Don't look now, but the Dallas Cowboys may have their entire 53-man roster available to face the New Orleans Saints. At a time when most NFL teams have players that are sitting out a game or two, or starters that have been lost for the season, the Cowboys are actually getting healthier. Although the idea is statistically invalid, it is almost like the team overshot a bit in regressing to the mean after the injury plagued 2012 and 2013 seasons.
It is a trend that almost certainly will not hold up in the long run, but the team has seen players that came out of preseason with various nagging problems getting back into playing shape. Most of these, again, have been on defense, with the offense remaining largely intact so far. For a while the situation did not look great for the Sunday Night Football matchup against the Saints. At one point it appeared that Henry Melton, Terrell McClain and Rolando McClain were definitely going to miss the game. That would have meant both starting defensive tackles and the starting Mike linebacker were all going to be out. But as of Friday, all three participated to some degree in practice. Even better news may be the word that Anthony Spencer is going to see the first action of the season. Even backup tackle Davon Coleman was participating in a limited fashion.
All is great now, right?
Well, no. All of the listed players were back in practice, but that does not assure that any of them outside of Spencer will actually be able to go on Sunday. And while indications are that Spencer will see his first action, the action is also expected to be rather limited, perhaps as few as ten or so plays.
All five of the players I have listed are shown on the Dallas injury report Friday afternoon as questionable. Outside of Spencer, the most likely to see action against the Saints is Terrell McClain, who was cleared after a concussion, which means he has no real physical limitation. But no player listed as questionable is a certain thing. It is possible all five could wind up on the inactive list. Highly unlikely, given the way the team and Spencer have been talking, but questionable is defined as a 50/50 chance that the player will be able to go.
So the Cowboys have five defensive players who may play, or may not play. And with head coach Jason Garrett doing his normal inscrutable thing, there is likely to be no real clarification until the inactives are announced for the game 90 minutes before kickoff. Even then, no one can be really sure how much any of the players will actually contribute.
It creates a bit of a shell game. Who will the Saints see lining up as the MLB, R. McClain or Anthony Hitchens? Unless McClain is on the inactive list, they won't know until their first offensive series. And that will not tell them who will be out there for the second series. Of course, that is one case where there may not be a really bad alternative for the Cowboys, given the way that Hitchens acquitted himself last week. However, as Bryan Broaddus notes, one area where McClain has a clear advantage is in his experience with pre-snap formation changes.
Where things might be difficult for him as opposed to McClain is his experience in facing an offense like the Saints, particularly how many different formations he will see pre-snap. Sean Payton likes to show you one formation then shift it to another to get to his play. This is the way the Saints take advantage of mismatch situations and put you at a disadvantage scheme-wise. How well this defense plays will be dependent on the communication between McClain and Hitchens to their teammates.
If Rolando McClain is able to go, the team may try to lean on him the entire game, but they might also call on Hitchens for relief, given that McClain was just getting fully into football shape by the second game of the season.
Likewise, even if Terrell McClain and/or Henry Melton are available, the team will likely still put Tyrone Crawford in at tackle for some plays. There is a thought that his strength and style may translate better to the interior of the line than end. This is why having Spencer back, even for a handful of plays, can mean so much to the team.
So Sean Payton and the Saints now are unsure just who will be lining up at multiple positions on defense. It may be a small matter, but in pro football, teams will try to exploit any advantage, however minor. This is a situation that fits right into the Jason Garrett coaching handbook, which prominently states "Thou shalt not under any condition divulge any information about thine own team that thou art not forced to. And then thou shalt still obfuscate to the max." If he wouldn't get in trouble for it, Garrett would list everyone on the roster as questionable, and dare you to guess who could actually play.
He has to be liking this little shell game.
Anthony Spencer was the only Cowboys player who did not practice on Friday, as he was given a scheduled day of rest to get him ready for Sunday's game. For Spencer, the return to NFL action on Sunday caps a long recovery from microfracture surgery.
"It has been a long year and a lot of hard work on his part," said Spencer's agent, Jordan Woy. "It was major surgery and you never know how a player will recover. But he has put in the sacrificial hours to get back to being football-ready."
His teammates are already looking forward to the former Pro Bowl pass rusher's return:
"It's coming at a point in time where we need his strength with his pass rush," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "His ability to get off the ball will be big for us if we can find a way to get him into the game and get him after the quarterback."
Here's the official injury report (via the NFL Media department) from Friday's practice. Note that the official game status listed on the injury report has a specific likelihood a player will play attached to it as follows:
- Probable = 75% chance a player will play
- Questionable = 50% chance a player will play
- Doubtful = 25% chance a player will play
- Out = Player will not play
||(shoulder), (groin), (knee), (Back)|
|Questionable||Davon Coleman (knee), Rolando McClain (groin), Terrell McClain (concussion), Henry Melton (hamstring), Anthony Spencer (knee)
||C(ankle), LB David Hawthorne (ankle), LB Curtis Lofton (shoulder), CB Patrick Robinson (hamstring), TE Benjamin Watson (groin)|
||S(hamstring), RB Mark Ingram (hand), FB Erik Lorig (ankle)|