QB situation a big question in Dallas

It's hard to figure out which direction the Cowboys are heading.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:49 AM ET
By Mickey Spagnola | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

These Dallas Cowboys head toward the 2004 season an anomaly. They come off a 10-6 playoff season, yet will open Sept. 12 at Minnesota with 10 new starters, including the punter.

They broke into the playoffs last year for the first time since 1999, yet will start this season with new starters at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, not to mention the all-important defensive positions of cornerback and defensive end. So is this a team stepping in the right direction or a team starting over?

Much of that answer will rest on the defense, if this unit can approach its No. 1 ranking of last year, and at the QB position, if there is life there with 40-year-old veteran Vinny Testaverde and rookie Drew Henson in the aftermath of the release of last year's starter, Quincy Carter.

Quarterback: This was not the plan, to head into the season with a 40-year-old starter and a rookie backup who has not played in a real football game since January 2001, or a free agent to be named. But Carter's alleged NFL substance-abuse-policy indiscretions plummeted the position into the unknown. Testaverde can still throw the ball and will probably help his offensive line with quicker decisions. But can he stand up to the rigors of NFL QB play at his age? If he can't, it seems head coach Bill Parcells has the notion of backing him up with Henson, unless a suitable veteran comes available in free agency or Tony Romo shows dramatic improvement. Grade: C.

Running backs: If what has been witnessed the first half of the preseason is not a mirage, this position has been greatly upgraded, especially with second-round draft choice Julius Jones. Parcells might decide to bring him along slowly, but so far Jones has demonstrated the unique ability to hit hard into the holes, cut on a dime and yet has speed to the outside. Combine that with some hard-charging runs from veteran Eddie George, the versatility of Richie Anderson and the lead blocking of FB Jamar Martin, and this unit easily could be the most improved on the team over last season. Grade: B.

Receivers: How much Keyshawn Johnson has left and how much Antonio Bryant matures will determine just how good the team's passing game is this season. The Cowboys need either Johnson to be the Johnson of old, a go-to guy this offense thirsts for, or Bryant needs to become the all-around receiver he has the capability to be if he becomes more disciplined on the field. Bryant can be a star and the future lead receiver on this team if he will run his routes with more precision and authority. If this is his breakout year, combined with the steady Terry Glenn and Johnson as the third-down threat, watch out. Combining that WR trio with young TE Jason Witten will give defenses headaches. Grade: B.

Offensive linemen: If this team is to improve on its 2003 average of 18 points per game, it will be a byproduct of dramatic improvement from its offensive line. The early indications are positive. OLG Larry Allen, who appeared done last year, now appears to be closer to the eight-time Pro Bowler the club has known. If so, that will make this team quite left-handed, with Pro Bowl OT Flozell Adams next to him. The center position appears to be in better hands, no matter if Al Johnson starts or Tyson Walter, and there is a good chance of a rotation at that spot. ORG Andre Gurode must rebound from a down second year, and so far so good, with third-round draft choice Stephen Peterman working in the wings. The only question is right tackle, where Torrin Tucker and rookie Jacob Rogers were still battling. If neither steps to the forefront, watch for Kurt Vollers, last year's starter now working as Adams' backup, to move back to the right side. Grade: B-minus.

Defensive linemen: There are two new starters up front, with the addition of DE Marcellus Wiley and the pre-training-camp deletion of NT Willie Blade. That means Leonardo Carson will start at nose tackle next to La'Roi Glover, and Wiley has been moved to the left side so Greg Ellis can move into the pass-rushing role on the right side. Sure, the Cowboys are trying to enhance an average pass rush, but in attempting to do so, they can't detract from a run defense giving up just 89.1 yards a game last year. Carson's ability to jam up the middle will be key, and so will the ability of Daleroy Stewart, versatile Kenyon Coleman, Eric Ogbogu and possibly ex-Seahawk Chad Eaton to provide some relief. Grade: B.

Linebackers: This might be the deepest unit on the team, with the WLB spot the only position of contention: Parcells has Bradie James battling Pro Bowler Dexter Coakley for playing time, but that's a good thing. Dat Nguyen is strong in the middle. He had a Pro Bowl-like season last year, and a duplicate year might earn him his first trip to Hawaii. The club has developed a backup, the little-known Keith O'Neil, a dynamic special-teams player. And they come with old reliable Al Singleton on the strong side. Plus, watch out for the unknown Scott Shanle, picked up off waivers late last season from St. Louis. He is doing well with his second chance and gives the defense the potential to move at times to a 3-4 alignment. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive backs: Some consternation exists, even though first-round draft choices man half the starting positions. There are no problems with Roy Williams at free safety and Terence Newman at left cornerback. The problems begin after that. SS Darren Woodson had back surgery just prior to the start of training camp, and he will miss at least the first game or two but perhaps many more. That leaves Tony Dixon to start at strong safety, and he has yet to prove comfortable there. Unfortunately, Parcells has no confidence in the backup candidates (Keith Davis, Lynn Scott). Plus, they must decide if Woodson needs to be placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Then there is the RCB spot, where all they must do is replace Mario Edwards. But so far, Pete Hunter, Jemeel Powell and rookie Bruce Thornton have failed to clearly win the job. Grade: C-plus.

Special teams: More change, or at least potential change. Heading toward the opener, incumbent PK Billy Cundiff was locked in a battle with newcomer Matt Bryant, and only because Cundiff has been a tad inconsistent during training camp. The punting job appears headed to first-year kicker Mat McBriar, if his consistency can match his huge kicks. The return jobs are open at this point, although seventh-round draft choice Patrick Crayton has made an impression as a punt returner and converted wide receiver. Dedric Ward, Julius Jones, ReShard Lee and several others might end up the kick returner. LS Jeff Robinson is safe, but the holding job is an experiment: Henson, Romo and McBriar all are learning the trade. Grade: C.

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