Winning or losing their last game against the New York Giants means nothing for the Dallas Cowboys. They are locked into the fourth seed for the NFC in the playoffs, and just have to wait and see if their opponent in AT&T Stadium will be the Seattle Seahawks (the most likely) or the Minnesota Vikings. But the game has to be played and they have to put eleven men on the field for each snap. The only real drama, if it can be called that, is who should be kept out, and just how much (if any, in some cases) they should play the starters.
The first priority is to go into January as healthy as possible, but you can’t really sit everyone you might wish. Complicating things is that you want to keep your key players sharp. How are the Cowboys going to accomplish those two somewhat conflicting objectives?
According to owner/GM Jerry Jones, they have already decided that Zack Martin will sit out the game to give him more time to heal his sprained knee. Connor Williams will fill his place at right guard. The health of the offensive line has been a big problem for the Cowboys all season, with Travis Frederick missing the entire season and Tyron Smith also having some injuries to deal with. Offensively, the decision to hold Martin out creates what could be a domino effect that affects the rest of the offense.
That compromised line will put quarterback Dak Prescott at more risk, and will mean that running back Ezekiel Elliott will likely have less room to work. Given the obvious importance of keeping your passer healthy and the already huge workload Elliott has had, that alone argues for limiting the number of plays those two have. It is highly unlikely that either would not see some time in the game since the offense has had a lot of issues this season and more work would be beneficial. But it seems blatantly unwise to have the two linchpins of the offense on the field much at all in the second half. Letting Cooper Rush, Rod Smith, and Darius Jackson get some playing time would protect the high-value assets and give the backups some extra work in case they are needed in January.
It also would make sense to get Smith out of the game at some point to protect him. That would just make things more risky for the skill players, and frankly, if Smith is out, Prescott and Elliott should see their day over as well.
There is also one case of improving health that might afford some rest for Elliott, and that is Tavon Austin. He was a full participant in practice on Wednesday for the first time since his injury. After missing so much time, and having had so few snaps at all before he was hurt, Austin could certainly benefit from work. He is now a real X factor for the team but needs a chance to get reps in live action. He can get some of those as a change-of-pace back, putting Elliott on the sidelines for some plays. He can also fill in at wide receiver, particularly in place of Cole Beasley. Clearly he is not as important for the playoffs as starters. It may seem a bit harsh, but letting him take some hits rather than higher-value players just makes sense.
Things are not as clear defensively. The defensive line already uses a lot of rotation. Changing the snap counts so the backups take more of the load would not be as dramatic while helping reduce the risk to key players like Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Maliek Collins, and Antwaun Woods. However, Tyrone Crawford is coming back from his neck injury scare and will likely be limited for that reason, so the options are a bit limited. Conversely, Taco Charlton needs more work, and he had a pretty strong outing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so it just makes sense to put more work on him.
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have been simply superb, but also are normally on the field for every play. Sean Lee may provide some relief there, especially for Vander Esch, since he too could use some more work after missing so much time. And Damien Wilson can spell Smith.
Anthony Brown is another player who is likely to be inactive as he is still dealing with a back problem. That limits the options in the secondary.
Given that it is still a game that has to be played, and the Jason Garrett mantra of always playing to win, the Cowboys may not actually do as much to rest or protect some players as they could. Still, with absolutely nothing to be gained or lost in this game as far as the playoffs, it would probably be beneficial to see it looking a bit like a preseason game, especially in the second half. Let the depth players get some work and get the most important cogs on the sidelines as much as possible. The idea of losing their edge is not likely to really come into play, since the starters will almost certainly get some work.
But this is truly a meaningless game. The following week is what matters, and Dallas would be wise to take steps to have their best team on the field then.