Spagnola: Final Decisions Right Around The Corner

IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys have two preseason games, four practices and 11 days remaining to prepare for their Sept. 5 season opener against the New York Giants.

One of those preseason games is vitally important. That would be Saturday night's skirmish with the St. Louis Rams at Cowboys Stadium (7 p.m., and shown live locally on CBS-11 and all across the Dallas Cowboys Television Network). They call this third preseason game a "dress rehearsal," meaning the practice game will be treated as seriously as any of the allotted four preseason games played. All healthy veterans and starters should be on deck.

That final one, Wednesday versus the Miami Dolphins, just four days later and a week before the opener, will be a throw-away. The starters, maybe save the starting offensive linemen, will be put in the deep freezer, likely have their helmets confiscated from them with the highly-meaningful opener just around the corner.

So if you like to pay attention to this stuff, pay attention Saturday night, where many a final decision will based on those performances against the Rams, seeing that by this time next Friday the Cowboys will have first trimmed their now 87-man roster to 75 (by Tuesday) and then to the final 53 by mid-day Friday. And still, nearly one full month since leaving for training camp on July 28, but almost to the date when the rookies began working out here at The Ranch on July 25, the Cowboys have gobs of roster decisions to make.

But let's start here, with the most prominent guys unlikely to play Saturday night (insert worrisome moans): Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, DeMarcus Ware, Phil Costa and Kyle Wilber, with Kevin Kowalski destined to remain on PUP and Caleb McSurdy headed for injured reserve. From the look of things, though, of the five missing starters, only Witten would seem questionable for the season opener.

And oh, by the way, the Giants aren't exactly a picture of health either. They were expected to be missing 12 guys, half of those starters, with injuries in their dress rehearsal tonight against the Bears. Let's see, JPP, AKA Jason Pierre-Paul and his 16.5 sacks from last year is out with back spasms. Chris Canty still is on PUP, meaning he hasn't practiced all summer, following offseason knee surgery. Terrell Thomas injured his ACL – again – a guy slated to start this year at corner, and isn't practicing. Hakeem Nicks, who broke a bone in his foot, similar to that of Cowboys rookie Danny Coale, just got back into practice Tuesday and likely won't play in a game until the season opener – if then.

That's not all. Starting left tackle Will Beatty has serious back problems (sciatica) and is questionable for the opener. Linebacker Michael Boley, known up there as the quarterback of the defense, suffered a hamstring injury on July 29 and still hasn't been cleared to practice.

So don't think the Cowboys are the only team out there with problems, or roster decisions needed to be made contingent on who is healthy and who isn't. Because with Canty now seemingly a long shot to be ready, the Giants need backups, and two of the defensive tackle backups, Shaun Rogers and Marvin Austin, also aren't expected to play any time soon.

Let's not, though, take solace in others' misery. As Bill Parcells was wont to say, "I got to keep my own house from burning down."

With so little time left, let's check out what additions or alterations the Cowboys have left to do with this house they are trying to build for the 2012 season.

Wide receiver: This much we know. Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and most likely Kevin Ogletree have this team made. The question is, do the Cowboys keep five wide receivers or do they keep six, and it would seem they have four legitimate guys to fill either the final two or three spots: Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris, Andre Holmes and Coale. I'm saying they keep six, while attempting to put the odd man out on the practice squad. Coale, just getting back into practice this week, has the most catching up to do. These last two preseason games will be vitally important to a guy the Cowboys initially thought talented enough to spend a fifth-round draft choice on, and has done nothing but break a bone in his foot to make them think otherwise.

Running back: Injuries have sorely complicated this position. Now it would seem DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones are in. The difficulties are with the third spot, and they have three legitimate candidates for it: Phillip Tanner, Lance Dunbar and Jamize Olawale. Tanner has missed a lot of time with a broken bone in his hand. Same for Dunbar, hamstring. Both appear ready, though Tanner may not play until the Miami game. In the meantime, with the door wide open, Olawale has bulldozed, and I do mean bulldozed, right through, showing the Cowboys the benefits of having a 240-pound back. Dunbar should get a long look Saturday night. Can they afford to keep four running backs and a fullback? You know, they did last year initially. Remember Tashard Choice.

Third quarterback:The question here might not be Stephen McGee or Rudy Carpenter as much as is there indeed a third quarterback. The Cowboys certainly could decide to go with just Tony Romo and Kyle Orton on the 53, and then sign a third guy to the practice squad. That would be bad news for McGee, since Carpenter does have practice squad eligibility left – providing he can clear waivers, unlike four years ago when the Cowboys tried the same maneuver only to have him claimed by Tampa Bay, where he has spent the last three seasons.

Defensive line: So many candidates, so few spots. When all healthy, the starters have been Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman. The veteran backups are Marcus Spears, Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore. For sure, Lissemore makes four, since the Cowboys act as if they have four starters for that three-man line. Now comes the difficult part, although the Cowboys did keep seven last year, Clifton Geathers considered the developmental seventh. The other two, along with Lissemore, were Spears and Brent. But a couple of young bucks are complicating the issue. Third-round pick Tyrone Crawford will make this team. That's five, if indeed Coleman is one of the top three. A couple of other youngsters have been playing well, guys like rookie free agent Ben Bass and first-year man Robert Calloway, the nose tackle spending last year on the practice squad. Then there is Geathers, a sixth-round pick in 2010 by Cleveland. He's on his fourth team, and only has played in seven NFL games, five last year with the Cowboys. Everyone would love a 6-7, 325-pound defensive end in a 3-4, but at some point this guy needs to make plays. A whole lot of you have wanted to push Spears, in his eighth season, out the door. But all he's done in the first two preseason games is make plays. Keep an eye on him Saturday night, No. 96.

Tight end: Injury complicates this position as well. The Cowboys still are unsure if Witten has enough time left to recover from his low-grade lacerated spleen. He'll find out more on Tuesday when he revisits the doctor. If he doesn't, might the Cowboys keep more than second guy John Phillips and sixth-round pick James Hanna? Would they need a fourth, and rookie free agent Andrew Szczerba has caught their eye? Or could some of that responsibility go to linebacker Alex Albright, who worked a little tight end for a few days in camp and seems a lock to make the 53 as a backup inside and out linebacker, along with special teams duties?

Deep snapper: Yes, there has been legitimate competition between eighth-year veteran L.P. Ladouceur and rookie free agent Charley Hughlett. They likely will continue to alternate snaps. Ladouceur has done nothing wrong, other than entering his eighth season. Hughlett has been intriguing. But if you go with the unknown deep snapping, then are you really risking a lot, since your kicker (Dan Bailey) is in only his second season and your punter (Chris Jones) has all of two games of NFL experience, so this essentially his first season, along with his first as the holder, too? That's a lot of inexperience involved in those critical operations.

And do they …retain Kowalski, the backup offensive lineman, by placing him on PUP at the final cut-down date and preserving him for later in the season? Likely so. … Since it seems Mike Jenkins won't get clearance from his doctor to begin practicing the week of the Giants game, certainly not enough time to be ready for the opener, do they place him on PUP, which would make him inactive for at least the first six weeks (five games)? I'm told the answer is a big, fat no. In fact, some feel he already should have been cleared to practice. And with 10 days between the opener and Game 2, he certainly would have enough time to be ready then, assuming agent Drew Rosenhaus, still angry over Jenkins having to play out the final year of his contract, and Dr. James Andrews finally clear him to begin practicing. … Do they go long in secondary, keeping an extra corner if Jenkins isn't indeed ready for the opener? … And come Aug. 31, do the Cowboys put waiver claims in for guys released by other teams who just might be better than their own developmental guys they might be keeping?

See there, here we are now, down to the nitty-gritty of finishing out this house.

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