How the Cowboys will decide on their 53-man roster

Every day since the start of training camp, and sometimes twice

a day, coach Wade Phillips studies the Dallas Cowboys roster and

picks the 53 guys he thinks should make the team.

He has to keep it fresh, because things keep changing.

Players improve or regress, get hurt or heal. It’s not always as

simple as erasing one name and jotting down another. If they play

different positions, that could lead to another change. Or two.

Now, decision day looms. The 75-man roster the Cowboys will

carry into the preseason finale against Miami on Thursday night

must be trimmed to 53 by Saturday afternoon.

Phillips won’t use Tony Romo and many other starters against the

Dolphins to keep them healthy for the opener Sept. 12 at

Washington. It also gives him a longer look at the guys fighting

for jobs.

”I think this is a good opportunity to show you’ve got the

ability to play or help us,” Phillips said.

Cutdown-day decisions aren’t as permanent as, say, the draft

because guys can always be re-signed. Many will return to the

eight-man practice squad, albeit for less money and will have to be

added to the 53-man roster to play in games.

Yet there are similarities to the draft. These are the most and

the toughest personnel decisions since then, and the process is

similar: position coaches will lobby for their guys, Phillips will

offer his big-picture view and the final say will come from the man

who pays the bills, Jerry Jones.

”What I’m looking at,” Jones said, ”is how they played in the

preseason and how they’ve evolved from the OTAs and other


Picking the best 53 players is one thing. The challenge is

balancing the best-overall list with the needs at each position

because the needs at those positions change every year.

To get a better grasp, look at Dallas’ season-opening roster the

last five years, spanning Phillips’ three-year tenure and the final

two years under Bill Parcells.

Start with the most high-profile spot, quarterback.

The Cowboys kept two quarterbacks from 2006-08, going with three

in ’05 and last season. Most teams keep three because the league

essentially encourages it by allowing clubs to suit up an emergency

quarterback who doesn’t count against the 45-man active roster.

(Oh, yeah, that’s another thing: Even though there are 53-man

rosters, eight guys are designated as ”inactive” on game


In 2007, Romo’s first full season in charge, Dallas kept only

Brad Johnson as his back up and released an undrafted rookie in

hopes he would clear waivers and return to the practice squad.

Instead, Carolina claimed Matt Moore and, because of injuries, he

started games that December. He goes into this season as their main


That could be a factor as the Cowboys ponder Stephen McGee, a

third-round pick last year who hasn’t exactly lit it up, but is

getting a big chance by starting against the Dolphins.

”We feel like Stephen’s the kind of guy we can continue to try

to develop as a backup player and a player who is playing all the

time down the line,” offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said.

”We’re still going through that process of evolution and when you

cut down that roster, you got to factor a lot of different things.

… It’s the third quarterback vs. the tight end vs. the defensive

back vs. the linebacker vs. the lineman.”

From 2005-09, the only constant has been three tight ends. That

could be about to change.

With projected No. 3 John Phillips going on injured reserve,

Dallas may switch that spot to fullback. Instead of keeping only

one (every year but ’07), the Cowboys could keep incumbent Deon

Anderson and undrafted rookie Chris Gronkowski.

During the Phillips era, Dallas has stuck with six defensive

linemen and eight or nine linebackers. The wild card has been in

the secondary – from 10 defensive backs in 2007 to 11 in ’08, down

to nine last year; actually, it’s always been five safeties, so

it’s the number of cornerbacks that’s fluctuated.

Dizzy yet?

Well, we’re almost done, except to note perhaps the biggest

change in the formula this season. With kickoff specialist David

Buehler likely taking over field goals and extra points, too, that

opens a spot elsewhere.

Whoever makes it will have to excel at special teams. He’ll have

to offer something else, too – like experience at a key position or

raw ability that could blossom, like Romo or Miles Austin,

undrafted guys who’ve become elite players.

Phillips insists the Cowboys simply want the best players, which

makes sense.

Except, as should be obvious by now, it’s not that simple.

”He may be the best player right now,” Phillips said, ”but

you don’t think he’s going to be the best player a month from now

or two months from now or a year from now.”