IRVING, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys got a taste of the past Thursday night at AT&T Stadium, stepping back in time to interact with their rich history.
Present were Pro Football Hall of Famers galore, the likes of Roger Staubach, Rayfield Wright and Mel Renfro, along with Ring of Honor members such as Lee Roy Jordan, Cliff Harris and Charles Haley. And then maybe the less decorated but certainly not forgotten, from center Mike Connelly, a member of the franchise's inaugural 1960 team, to locally-raised cowboy Walt Garrison to exciting wide receiver Butch Johnson and stalwart center Tom Rafferty and invaluable tight end Jay Novacek, all the way to 11-year deep snapper Dale Hellestrae.
"I think we're fortunate to be in an organization where such a high standard has been set," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says of the franchise's alumni being invited in for practice and the dinner afterward.
Saturday night at AT&T Stadium we'll all get a better taste of the future and hints to if those previously high-set standards can be met, Garrett intending to play his starters at least a half and those in need of more work into the third quarter in the fourth of five preseason games this year, this one against the Cincinnati Bengals, the current Hard Knocks subjects on HBO. This exercise will be as close to real as a preseason game gets, though minus any sort of game plan or regular-season strategic intentions.
No sense showing your hand before being called upon, and believe me, that will definitely include the final preseason game, too, scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 29, against the Houston Texans, also at AT&T Stadium, where starters will mostly sit and sitters will mostly start.
So Saturday night maybe you see Tony Romo throw the ball 10 to 15 times; maybe you see DeMarco Murray carry the ball a handful of times; maybe you see DeMarcus Ware actually play a couple of series instead of just a couple of plays in this new 4-3 defensive alignment; and maybe you see the likes of recently-extended Sean Lee, the up-surging Jason Hatcher and a seemingly revitalized Miles Austin play more than previously. Still, bank on the Cowboys not wanting to overexpose any of them to injury possibilities with the season opener just 15 days away.
Oh, we know all about these guys, and for sure you'd like to see this Cowboys first-team offense score its first touchdown of the preseason, even if that drought encompasses but five series over the two games Romo has played in, and for them all to do a better job of hanging onto the football than what took place last Saturday in Glendale, Ariz.
Fine and good, but this Cowboys coaching staff also must use this game to address the near future, as in the Sunday night of Sept. 8 when the New York Football Giants come calling on national television at the newly named and re-carpeted AT&T Stadium. There still are so many compelling what-ifs so close to the season opener.
What if projected starting left guard Ronald Leary does not return in time as expected from arthroscopic knee surgery for the opener?
What if starting defensive tackle Jay Ratliff is not ready to play as expected in the opener after missing the entire offseason, entire training camp and as expected at least the first four preseason games?
What if starting defensive end Anthony Spencer does not return in time as expected from having his knee scoped at the start of training camp to man the strong side of this 4-man front against the Giants?
What if cornerback Morris Claiborne, bothered by patella tendinitis in his knee for the past two weeks, isn't as ready to play in the opener as he seems to insist?
Oh, and while we're at it, what if injured safeties Matt Johnson (ankle) and Eric Frampton (calf) aren't ready for season-opening duty? First of all, how are you cutting that position down to a probable five and just who are the immediate backups to starters Barry Church and Will Allen?
These are the present dilemmas that must be solved with time running short, and for that reason you should get an eye-full Saturday night of possible solutions.
Already the Cowboys have been bracing for the worst on the offensive line. Chances are the do-si-do we witnessed this week in practice will continue Saturday night, with Jermey Parnell being inserted at right tackle, right tackle Doug Free moving over to right guard and right guard Makenzy Bernadeau leapfrogging over to left guard.
Hmmm. Everyone seems occupied with Free moving to guard. My concern, and this coaching staff's, too, is if Parnell is ready to play right tackle. He's started only one NFL game, and injuries have caused him to miss the entire offseason, the first three preseason games and the first three weeks of training camp. And that's who you want to trust on the right edge against those Giants ends?
"So we haven't seen him," Garrett says of Parnell, and hasn't since he rotated in with Free at right tackle in the final month of last season. "We got him back the end of last week, doing some good things and playing a little bit like he did the end of last season. At the end of the day, we want to put our best five guys out there."
Parnell definitely is on trial Saturday night, and if he can't hold up, and Leary isn't ready, don't be surprised if rookie center Travis Frederick moves to one guard spot, Phil Costa returns to center and Free stays put … that is if a starting-quality free-agent guard is not claimed or signed.
OK, the defensive line. So far with Ratliff and Spencer missing the Cowboys have gone with Nick Hayden at defensive tackle and George Selvie at the strong-side defensive end. Hayden seems to be gaining the staff's confidence that he can hold down the one-technique DT spot in a pinch, thus allowing Hatcher to play – and play well, so far – Ratliff's three-technique position. Hayden has started 13 of the 28 games he's played over his four years in the NFL, but did not play this past season.
"He's done a nice job," Garrett said of Hayden, who also has the ability to play either DT position. "Regardless of what combination he's in there with or who he is going against he seems to show up and make some plays."
As for Selvie, well, let Garrett tell you what he thinks of the 6-4, 270-pounder who previously has been with four teams since drafted in the seventh round by the Rams in 2010. The player who has yet to start a game (36 played) in the NFL and wasn't signed by the Cowboys until a week into training camp:
"He played particularly well in the game up there in Canton (Dolphins), played well last week in Arizona – just kind of showing up … a guy we want to keep looking at and see if he has a role on this football team."
Who knows for sure, backups today, starters tomorrow?
At least Claiborne has started running a bit, and hopes to practice next week. If not, well, the Cowboys have been running nickel back Orlando Scandrick with the firsts at right corner. So, the dilemma there is this: On nickel, does Scandrick move inside to his slot-cover position and the Cowboys then bring in either Sterling Moore or rookie B.W. Webb to play right corner, or do they leave Scandrick outside and go with either Moore or Webb inside? Scandrick previously has struggled doing both in the same game.
Not sure they've decided on which, so keep an eye out on Saturday night.
And then safety: Johnson and Frampton haven't practiced for two weeks, and with the final preseason game next Thursday, hardly seems possible they would practice fully on Monday and Tuesday and play against the Texans on Thursday after being out so long. And then would they be ready for the Giants the following Sunday? Heck, will they even make the final 53-man roster?
If not in either case, then you are looking at Wilcox, who returned Wednesday after going home for his mother's funeral and is expected to play against the Bengals; veteran Danny McCray, more of a special teams player than a true safety; and then rookie free agents Jeff Heath (Saginaw Valley State) and Jakar Hamilton (South Carolina State).
A little bit of a roster conundrum for sure.
So call this a dress rehearsal if you wish. But with so many what-ifs hanging over the Cowboys' heads, this just might be last call for many of these guys since the cuts to 75 come Tuesday, then the ones to 53 by the following Saturday, and since this likely will be the final chance to prove yourself against first-team opposition.
See there? So much to decide, so little time left to do so.