The Dallas Cowboys are on their bye week, which is always a good time for banged up players to get a bit healthier. For Dallas, that includes Andy Dalton, who was the starting quarterback replacing Dak Prescott. When he in turn went down, the team quickly found out that Ben DiNucci was not quite ready for prime time. That forced them to start their fourth different QB in Week 9 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, journeyman backup and former AAF star Garrett Gilbert. It had all the hallmarks of a looming disaster.
But surprisingly, it wasn’t. Gilbert may not have been great, given that he only managed to lead the team to one touchdown and they settled for field goals on both trips into the red zone. Still, he had Dallas in the game all the way - and they actually led most of regulation for the first time all season. It was the best performance at quarterback the Cowboys have seen since Prescott was lost.
Yet despite that, the top brass insist that Dalton will return to the starting job, despite a couple of rough outings in his first two starts. It is a topic for debate for many - and that includes our David Howman and Tom Ryle.
Tom: Look, I’m just a guy blogging from my late mom’s nonexistent basement, but from watching the games Dalton started and then what Gilbert did against the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, I am a lot more excited by the latter than the former. I always had the impression that Dalton was most likely just a one-year rental who would look around for a new starting gig next season, so I really don’t know why the team seems so invested in him.
David: I’m fully on board with the idea of Andy Dalton being the starter when he’s ready to go, and not just because I like being a contrarian. I was a big fan of the AAF (still heartbroken about how it ended) so it was fun to see Garrett Gilbert get his shot, and he did look good. But he also benefitted from a more cohesive offensive line than Dalton had, which I think blurs the lines in this evaluation.
Bottom line is this: the Cowboys are tanking, but the nuance of tanking means you can never admit that, and especially not to the players. Otherwise you risk losing the locker room, and Mike McCarthy just got past the early mutiny by some unnamed players. The creative game plans against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh seem to have gotten the players to buy into McCarthy’s win-at-all-costs mindset, and that’s going to be big in the long run. Going with Gilbert at quarterback when you have a nine-year veteran with 70 career wins to his name sends the message that you don’t actually care about winning this year.
While that’s true for this year’s Cowboys team, you just don’t say the quiet part out loud. Take last year’s Dolphins, for example. They were obviously tanking, but first-year head coach Brian Flores chose to play veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick over second-year pro Josh Rosen because he believed Fitzpatrick gave them a better chance to win. As a result, the Dolphins were able to finish 5-4, get all their players bought in to the culture, and still got the guy they were tanking for (who, by the way, looks pretty good through two games). The Cowboys need Andy Dalton to play for the culture.
Tom: I know it’s a different regime and all, but I’m still a fan of the hot hand. Gilbert came very close to leading the team to a win against the best team the Cowboys will face all year. I’m not so sure starting him over Dalton would in any way signal a lack of trying to win. To me, it would be wanting to see if Gilbert can step up with a full game under his belt and even improve on what was a good but certainly imperfect effort.
There is also the element, based on an admittedly small sample size, that Gilbert looks to have a game that is much more like Dak Prescott’s than Dalton. With a team that was built to play to Prescott’s skill set, it just seem to me that putting in a quarterback that emulates that more would be the way to go. Gilbert certainly showed some budding chemistry with all the receivers. He had some bad throws, but his good ones certainly worked. It may be a difference in perspective, but I think Gilbert is the more aggressive approach to trying to get some wins. To me, Dalton is more a choice to just play out the string without risking a high draft pick. Which may actually be the objective.
David: I want to clarify that I like what I saw from Gilbert, and if I’m in charge I’m keeping him over DiNucci going forward as my developmental quarterback. But in the short term, I think Dalton is the answer at starting quarterback. If I were a bigger nerd, I’d explain why the hot hand theory is actually a fallacy and that Gilbert is almost certainly due for a hard regression sooner rather than later, but math is hard.
Instead, I’ll point out that Gilbert had a favorable matchup. It wasn’t supposed to be, as the Steelers defense has been dominant all year long. However, Pittsburgh decided to change up their strategy and rarely blitzed against Gilbert, thinking that flooding the field with coverage players would easily bait Gilbert into bad throws; it was also likely a bet that their elite pass rushers could win against this offensive line without having to send extra rushers.
That wasn’t the case. Pittsburgh, who leads the NFL in sacks, only got to Gilbert twice on Sunday for a meager 5% sack rate. By comparison, Dalton has had a sack rate of 7.6% in his brief time playing for the Cowboys; that’s the second-highest in his career, and only seven quarterbacks this year have a higher sack rate. Of those seven, the only one with a winning record is Lamar Jackson, who plays for the loaded Ravens. In short, Dalton’s offensive line - which featured Connor McGovern playing in place of Zack Martin for the majority of his two starts - was bad, and facing two teams that got a whole lot of pressure. I’d like to see what Dalton can do with coherent pass protection, especially since their next game (the Vikings) features a team near the bottom in both pass rush win rate and sacks.
Tom: But, as has been objectively proven, sacks are a QB stat.
OK, so that’s more a hotly contested opinion, but I find some validity in the idea. The Steelers game showed Gilbert moving around a lot and doing so to good effect. With the still suspect offensive line, even though we hope to see Brandon Knight back soon, I still contend Gilbert is a better choice. Certainly there is a danger of regression, but that is something that would be valuable to evaluate. Gilbert could have a role for this team going forward.
That may be the biggest reason I would like to see him get another start. The Cowboys need to be looking to the future. Not only would more playing time let them do that with him, the more snaps he takes, the more he can learn and grow. This is a time they can invest in him, and still be fighting for wins. And if Gilbert falters badly, then they could roll Dalton back out.
It’s not up to either of us, of course, and all indications are that you will get your preference. In either case, I hope that we will see Gilbert on the roster next season.