IRVING, Texas – 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 things."
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 day.)
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 man.
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.
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."