IRVING, Texas - Two days before Thursday's preseason finale, Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells called it a "nightmare game" for any head coach in the league.
That's because after completing training camp and three preseason games, all of the ideas and plans a head coach has about the upcoming season could change at any moment with an injury here or there.
But not only did the Cowboys get through the night without any major injuries, they wrapped up the preseason with a victory, beating the Jacksonville Jaguars, 27-20, here at Texas Stadium.
And if Thursday's game is any indication, the Cowboys, 3-1 in the exhibition games, look to be ready for the regular season, which begins Sept. 11 in San Diego.
"We got out of the game healthy, which is big," Parcells said. "We should be in good shape, physically, for San Diego. But I saw some good things tonight, and I'm happy about that."
And why wouldn't he be? Now it was just one preseason game, and the last one at that, a time when many teams refuse to play a lot of starters. But still, Thursday night's game was a showcase for many players and positions that might have been in question heading into the game.
Yes, Drew Bledsoe can move this offense. The veteran quarterback completed 7-of-8 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in just two offensive drives, which resulted in 10 points.
Yes, Julius Jones looks to be in regular-season form. The second-year back also played just the first two offensive drives, but had 75 rushing yards on just 11 carries for a whopping 6.8 average.
And yes, it appears Parcells has viable options at backup running back, and it might be more than one player. He said this week his "main question" at the position was to find a contingency plan if Jones got injured. And he likely has one in either Anthony Thomas, who had 64 yards on 11 carries, or even rookie Tyson Thompson, who scored the game-winning touchdown, his second of the night, with just 2:38 to play, breaking open a 20-20 game.
More importantly for Thompson than rushing for 57 yards and scoring twice, the Irving, Texas, native has made the football team. And the running back heard it first from Parcells, while sitting on the bench following his second touchdown.
"Yeah . . . and he's going to San Diego," said Parcells when asked if Thompson would make the 53-man roster, which will be trimmed from the current 69 by Saturday afternoon. And by going to San Diego for the season opener, that means Thompson will be on the active roster, likely serving as the team's kickoff specialist and third running back.
But Parcells was able to answer a few other questions on defense, as well.
First and foremost, the Cowboys finally got to see first-round draft choice Marcus Spears and major off-season acquisition Jason Ferguson for the first time this preseason.
While Ferguson, who has been nursing a sprained ankle for three weeks, played only about 10 snaps, Spears got what the coach likes to call a "dose pack." And the rookie from LSU made the most of his opportunity, showing up in the Jaguars backfield a few times. Spears tied for the team-lead with four tackles, and also recorded a third-quarter sack.
And quietly, a few key positions battles have appeared to work themselves out, including free safety, where Keith Davis started all four preseason games, and right tackle where rookie Rob Petitti started again. Quarterback Tony Romo, who tied with Bledsoe for the team-lead Thursday night with 91 passing yards, appears to have locked up the backup job, ahead of Drew Henson, who did play for the first time since the second preseason game in Seattle.
Now while there were several things that might have eased Parcells' mind after Thursday's game, that doesn't mean everything is settled.
Earlier in the week, Parcells said only a handful of roster spots remained open heading into the game. One of them had to be at kicker, and Parcells said that decision is far from being decided.
In fact, while both Jose Cortez and newly-acquired rookie Nick Novak rotated kickoffs, field-goal and extra-point attempts, don't be surprised to see a few more kickers added to the equation.
"We'll have to talk that over a little bit," Parcells said. "I might have something for you (on Friday). I'm not sure. We're going to work out some more kickers . . . shortly. I'll let you know."
But at least Parcells doesn't have such indecision with his offense. Despite trying to keep a rather "vanilla" game-plan here in the preseason, the Cowboys' first unit did put on a short but sweet showing.
After a short opening kickoff return set up the Cowboys at own 13, Bledsoe and Jones teamed up to lead a rather methodical drive with very few flaws.
- Jones for four yards, Bledsoe to Keyshawn Johnson for five and then Jones for eight yards and a first down.
- Bledsoe to Jason Witten for six, Jones for three and then two more, and another first down.
- Jones for another 13 yards and a first down.
- And then with Jaguars forced to play the run, Bledsoe runs play-action, then hitting Terry Glenn for a 40-yard touchdown on a post-corner route.
Nine plays, 87 yards, eating up 5:24 of game clock. More importantly, ending in a touchdown.
"If we could pick how we wanted to do it out there, that first drive is exactly how we would've planned it," Bledsoe said. "When you can run as effective as we did in the first quarter, you can really open things up. Play-action becomes more effective and that makes the receivers more effective, especially (Glenn). Terry is going to get behind the defense and no one can catch him."
No one caught him on that play, but despite the Cowboys jumping out to a 10-0 lead, the Jaguars eventually did get back in the game, tying the score at 20 in the third quarter, and it remained so until the final five minutes of the game.
Henson hit wide receiver Quincy Morgan, who is battling to be the fourth receiver, for an 18-yard gain. Then Thompson turned a screen pass into a 15-yard gain, before ripping off a 20-yard run to the 5-yard line. One play later, Thompson barreled into the end zone for a game-winning score.
Once again, it was only a preseason game, but at least it was the last preseason game. Parcells got through his potential "nightmare" and should be able to sleep well.
Then again, knowing him, don't count on it.