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Orlando Scandrick must earn gig

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The best-case scenario for the Dallas Cowboys' defense would be Orlando Scandrick earning a starting job.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," head coach Jason Garrett said Friday evening.

Two nights later, Scandrick didn't exactly make a strong case for the job during a 20-7 preseason loss Sunday to the San Diego Chargers. Philip Rivers completed 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards against Dallas' starting defense, including completions of 29, 10 and 9 yards against Scandrick.

Don't overreact to a few plays, especially considering that Scandrick was competing against a Pro Bowl quarterback/receiver tandem in Rivers and Vincent Jackson. (Plus, Scandrick shouldn't be left alone against Jackson up the middle of the field, as was the case when the defense failed to make the right check before Jackson's 29-yard catch.)

Scandrick proved in the practices against the Chargers this week that he can hold his own. He has showed that while battling Miles Austin and Dez Bryant for the past few weeks, prompting defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to praise the cornerback, saying Scandrick has had one of the best camps among the defensive players.

Ryan added that he needs at least three starting-caliber cornerbacks, and he believes that the Cowboys have them. That's swell, but the playing time won't be split evenly. The coaches will have to ask one of the three to be a part-time player, a role Scandrick has filled to this point.

But this decision isn't really about Scandrick, who admits he's licking his chops for a chance to start in the fourth and final season of his rookie contract. It's more about Terence Newman.

The Cowboys are all-in with Mike Jenkins, even after his awful 2010 season and a stinger that sidelined him for this year's first two preseason games. This defense desperately needs him to bounce back to his 2009 Pro Bowl form -- not just for this season but long-term. There will be a huge hole if that doesn't happen.

Newman still can perform at a high level when he's healthy. That's not the norm, however.

The Cowboys need to treat Newman, who will turn 33 a week before the season opener, like a classic Corvette. That's a heck of a ride when it's running right, but it'll spend a ton of time in the shop if it hits the road too often.

You can't drive that car every day. You can't count on Newman to play every play.

Not well, at least. Newman battled through injuries, particularly a muscle strain in his rib cage that caused him to take pain-killing injections, for most of last season. The result was drastically diminishing returns that turned him into one of too many liabilities on the NFC's last-ranked scoring defense.

To the surprise of no one, Newman got hurt again early in training camp. The Cowboys hope his pulled groin improves well enough for him to play in the Sept. 11 season opener.

Raise your hand if you think Newman can recover from that injury and stay healthy all season as a full-time player. Anybody? Didn't think so.

How about as a nickel cornerback? That would reduce Newman's chances of injury by about 60 percent and significantly increase the odds that he could remain effective all season.

Is that worth $8 million this season? Of course not. But Newman will be overpaid no matter what. Let's hope that the days of salary determining Dallas' depth chart ended when Roy Williams and Marion Barber were shown the door this summer.

It's about maximizing the Cowboys' chance to contend. That's why it makes sense for Scandrick to start … if he proves he can handle the job.

That's a big if. Scandrick failed miserably when he got a chance to start two seasons ago as part of an awkward rotation with Jenkins. That experiment ended after one turn, abandoned after Scandrick's confidence-crushing start that is featured prominently on former Giants receiver Steve Smith's highlight reel.

Scandrick, like almost everybody else on the most disappointing defense in franchise history, stunk it up for the first half of last season. He finished the season strong, playing better than the Cowboys' starting cornerbacks.

"The difference in me is I'm not getting down this year," Scandrick said. "Some things are going to happen. Whatever. I'm not getting down. I know how I can play. I don't really care what people's opinions are, because everybody is entitled to an opinion."

The opinion here is that it's in everybody's best interests if Scandrick proves he can be a capable starter. He has a couple more weeks to make his case to the coaching staff.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.