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Cowboys hot topic: The subtlety of tanking

Of course they would never admit it. They may not actually take steps to do so. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening anyway.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams
This is where the real decisions are made.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Tanking is a dirty word in the NFL. This is not just for the Dallas Cowboys. The idea is simply not as acceptable as it is for other professional sports, where many franchises clearly throw in the towel with weeks, or even months, to go in the season. Some even seem to enter the year with the idea of just accumulating lottery picks or whatever. Pro football is different, though, in that it only has sixteen games a year from each team to generate revenue, and at least before COVID came along and messed it all up, the other sports had so many more games to fill arenas and stadiums, or at least put enough fans in the seats to make that a much bigger part of the economic equation. Keeping things competitive is vital to ratings, which is what keeps the NFL rolling in the dough. So tanking is simply not something that is done.

Openly, at least. For many teams, there comes a point each year when the math no longer aligns, and you have to accept the inevitable results. Even without openly giving up, there are decisions that can be made to help the team once the only real prize to get is good draft position.

The Cowboys are clearly there, even with seven games to play and a mathematically possible path to the playoffs. The problem is that making the playoffs would mean an almost certain quick exit as they would face a better team in the first game. That would mean that, instead of having what is looking more and more like a top five pick, they would be at nineteen. More importantly, with the way players keep getting hurt and the struggles of some of the replacements, plus a couple of underperforming yet highly paid veterans, it is the longest of long shots for them to make the postseason. Only the fact that the rest of the NFC East is so bad even keeps the idea alive.

One decision the team is facing that can be influenced by this is the latest injury to a starter. Trevon Diggs has a broken bone in his foot and it is reported that it will keep him out from four to six weeks. Now, if Dallas was still a serious playoff contender with hope of going somewhere in January, they would be hoping to get him back for what could be a crucial final stretch of games in the regular season, as well as having him for those playoffs. But talk has already turned to shutting him down for the season, even with the ability to bring an unlimited number of players back from IR this year.

That smacks of a move influenced by valuing high draft picks over a likely futile run. It could change if the rest of the division keeps floundering and the Cowboys manage to win more games than seems likely at the moment. It will be very interesting to see what is said about him in the next week or two. If the talk continues to point to him being gone for the year, then it will be a good indication that the decision has been made to mix in other priorities besides winning.

You’ll never hear that stated, of course. Jerry Jones is where that kind of choice would have to originate, and he is loathe to speak of ever giving up until the fat lady is almost to the final high note. There is also the morale of the players still able to take the field to consider. They are not ever going to go out with the intention of losing a game. Any wins they can salvage would certainly be good for their mentality, especially with the full knowledge of just how many of their starters and even key backups have been lost this season.

One player who almost certainly will not get shut down, despite the possible value of protecting him the rest of the season, is Tyler Biadasz. Even though Dak Prescott is already lost, the team needs to keep from having any more quarterbacks go down, and the offensive line is of course vital. Biadasz is the best center they have, which is in no way an insult to Joe Looney. They just have so many other injuries on the line, they need as many healthy bodies as they can get to finish out the year. So the rookie will be back no matter how things are going. They really have no choice.

Otherwise, they really need to think about who might benefit from sitting out. A prime candidate for consideration could be Ezekiel Elliott. He has been struggling a bit, and Tony Pollard has been visibly better at getting to the hole and into the second level. Now Elliott is nursing a hamstring, and sitting him should at least be considered. He would not have to go on IR, but having him inactive for a couple of games might be prudent to let him fully heal. They may want to see more of Rico Dowdle after his long kickoff return last Sunday. With Sewo Olonilua also available, they can spare Elliott for a while.

That also can be part of a larger plan to evaluate younger players. That is why so many are puzzled by the announced plan to start Andy Dalton over Garrett Gilbert. The team might just have stumbled into something with Gilbert, who apparently really benefited from his time in the AAF before its unfortunate demise. There is a larger question of why the NFL refuses to invest in a developmental league, but in Dallas’ case, this seems like such a wasted opportunity to find out if they have a shot at a long-term answer at backup QB for cheap. This is a case where the evidence indicates that the team is really not ready to write things off.

But tanking is a very subtle process in the NFL. And to be honest, it is hard to say that putting Dalton back out there really improves the chances of winning.

In any case, it may be largely out of the hands of the staff. The obstacles have been so great this year that it may just happen anyway.