Asked by reporters recently what his take on building a 53-man roster was, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett offered something to the effect of: "We don't want the best 53 players; we want the 53 players that make the best team." This thesis is all well and good in an ideal situation wherein every man on the roster is healthy (and has been throughout camp) and, thanks to good health, has clearly demonstrated to the coaching staff what he does and does not have to offer.
As we know all too well, however, this has not been the Cowboys' situation this summer. They had as many as 20 guys unable to play in a the first preseason game, and were in the double digits in others. At that time in the process, the team's long list of walking wounded was largely an inconvenience; fewer available players made it difficult to run training camp practices. But, as Garrett has noted repeatedly, injuries present an "opportunity" for other guys to receive more snaps, to step up, and to climb a rung or two on the crowded training roster ladder.
As we crawl ever closer to the games that count, an inconvenience has become a problem, in large part because of who remains on or has recently joined the list of injured. When starters, key role players or recent draft choices can't play, especially in the days before the season opener, opportunity is tainted by complication. This is a direct byproduct of league rules that strictly mandate who can be placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list, and how long (six weeks) they must remain on the list should they, in fact, be thusly designated.
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Consequently, teams don't want to place players on PUP unless they are going to miss half the season. If, for example, a guy is expected to miss the first month, the team is in a real bind. Do they essentially waste a roster spot for the month of September, or is it better to PUP him, thus missing out on two weeks of potential contributions? This puzzle exacerbated for game one, which occupies a particularly fraught position in terms of the NFL timetable, since teams must pay veteran players who appear in the opener an entire season's worth of wages.
As the Cowboys effectively begin preparations for their trip to New York to kick off the 2012 campaign, they appear to be in a particularly tenuous position for what may prove to be one of the most important of the season. Among the veteran starters, Jay Ratliff, Mike Jenkins, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin have not been able to practice of late. In addition, 2012 draft choices Kyle Wilber, Matt Johnson and Danny Coale have missed extensive time. Several of these players are currently slated to return in time to face off against the New York Football Giants. Others, including Ratliff, Jenkins, Witten, Wilber, Johnson and Coale, appear to be unable to participate.
And that's where the problems arise. Consider the dilemma the Cowboys have when trying to cut down the roster. They must balance the desire to assemble the 53 men that make up the best team with the more pressing need to field a complete team on September 5. If, for example, Witten, Ratliff, Jenkins, Wilber, Coale and Johnson make the team and Dallas decides to keep ten offensive linemen, eight of whom figure to be on the gameday roster, that combination of injuries and extra O-linemen takes up seven of the eight gameday inactive spots. That's not a lot of wiggle room.
Consequently, when the front office works on their cuts today and tomorrow, they won't be considering the "ideal 53," so much as they will be assembling a 45-man gameday roster for September fifth's contest. Instead of filling the bottom of the roster with guys who have earned a spot with sustained competitiveness, and diligence throughout the summer, they will need to make sure that they have enough tight ends and/ or fullbacks to run their offense. As a result, guys who wouldn't normally have a chance to make the team will, due to injuries at their positions. To wit: do you think Shaun Chapas played on all four special teams units against the Rams because they love his offensive game? Quite the contrary; they need a "third tight end/ special teams guy" for game one, and he's the closest thing on the roster to that description. Similarly, because of Jenkins' bum shoulder, they may retain a sixth corner, such as Lionel Smith, so that they can have the requisite five corners on gameday.
For every Chapas or Lionel Smith that makes the roster out of necessity rather than superior play, a promising player is forced onto the street. Think about it: every team can afford to spend a couple of roster spots on developmental players, guys unlikely to make a contribution this year but who show long-range upside. With so many Cowboys dinged, those developmental spots on Dallas' roster are now taken by early-season injury inactives. Had they enjoyed a healthy roster, the Cowboy might have been able to ferret away promising youngsters like Adrian Hamilton and Ben Bass. Now, just to field a team, they'll have to tempt fate, and try to squeeze one or both through waivers. Given the dearth of young pass rushers league-wide, I don't much like their chances if they take this gamble.
To lose a player or players like this to keep a Chapas on the roster until Witten is ready to go is, to me, a heartbreaking proposition. That's why recent reports that Witten or Jenkins (or both) may be a "go" for the season opener ease my angsty heart. Certainly, we want them to play against the Giants, because their presence increases the Cowboys chance of victory. But their ability to play will have positive down-the-road benefits as well, by opening up slots for the Hamiltons and Basses of the roster - guys who, like former Cowboy Stephen Bowen, can stick around and learn as they develop into legit NFL-caliber talents.
And the Cowboys can use as many of those guys as they can get...