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Sitting is winning: How the Cowboys should approach the Cardinals preseason game

Preseason injuries continue - so why risk anyone you don’t have to?

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NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys
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Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for the Dallas Cowboys to sit ‘em. Sit ‘em all.

Well, obviously they still have to field a team to play the third preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals. But that should consist of backups, third/fourth stringers trying to stand out for a chance at a roster or practice squad somewhere in the league, and a select handful of other players who actually can truly benefit from some more live action.

Earlier, our R.J. Ochoa collected varying viewpoints about how the Cowboys should approach the risks of further preseason play, and I came down firmly in the “protect as many as you can” camp. Coincidentally, after those opinions were compiled, Bob Sturm of The Athletic posted what amounts to a full attack on playing any preseason games whatsoever. It’s behind a paywall, but here are the first two paragraphs, which capture the tone.

They have had it. Look around the league. Name a coach. Any coach. Yes, that coach you just named has had it with preseason games. And it isn’t because he doesn’t like the smell of tailgating in the parking lots of his home stadium. It is because he is fed up with risking his players for something that won’t affect anything – the outcome of this next preseason game.

You see, Jerry Jones and I have our differences. In fact, I can’t think of too many things we agree on when it comes to some of his recent stances. But we are in complete and total lockstep on this: the Cowboys should be protecting their finest and most proven players by not playing them in preseason games. There is no value whatsoever in allowing the massive risks we are seeing in this league that has decided to run with a hard and unforgiving salary cap.

Sturm goes on to make his case, revolving mostly around how the game, especially the financial end of things, has changed, while the attitude of the owners has not (surprise, surprise, surprise, to quote that 1960s American philosopher, Gomer Pyle). And he also notes that college football somehow manages to start their season with zero preseason games, and still put an entertaining and profitable product on the screen (well, except for those Alabama vs. The North West Minneapolis School of Gastronomy affairs that litter the early schedule).

But the NFL thinks it has to have preseason games. And the upcoming game for the Cowboys is that all important “dress rehearsal”. Everyone knows that teams can’t just sit all their starters at that point. They probably couldn’t get away with it, anyhow.

Well, the Green Bay Packers might have something to say about that. Here is how they approached their “dress rehearsal”.

Oh, and as I write this, the score of the Packers’ game against the Oakland Raiders was tied 6-6 in the fourth quarter before the Raiders scored a late touchdown to win - so not playing anyone of note didn’t exactly handcuff Green Bay, in what is a meaningless game in any event.

Obviously, the Cowboys have to show up and play Sunday night. But as the above list illustrates, they can hold out whoever they want to.

The Cowboys already have a number of players who aren’t going to be on the field due to injury or illness. That includes Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Tavon Austin, Maliek Collins, and Xavier Woods. Those first two names are the really important ones, of course, because that means that the “first team” offensive line is going to be a patchwork affair. We already know that Ezekiel Elliott was likely to be held out of the entire preseason, and if the coaches really put Dak Prescott on the field behind the line they have left, they are, to put it mildly, bat guano crazy.

And if you are going to protect Elliott and Prescott, there is little point in putting Tyron Smith on the field. He has had injury issues the past few seasons, and was reported to have a sore hamstring. Oh, and La’el Collins was nursing a sore ankle and was ill, so he likely is not going to be put out there, either.

So you already have gutted the starting offense, so why not extend it? Sit Allen Hurns and Cole Beasley (who both have also been dealing with some minor physical complaints) plus Terrance Williams, and while you are at it, maybe it would be a good idea to protect Michael Gallup as well, since he has been a star in camp and is an absolute lock to make the roster.

Don’t expect to see Sean Lee on defense, and it would probably be wise to hold out DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jeff Heath.

If that sounds like the making of a desultory game and another preseason loss for Dallas, well. so what? Why risk any of those players in a game where injuries can and almost certainly happen? It is far better to have them ready for the season opener against the Carolina Panthers.

So who does play? Well, there are a lot of things still to be sorted out, and some players who need every chance to make an impression. That may not be very pretty to watch, but still of interest to us hardcore types.

Connor Williams would probably be one starter to put on the field, given that he still is learning his position. Of course, the team could not be faulted if they held him out, too, just to get as many of the offensive line to the start of the season as they can. Joe Looney is an interesting case, since Frederick is expected to miss at least some games, making Looney your starter until (and if) Frederick is ready to go. That would leave a real problem at center for this game. But again, you have to weigh risk and reward. You can also have the same discussion about Cameron Fleming, who is the best swing tackle they have.

That leaves, quite frankly, a bunch of scrubs to man the line. Given the rash of problems, it is really unavoidable. But it is also a chance to find out if there are any players like Kadeem Edwards who can be reliable depth before they decide if they need to bring in some from outside the current roster - or how many.

Mike White should be out there a lot. Cooper Rush has a clear lead as the QB2, and should probably only play in the first quarter (assuming nothing happens to White, knock on lots and lots of wood). Rod Smith should also come out early, while Bo Scarbrough (assuming he is deemed ready after his injury last game) and Darius Jackson battle over the RB3 job. Maybe Jamize Olawale should sit out. He is the only fullback, and Scott Linehan can just not call any plays that require one.

Tight end is one place where everyone needs some work, but the majority of the snaps should go to Dalton Shultz and Rico Gathers. They are contending for the TE3 job, although Gathers is likely trying to convince the staff it is worth keeping him as the TE4 and red zone specialist.

There are enough wide receivers to work with. And while many believe that Lance Lenoir is the sixth wide receiver, that does not mean that the team is actually going to go deep at that position. They may prefer to just carry five on the gameday roster, and they have to determine if they need to have that sixth wideout to just be inactive each week, or instead try to get one or two to the practice squad where they can be activated the week after a need arises. (OK, I hate to even use the word, but I really mean insurance against an injury.)

On defense, there are still plenty of questions to be answered on the defensive line, so all the ends and tackles not mentioned already should play. Linebacker has one interesting thing to consider: Is it worth it to keep working Jaylon Smith, who has looked very good so far? I think the coaching staff will, but if it were up to me, I’d sit him as well. Oh, and Leighton Vander Esch is also a possible injury scratch (the list goes on and on). The secondary is much like the D line, with lots to still sort out, including whether Anthony Brown or Jourdan Lewis is going to be your nickle corner. And there are a ton of UDFAs and second year DBs who need to be evaluated to figure out how much depth they have already, or if they need to look to free agents or the waiver wire to shore things up.

If you think this looks a lot more like a fourth preseason game roster than a “dress rehearsal”, you deserve a gold star. The rash of injuries along the offensive line is the catalyst, the first in a series of dominoes that makes sitting your starters and even some of your key backups the only logical course.

However, I’m just a basement blogger. The coaching staff may take a different view. Heck, several of the staff here at BTB disagree to one degree or another. But I think that list of names for the Packers is the start of a real trend. The owners are, as Sturm points out in his excellent analysis, not willing to give up two home games and the local TV deals they have in place for preseason. Which is to say they put the dollars they collect during preseason ahead of the cost to their team in talent lost to pointless injuries. It leaves the coaches to figure what they can do to protect their starters - and sitting them is all they really can do.

We’ll see how close I am to predicting who sits and who plays. I just think it is simple. If any starter plays and gets hurt, then it was a mistake to put them at risk.

Do you agree? Let us know.

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