The most stunning development in the Dallas Cowboys game against the Minnesota Vikings did not happen on the field. It was the unexpected announcement that Andre Gurode would sit and rookie UDFA Kevin Kowalski (a product of that lineman factory, Toledo) would start and likely play the entire game at center.
When I heard this, I immediately thought back over the preseason, and thought "Huh?" Followed by, "What?" And, of course, "Who?"
If this had happened next week against the Miami Dolphins, it would have made sense. The fourth game of the preseason is for evaluating backups. But this was the third game, the "dress rehearsal". This was the last chance for Tony Romo and the rest of the starters to get ready for the regular season. There were already two rookies on the offensive line. Wasn't this a huge gamble?
Well, yes. And I am realizing that Jason Garrett may be a much more daring coach than I had thought.
I freely admit that my favorite thing to do in studying the Cowboys is to try and get inside the heads of the decision makers. Jerry Jones frequently gives us a lot of insight into what is going on with the team. Unfortunately, he gives it in his own way, which means he speaks obliquely and indirectly, spending a lot of time to reveal minimal hard information. Last night was no exception, as he discussed the Gurode situation with the Dallas broadcast crew, who are all Cowboys employees themselves. That means he didn't exactly get pressed with incisive questions and was able to lay out what he wanted the way he wanted. The "business decision" label basically said that a change was in the works while leaving the options pretty wide open for what that would be. This in turn has led to a flurry of discussion and speculation on what is actually going on.
It is obvious that there are three possible outcomes: Gurode gets traded, Gurode agrees to a lower salary, or Gurode gets cut. Two of those three options mean that the Cowboys go with Phil Costa and/or Kowalski as the starting center in the season opener at the New York Jets.
The decision to get out from under at least part of Gurode's contract may have a lot to do with Jerry's management, but I believe that Jason Garrett has to be on board with this. That means that Jerry and Jason together agree that Andre is no longer worth the $7.16 million he would count against the cap, according to figures in a post here. Cutting him could save $5.5 million of that with an outright cut.
It seems fairly apparent that Costa's performance as center has made the coaches think that Gurode was no longer the vital cog many of us out here thought he was in the rebuilding of the offensive line. I saw more comments than I could count along the lines of "They would never do this!" regarding the move to ditch Gurode. Before last night, I certainly could not imagine this happening to start the season, especially since Costa is out with a PCL injury. Jerry indicated last night that he expects Costa to be ready to go in week 1, but I don't always trust his medical credentials. And it certainly meant that the Cowboys had to go with option #3 at center last night against Minnesota. To protect Tony Romo.
All us Cowboys fans remember why we want a healthy Tony Romo, right?
This was going to mean three rookies going against the best defensive line the Vikings could put on the field. They did have injury issues of their own to deal with, but Jared Allen was still there, and the backups were thought to be fairly good.
At this point, I am going into full Garrettology mode. The following is based on my opinion, which in turn comes from the past nine months of trying to sort out what is going on in that red head.
First, Jason is liking what he sees with the young'uns up front. Tyron Smith has been everything the team could hope for. Bill Nagy has performed far above 7th round expectations. Phil Costa has come back for his second year and opened some eyes. David Arkin has been inconsistent but still shows promise. And Jermey Parnell has received praise, including some favorable comments from Jerry during his third quarter visit to the broadcast booth last night. With the tenuous status of Montrae Holland, that means Kyle Kosier appears to be the only experienced veteran the Cowboys have plans for this year. Doug Free also provides some experience, but he is clearly a part of the youth movement. Amazingly, as OCC pointed out earlier, the average age on the O Line dropped six years from last year to now, 30.8 to 24.8. Gurode would have been a hedge, a second old but very experienced and skilled veteran. But Garrett must have decided that he had tools that he could use to cover for that loss. And I think Kosier is still starting only because he is showing the ability to make the plays JG wants, something that Jerry and the announcers hinted Gurode was not doing anymore.
Speaking of Jerry, I do not think this is his call. In the past, he has always wanted to sign experience, bringing in veterans to add that missing piece to put the team over the top. That has been exposed as the folly it is, and the new way is to build through the draft and UDFAs, teaching your young talent to be the players you want. It's that Cowboy Way idea again.
No, the safe thing would have been to keep Gurode at least for this season. But someone decided that the Cowboys were going to fully and irrevocably commit to the youth movement on the O line. They made the football equivalent of going all in. The team is going to roll with these young players. If Gurode does take a lower paycheck, I think he will be relegated to backup status as soon as Costa is ready to go.
That is not Jerry. He is willing to make big moves, but not on unknowns, which is really what we have. I think this is Jason's call. He is putting his line of the future on the field right now, and going with it.
Last night, I think we saw the gambler in Jason come out. Oh, he looked long and hard at the odds, and you better believe he analyzed this and considered all that could be won and lost. But he still pushed that whole stack of chips out there. I believe he thinks this is the best team he can field right now, despite all the "conventional wisdom" out there.
And based on last night, when Romo and the rest of the team (except Martellus Bennett) got out of the game healthy and the team performed fairly well, especially in the second quarter, he may just win this bet.