by Tim Cowlishaw OXNARD, Calif. – Having watched an outfielder fail to lead the team at quarterback, the club will try its luck with a third baseman. But not right away. The Cowboys should do everything in their power – and they will – to keep Drew Henson off the field in 2004. That's not to say the young man isn't the future of this team at the position, that he lacks promise. That's not the case at all. But with Quincy Carter, a former outfielder in the Cubs system gone, the Cowboys are counting on ageless (they hope) Vinny Testaverde leading the team. As a result, Henson could be a pulled groin away from the center of the Dallas sports spotlight. It could be Henson or it could be Tony Romo, we don't know. Early signs point to the Cowboys using Romo as Testaverde's backup, at least early in the year while Henson is still getting back to football speed. After spending the last three years in the Yankees organization, completely away from football since his junior season at Michigan in 2000, Henson deserves better than the rush to judgment the Cowboys pushed Chad Hutchinson into in similar circumstances in 2002. A year of learning would be good. But it may not be possible, so assistant head coach Sean Payton is teaching a cram course, just in case. "I think with a guy like Drew, you treat him just like [running back] Julius Jones," Payton said. "And maybe that's unfair because he's been out of football, but you're still looking to see a young player come in, transition into the offense and take it to the field. "I don't think you ever set a date on when you want a player to play." Payton works with Henson on his throwing motion, which is a little awkward when his elbow gets too low. Otherwise, Henson has looked pretty good in the first week of workouts. With Carter gone, the Testaverde signing looks good. The trade for Henson, as it portends for the future, looks even better. And with Carter gone and the Cowboys having scrapped the four-man rotation that forced one quarterback to sit each day, Henson's workload increases. "I'm prepared to play, in my mind," said Henson. "If you're not and your number is called, that's the worst thing that can happen. The reality is there's a better chance for me to play now, and I need to be ready." Henson wears No. 7 but is Project No. 3 in Jerry Jones' long-running attempt to replace Troy Aikman without paying Aikman-type money. That's not because he's cheap, it's because he has seen what happens to organizations that spend big dollars and use high first-round picks on "franchise quarterbacks" that turn out to be Ryan Leaf or Tim Couch or Akili Smith. The Cowboys did not sacrifice a great deal of money in their experiments with Carter and with Hutchinson. What they lost was time. Three years, to be precise. And now, they have a 40-year-old starter and two backups who have never thrown an NFL pass. Coach Bill Parcells said he isn't sure which backup has the upper hand. He likes Henson's maturity for having been a professional athlete, even in a different sport, for several years. But Romo has had an extra year of practice in the Cowboys' system. Before signing Henson in March, Parcells sought opinions from several current and former members of the Yankees' organization who provided positive feedback on Henson's personal makeup. He already knew about the football part, about how Henson would have been one of the top picks in the 2002 draft had he returned for his senior year. Now that he's in the NFL, Henson does not regret that it took so long. He said if he had chosen football, he always would have wondered about baseball. "But what I found in baseball was that I missed being a quarterback. I missed football," he said. He can't miss it now. It's all around him and all over him, his mind swimming with new terminology. The two months he spent in Dallas learning the system prior to the draft helped, he said. But there's only so much one can do reading a playbook or practicing in shorts. "Until you get them in a live game, it's hard to see where a player is at," Payton said. Henson isn't at the center of the football universe yet but he's a lot closer today than he would have imagined just two days ago. Project No. 3 may not get off the ground until the 2005 season, but Henson said he has no desire to wait until then. He wants to play. The odds are, sooner than is best for him, Henson will get that chance.