Cowboys Road To 53: Are There Ever Really Any Surprises?

Thanks for keeping Jason Witten fresh, big fella. Now pack your bags - USA TODAY Sports

Although the preseason is filled with stories of "bubble" players and guys competing for roster spots, the cold, hard reality is that most teams establish their 53-man rosters in July, and expect little to change except in the case of injury.

For the final question for today's press conference with Jason Garrett, the Cowboys' head coach was asked whether a player had, in recent years, played himself onto the roster with his performance in a final preseason game and, if so, who that might be. Garrett answered indirectly, talking about the coaching staff's desire to give guys a legitimate chance to be evaluated in preseason games. He concluded by declaring that it was important for the coaches to remain open minded. "Don't cut down your team in July; don't cut your team down after the first preseason game" he offered.

That's all well and good, and it may be how the Cowboys have conducted themselves in recent weeks. But before we get all mushy, remember that they spent a tremendous amount of time, energy and money from December through July constructing the team that they took to training camp. And, as Garrett is fond of telling us, they "had a plan" for each of the men whose name dotted the 90-man roster as the team gathered in Oxnard. Given his fastidiousness, that plan has to be more specific and concrete than "let's see what he can show us in California." I would offer that the plan is about how many plays a player can give the team in a critical NFC East tilt in October. I'll extend this a bit further: one of the reasons Garrett hemmed and hawed over the question is that, in fact, rosters are pretty well set in July.

Certainly, training camp practices have the potential to move men up and down the roster: Jeff Heath has risen from a fourth-team afterthought to have a very real opportunity to make the roster; thanks to his fine work, Nick Hayden has supplanted Sean Lissemore as the starting DT opposite Jason Hatcher. And George Selvie has emerged from obscurity to what appears to be a key role in the defensive line rotation. But take a closer look: two of these men have benefited from injury (to Matt Johnson and Tyrone Crawford) and the other is supplanting a player who presented a bad scheme fit, as I pointed out back in May.

To support my claim, I present to you Andrew Brandt, the Green Bay Packers' team vice president from 1999 to 2008, in which capacity he negotiated player contracts and managed the team’s salary cap. In short, he was consistently in a position to know what was happening insofar as roster building is concerned. In an article for Peter King's new MMQB venture, Brandt talks about the difficulty of cutting guys, focusing on how little opportunity there really is to make an NFL roster. He writes:

If you think training camps are about having an open competition, guess again. Teams have proprietary depth charts going into camp, different from the ones shared with the media. There are usually between four and six spots that are open to competition, depending largely on numbers and personnel groupings rather than the performance of players on the bubble.

He goes on to note that the primary points of discussion when coaches and team executives discussed roster cuts were more likely to cover injured players than to discuss the talent of healthy ones. What this suggests is that the great instrument of preseason roster churn is not performance, but injury. Indeed, I noted a couple of examples of this above. But this also pertains to today's cuts, which are more about depth for Thursday night's final preseason game than about talent or ability to play in the NFL.

Think about it: all the guys they let go play positions of relative health, or, more properly, positions where Dallas can field a team on Thursday without having to play the starters - which is priority one. Wanna know why no defensive linemen were released today? Look no further than the fact that DE Tyrone Crawford was placed on IR and DT Jay Ratliff was given a PUP designation. That leaves nine players at other positions receiving a visit from The Turk. As you can see, most of these these guys play a position at which the team has sufficient health to field a team on Thursday:

WR Eric Rogers, Jared Green, Anthony Amos: With the rest of the receiver corps at full strength, they don't need these guys on Thursday. It's as simple as that.

CB Brandon Underwood: with the return of Mo Claiborne, one of the few starters likely to see action on Thursday, Underwood becomes expendable. If Mo couldn't go, I suspect Underwood would have stuck around for a few more days.

TE Colin Cochart: I think Cochart's release is due in part to the team's relative youth at the position. Sure, All-Universe TE Jason Witten won't see any action, but the rest of the depth chart is young enough that they all will, and there are enough of them healthy for the team to operate all its personnel groupings.

OG Dennis Godfrey: At first glance, this could be a puzzling cut, given the lengthy list of injuries to the team;s offensive guards. As with Underwood, I suspect that Godfrey's release was dependent on Kevin Kowalski's health. With Killer K back at practice, Godfrey was no longer needed.

Which brings up the next group of players: men who have fulfilled their function:

QB Nick Stephens: Now that camp is all but finished, he has served his purpose: to take QB snaps. That's all he was ever here to do - one might say, it was the "plan" the organization had for him.

K Brett Maher: Like Stephens, he has fulfilled his function: to take a bit of strain off Dan Bailey's golden leg. Now that the reps have diminished, he's no longer needed.

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As this quick summary suggests, the NFL is a brutal business. That side of the game is even more apparent on days like this, when teams end the dreams of a player whose primary function was to keep the "real players" - guys who figured to make the 53 - well-rested. The above names are the football equivalent of domestiques, the Tour de France riders who do all the hard work so that the star is rested when it comes time for the last climb or the final sprint.

In the process of this, a few rare players do break through but, as Brandt cautions us, this is not common by any means. As he notes, "there are outliers each year who beat the odds, and every team points to these kinds of guys and say, 'Every position is up for grabs.' But those players are clearly the exception, not the rule." While Jason Garrett - the coach who states as a primary goal to establish competition throughout the roster - can't publicly acknowledge this reality, it exists. And his circumvention of the question suggests that he knows it all too well.

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