After the first quarter of the NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys are a disappointing 2-2. It is disappointing because one of the losses could easily have been a win if the Cowboys had executed better, and because the team squandered an 11-point second quarter lead in the other. In both losses, the team looked inept at times, and in the game against the San Diego Chargers, they were totally dominated for a long stretch by Philip Rivers and his offensive teammates.
While the losses have certainly had plenty of blame to go around, there have been some players that have stood out, in a bad way. One of the things that Jason Garrett has preached since he became the head coach in Dallas is accountability. This season, that is not just a slogan. Already, three defensive starters have been sent to ride the pine.
- The first to go was Will Allen, who was seen as struggling in coverage. Prior to the third game of the season, J.J. Wilcox was promoted to start at safety alongside Barry Church. He acquitted himself well against the St. Louis Rams, and looks to have locked the job down, despite missing a lot of time during pre-season to go be with his mother, who passed away.
- Bruce Carter was effectively benched during the Chargers game. Despite remarks made by Monte Kiffin about the heat of the game (which no one else seeemed to notice), it is hard to see this as anything other than putting someone else in to try and get more effective play. There is now a bit of confusion about his status this week. It has been reported that Ernie Sims said he was going to start at the Will position, which is Carter's current assignment. However, Justin Durant is also out, and there are some reporters who believe that is the player Sims will replace, not Carter.
- Morris Claiborne is reported to have lost the starting job to Orlando Scandrick. Again, the coaching staff is not coming out and saying this, but Monte Kiffin did state that he saw Claiborne and Scandrick as being equal in their role. All indications are that the team has more faith in Scandrick as Claiborne continues to struggle, and it would not be surprising to see them essentially switch roles, bringing Claiborne in for nickel situations. This may not be so easy to spot this week, since the nickel is likely to be the most common personnel grouping for the defense against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
I can't recall seeing starters lose their job, either permanently or in a game situation, this much in recent Cowboys history. There are always cases where running backs are sat down for losing the handle on the ball, but this is different. First off, in cases like running backs, the punishment is often tailored to the player. A backup can expect to spend the rest of the game on the sidelines, while that starter is going to go back in if things get tough.
But the defensive benchings show that the coaches are looking for better answers, and they don't care how they go about getting them, as long as they do get the answers they need. First rounder, rising star, experienced vet, it doesn't matter. All have been sent to sit while the team put someone else in their place to try to fix issues.
It is not an entirely new idea for the Cowboys. Remember Doug Free rotating series with Jermey Parnell last year? While it may not be a benching in the letter of the law, it certainly was one in spirit. And it demonstrated that such a move can be a very great motivator, as Free has come back from his bad play and is now seen by some as the best lineman Dallas has. (For an excellent dissenting view explaining why Tyron Smith is still the man, see Bob Sturm's analysis of how the coaches leave Smith all alone against the best pass rushers the other team has).
It is all about improving. Improve the play of the team by getting a stronger group. Improve the individual player with a bit of boot-in-the-butt motivation. What is encouraging to me is that the team has gone this route so early this year. I don't expect to see either Carter or Claiborne relegated to the sidelines much at all, but I also think they know that their jobs are only as secure as their play justifies. And you have to like that.