Answers and More Questions

The Dallas Cowboys face off against the Oakland Raiders Thursday in their second exhibition game of the season. The question is, what will be different from Sunday's game against Cincinnati?

Once again, there is little in the way of gameplanning or high-level strategy in these "games." These outings are about evaluation of personnel, and little else.

Nobody on either team really cared who won the game, although it's likely that one team did score more than the other.

The Cowboys' first goal — like that of every team in any exhibition game — was to stay healthy, and they weren't able to do it. Tight end John Phillips had an exceptional first-half performance, only to blow out his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and go down for the season. Cornerbacks Bryan McCann and Cletis Gordon, who are fighting (along with Jamar Wall) both got banged up and are uncertain for the game with the Raiders. Tight end Kevin Brock injured his ankle against the Bengals, and wide receiver Titus Ryan injured his thumb; each was cut the next day.

If the Cowboys couldn't stay entirely healthy against the Bengals, they did at least learn a few things:

• If healthy, Phillips is a legitimate tight end. Once thought to be little more than a willing blocker, Phillips showed vastly improved route running and better hands than anyone realized. When he gets back in 2011, he'll give the Cowboys some versatility at tight end.

• Doug Free is the starter at left tackle. Going into training camp, there were some who thought newly acquired Alex Barron would be able to take advantage of his exceptional athleticism and quickness to challenge Free for the job. So far, it has not happened. Free has proven to be quicker than many believed, and Barron got beaten by Cincinnati's backups. At this point, it looks like the job is Free's to lose.

• Alan Ball appears to have the inside track on the starting free safety job. Mike Hamlin is better than any backup the team has had in years, but Ball simply has more NFL experience, and teammates and coaches both like Ball's coverage skills that he honed as a cornerback.

So what do the Cowboys need to watch for against Oakland?

• Health: it's the first priority in any exhibition game, but the carnage in wake of the Hall of Fame game underscores the importance of protecting valuable players in games that are virtually meaningless. Head coach Wade Phillips said this week that because of the reduced team depth, the starters will have to play more, but look for key players to be out of the game shortly after the opening coin toss. Second- and third-string guys should get a majority of the snaps.

• Wide receiver Kevin Ogletree's career statistics of seven receptions and 96 receiving yards are fairly pedestrian for a player who got a lot of hype toward the end of last season as a player with intriguing promise. Ogletree is young (he just turned 23) and has good athleticism, but if the Cowboys decide to carry five receivers instead of six, he will have to beat out either Sam Hurd or Patrick Crayton and a slew of young free agents hoping to make the roster.

• The Cowboys need to identify offensive line depth. The starting five — Free, left guard Kyle Kosier, center Andre Gurode, right guard Leonard Davis and right tackle Marc Colombo — has been a remarkable durable group, but the nature of the game dictates that such luck won't last forever. Montrae Holland is a versatile backup who can play guard or center, and team officials seem to like Travis Bright, another versatile guy who can back up at the interior line spots. But another backup tackle, to go along with Barron, needs to be identified soon.

• The team needs to begin sorting out the young linebackers who will back up starters Anthony Spencer, DeMarcus Ware, Keith Brooking and Bradie James. Rookie Sean Lee is believed to have the inside track on the nickel linebacker spot, and 2009 rookies Brandon Williams, who missed his rookie season with a knee injury, and Victor Butler have been impressive in training camp.

CowboysHQ Top Stories