he needs to prove he does, and he needs to prove it soon. Supporters point to the fact that he's big, strong, smart, competitive, has been through it all, etc. Detractors point to the fact that he's entering his 17th NFL season and doesn't have quite the same zip on his fastball he once had. Could he hold a clipboard all year and watch Tony Romo play 16 games? Sure, but so could the rest of us. He has to show that if some sort of injury brings down Romo, he still can do the job.
Brett Favre's trade to the Jets might have been just the first move in a chain of events involving quarterbacks changing addresses. As soon as they acquired Favre, the Jets cut longtime starter Chad Pennington. He'll land somewhere, which would lead to another out-of-work quarterback. Some think Pennington will land in Miami … in which case, does Josh McCown become expendable? Tampa Bay seemingly has half of its roster spots locked up in quarterbacks, the most likely of whom to leave is ex-Texas Longhorn Chris Simms. He's just as big and strong and tough (ever play with a ruptured spleen? Simms did) as Johnson, and a lot younger. Daunte Culpepper is still out there. Other veterans will get cut in favor of cheaper, younger options.
The coaches know Johnson's skills. But he has to show – starting Saturday night – that those skills haven't waned.
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