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by Mike Fisher    Mon, Jan 2, 2006, 01:19 PM

The Cowboys had just finished their Sunday night appointment with the Rams -- a game that had all the importance and meaning of a toothless man visiting a dentist -- and coach Bill Parcells offered a summation of sorts of his non-playoff team:

"I'm not overly pleased with 9-7,'' Parcells muttered. "We gotta evaluate and see what we're gonna do.''

Coach, can I offer a shortcut? Some answers regarding "what we're gonna do'' that don't require much hand-wringing or teeth-gnashing or soul-searching vacations in Saratoga Springs?

I'm not certain why it would take Cowboys management a lot of time to figure out the next steps; for most of what needs to be done, the writing has been on the wall since a 7-3 start began turning to muck.

So here they are: Eight rules. Eight Simple Rules for Upgrading Your Cowboys:

8: Re-"Something'' This Offensive Line -- Retool. Reshuffle. Rebuilt. Re-something this offensive line, which features an NFL oddity: While most O-lines employ no-name guys who do good work in obscurity, the Cowboys' offensive line features subpar performers whom YOU'VE HEARD OF!

Larry Allen, Marco Rivera and Flozell Adams are "name'' players with Pro Bowl histories. But all they amount to at this point are highly-paid question marks -- which makes them different from most of their unit mates in no way except for the dollar signs.

Think about it: Which of Dallas' offensive linemen should the team consider both KNOWN commodities and QUALITY commodies? Not Allen, Rivera or Adams, who are something short of great. Not centers Al Johnson and Andre Gurode, who are something short of good. Not Torrin Tucker, who has no business being an NFL starter. Not high draft picks Stephen Peterman and Jacob Rogers, who have yet to even get dirt on their knees. Not Marc Colombo and all the other young guys who were never put on display in front of the fans because coaches saw all too much of them daily at practice.

That leave Rob Petitti, the sixth-round rookie who played and learned throughout '05. An O-lineman who met or exceeded the club's expectations last year and can be expected to do it again next year? Petitti, who was supbar as a starter. ... but at least met or exceeded the club's expectations. That's it. And not only is that not enough, it's, like, six positions short of "not enough.''

7: A Running Back Battle To The Death -- Well, OK, not DEATH. But here's hoping the Cowboys don't succumb to the pressure of fans and tradition and convention by "naming a starter.'' I kinda know Julius Jones is the most gifted of the three. I believe that once his ankle was OK, so was he. Meanwhile, the organization feels great about the present and future of Marion Barber. And they got a steal in undrafted rookie Tyson Thompson (who needs to quit acting "too cool for school.'')

How close are are three in talent? How close does Fate come to turning everything upside down? How ready is Dallas in case of the upside-downs?

Early last year, JuJo was hurt, Barber was unproven, and Thompson was, incredibly, on the verge of being named a starter. Then he missed a meeting, and was pushed back down the depth chart, limited to returning kicks the rest of the year.

That setup -- the understanding that each of the three kid RBs is a play away, a meeting away, a moment away, from being The Man -- can serve as motivational rocket fuel for this team's running game. If there is an Emmitt Smith in the bunch, competition won't bury him; it will create him. If, instead, there is no Emmitt but there are three good ones, then three good ones will make each other better.

6: Acquire One More Receiver -- It's not about a lack of youth. It's not about a lack of play-making ability. It's not about a lack of speed. It's not about a lack of consistency.

It IS about employing one wide receiver who is capable of providing all those things.

Terry Glenn is often, but not always, a breakaway threat. Keyshawn Johnson is often, but not always, a playmaker. And we don't know what Patrick Crayton is anymore.

When Michael Irvin said Dallas lacked a "No. 1 receiver,'' it created quite a stir among Keyshawn and the fellas. But it apparently didn't really motivate anybody to prove Irvin wrong. ... unless you count Keyshawn throwing helmets, pushing cameramen and screaming at kickers "motivation.''

Finding the sort of wide receiver who can run routes, get deep, go over the middle and get you big yardage is about the easiest thing for a scouting department to do. Jeff Ireland, please go get this done.

5: Spend For A Free Agent Free Safety -- It's another of those positions that some football people don't believe merits top-dollar spending. But I wonder. ... what if Dallas had a Darren Sharper? Or better yet -- because this is easier for Cowboys fans to understand in context -- what if Dallas had a Darren Woodson?

No, I don't recommend to Woody that he return. But aren't there players who will come free this spring who can do Woody-type things?

Yes, there are.

This isn't a knock on Keith Davis, who took his special-teams heart and spilled it all over the field. Davis, in fact, has earned a role beyond coverage units. But playing alongside Roy Williams, the other safety needs to be more than a hitter; he needs to be a ballhawk and a coverage guy. Two names: the Rams' Adam Archuleta and the Vikings' Corey Chavous. Both smart. Both hitters. Both veterans. Both leaders. Both upgrades.

4: Get Kevin Burnett Ready: It's time. Bradie James needed to stay in the oven for a bit. But otherwise, the standouts on this standout defense have, in less than a year, established themselves. The rookies, Demarcus Ware and Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. The young vets, Roy Williams and Terence Newman. The free-agent signees, Anthony Henry and Jason Ferguson.

The Cowboys defense is one more terrific player away from making the next step. And then already employ that guy. Burnett had some injury issues at Tennessee, and the fourth-round rookie had some more in 2005. ... and then came this week's torn ACL. And, hopefully, nothing more than a 4-6 month rehab period before Kevin gets to be Kevin.

For next year, Burnett represents an X-factor of sorts. Rehard hard, kid. Then tape an aspirin to it. Rub some dirt on it. Next year, it's time.

3: Keep Stockpiling Defensive Linemen: There is a lot of talk of how this guy or that guy doesn't fit into the team's present scheme or its future plans. Ignoring the dollars and cents of the situation for the sake of this argument, the rule of thumb should be:

Keep 'em all.

Does Greg Ellis fit into the scheme? Does La'Roi Glover fit into the budget?

They fit in my scheme. They fit in my budget.

In the NFL, teams have great difficulty finding three and four D-linemen who can really play and who are quality guys. Ask the Browns, who dumped virtually their entire crummy defensive line only to see them all combine to excel in Denver and elsewhere.) The Cowboys have Ellis and Glover and Ferguson and Canty and Spears and more, and those who look at that as a "luxury'' are wrong.

Employing six or seven quality D-linemen is a NECESSITY. It just so happens that almost nobody acquires that necessity. Except your Cowboys.

2: Get Phillip Rivers -- One Cowboys beat writer recently wrote, "
There’s no young quarterback that’s going to come to Dallas and be an impact player unless you give up a bushel of draft picks and players to move high enough to get a player like Matt Leinart or Vince Young.''

Said beat writer keeps getting upset when I call "BS'' on him, so instead, this time, I'll call 'balderdash.''

The same writer, in the same piece, says, "I do know that the Jets discussed sending a first-day draft choice to the Cowboys for Romo before the trade deadline.''

As we discuss a future heir to Drew Bledsoe, let's throw these various issues into the same pile: It costs a third-round pick to get Tony Romo? Balderdash. The Cowboys turned that down? Balderdash again. You have to get Matt Leinart to get good and young at QB, and it will cost a "bushel of draft picks and players'' to get him? OK, that's only half-balderdash.

It would obviously be expensive to trade up to the top 5 to have a shot at a college QB. That would not be the only way to get a promising young one, though. San Diego's Phillip Rivers is exactly that. He's also represented by Parcells' agent, Jimmy Sexton. And how costly would he be?

Well, using the beat writer's logic. ... if Romo is worth a No. 3, Rivers would be worth. ... I dunno, a million No. 1's?

Balderdash. It makes no sense for the Chargers to keep him in the closet. It makes no sense for the Cowboys to have faith in Romo. It makes no sense for Parcells to foolishly enter yet another season with only one real QB on the entire roster. It makes no sense for Sexton to not broker this deal.

1: Inform Bill Parcells That He Is The Coach -- This marks two Decembers in a row when the all-powerful Parcells faces questions about his future in Dallas. ... and opted to either avoid the question or cuss at the questioner. (It's a miracle that this isn't the THIRD December in a row, but I suppose Bill floating retirement rumors after just a few months in town would've been excessively drama-queeny even for him.)

Yes, drama-queeny. I said it. That's what drives InfalliBill. Odd, isn't it, that tough-guy coaches demand complete commitment from their players. ... but don't see it as hypocritcal when they themselves allow their attention to drift.

Bill wants more attention. Bill wants more money. Bill wants more power. Bill wants more credit. Bill wants more money. Bill wants MORE more money.

Jerry's gone through this crap once before, and because he finally stepped up and demanded that Jimmy "Quit or Commit,'' the owner was left looking like the bad guy. So he won't step up again. But gosh, don't you wish somebody would simply order Bill Parcells to drag his ass out of his bank vault and back into the film room so we can all get ready for 2006?

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