The final game for the Dallas Cowboys is shaping up to be one where the team is stacking the deck against itself. Given the fact that Washington is also in a position to rest some players to prepare for the postseason, the final game of this sad season may look more like a preseason affair than anything else. And that is a good thing.
Mike Fisher coined a great term for this: Organic tanking. The team still goes out and plays hard, but without a proven NFL level quarterback or their biggest playmaker, Dez Bryant, who is now going on IR, the team is going to be hard-pressed to get a fifth win this season no matter who lines up against them on Sunday. That means that the opportunity exists to take a good look at a lot of down-roster players to add more data that can be used to make decisions once the season ends.
With Bryant out, the team now can look at WRs Vince Mayle and Rodney Smith, who are being promoted from the practice squad. Devin Street is in the concussion protocol, so they should have even more opportunity. Barry Church is also going on IR, so they will likely be playing Byron Jones exclusively at safety and have added former Dallas draft pick Josh Thomas to bolster the cornerback group, where Terrance Mitchell and Deji Olatoye have already been making a bit of an impact with the first two interceptions for that unit. David Irving is another player who is going on IR, which means that Casey Walker should get a lot of playing time. There are some other players who are dealing with some minor injuries that should be considered for sitting. La'el Collins missed practice, which could let the team put Ronald Leary in to decide if he is going to be part of the offensive line group going forward. Tyrone Crawford has been playing through injury, and with his contract, he should probably be inactive. Darren McFadden only needs three yards to get to 1,000, and he deserves a chance to make that mark for only the second time in his career, but then he should be pulled to let Robert Turbin and Rod Smith make their cases for coming back in training camp. Sean Lee has been playing lights out of late, but he should also be a candidate for limited participation in a game where winning has negative implications for the draft. And Jason Witten should also be on that list, no matter how strong his warrior spirit is.
The team has already committed to starting Kellen Moore at quarterback. Although he showed some good things against the Buffalo Bills, it was definitely a mixed bag for him. This is going to be his chance to show whether he may be able to become the backup to Tony Romo.
Although the Cowboys were still technically in the playoff hunt until their loss to the New York Jets, there is reason to suspect that they may have been heading in the direction of "organic tanking" well before that. Jerry Jones made a statement earlier this week that hints at that.
Jerry just touched on the fact that they eval'd Weeden as good @ coming in to finish a game but his inexperience showed in starts w/ prep— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) December 29, 2015
While this adds to the evidence of just how badly the Cowboys mishandled the backup QB situation going into this season, it also shows that they may have realized that they were in an unrecoverable death spiral with Romo out the first time. Even though they brought Romo back after his first fracture was deemed to have healed enough for him to play, his performance in the first two games of the season was not as impressive as we had hoped going into the season. Once he re-injured his collarbone, the handwriting on the wall should have been clear after seeing how much the offense continued to struggle with Matt Cassel at the helm.
The clearly conservative nature of the Dallas offensive game plan without Romo has been the subject of much discussion, but given the limitations of the quarterbacks available and the ever-growing odds against the team salvaging the season there may have been solid justification for that. Although the dismal performance this year has left Jason Garrett open to legitimate criticism, one of the foundations of his coaching philosophy is taking the long view. With the season slipping out of control more and more each week, and so many pieces missing games or, in Bryant's case, so limited even when available, keeping things conservative makes sense with the chance for a high draft pick now on the table. It is doubtful that he would admit it if it was part of the plan, but Garrett may have been dialing it back for weeks because he was bowing to the inevitable.
For some of us, it actually makes the game more interesting, although not necessarily more watchable. We can look for players we are not familiar with to shine, or to demonstrate that their time with the Cowboys will be brief. The video will be very valuable to the staff going forward. And the one clear silver lining is that Dallas has already locked up a top eight pick that could be as high as second if things fall just right. In a year when the draft class is not strong at the top, that will help make draft day very compelling indeed.