Better Safe Than Sorry

When the Dallas Cowboys square off Saturday night against the San Diego Chargers, the teams will go through a very vanilla rendition of their respective offenses and defenses.

If Dallas head coach Wade Phillips is smart, the Cowboys will go through those motions without some key players.

True, the league office wants all of every team's top players to suit up and act like they're in the midst of a playoff drive, but everyone knows that couldn't be further from the truth.

Make no mistake, Saturday's game against the Chargers is vital for fringe players hoping to impress coaches and earn a roster spot. Free agents and late-round draft choices need to play, and need to play well. Every chance they get to impress Phillips and the assistant coaches on his staff is a chance those players should embrace.

A strong showing Saturday, of course, does not mean any player will make the team's NFL-mandated 53-man regular-season roster. But a weak showing certainly could weaken (or perhaps eliminate) a fringe player's chance of making the roster.

Want evidence as to why top players should be given the night off? Marc Colombo and Kyle Kosier.

It's true, 40 percent of the Cowboys' starting offensive line was injured in practice, not in one of the team's exhibition games. But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen.

The game is, of course, extremely physical. In their last exhibition game, the Chargers blitzed all night. Do you really think Phillips wants to see the Bolts turn pass rush loose against a less-than-complete offensive line?

Teams can not arbitrarily hold star players out of exhibition games. They could, but as long as teams soak ticket-buying fans for tickets to exhibition games, the league leans on teams to play their top players.

Quarterback Tony Romo shouldn't even make the trip to San Diego. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware should not find a uniform hanging in his locker when he gets to the stadium. Tight end Jason Witten should be asked to do his best impression of offensive coordinator Jason Witten's playing career; in other words, wear a baseball cap, maybe hold a clipboard and act interested.

Owner Jerry Jones likely is torn on the issue. On one hand, his team has legions of fans in California, and if Jones — who understands how to market his team's brand as well as anyone in sports — is going to continue having part of training camp out on the left coast, he wants to show off his top players.

But he also knows that those players are exceedingly valuable assets — a major injury to any of the three could be completely devastating, and might affect or even end the team's chances of reaching the Super Bowl, which always is Jones' goal, but that goal is magnified this season because the game's ultimate game will be played in Arlington next February. If the team receives any pressure from the league office to play their marquee players, fine: let Romo handle a few snaps, Let Witten run a few pass routes, but do not engage him in downfield blocking and do not let the ball get thrown anywhere near him. Let Ware on the field for a few snaps, but drop him back as if he's going to cover a tight end.

There is no assurance, of course, that a player won't get hurt anyway — someone could roll an ankle doing something as simple as walking to the field — and teams need to go through real scrimmage time as a dress rehearsal, but that comes in the next game. But the Cowboys already are missing a couple of key pieces in Kosier and Colombo, and would be wise to do everything possible to avoid adding any more key players' names to the list of the walking wounded in a game as insignificant as Saturday's.

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