There’s no point in sugarcoating things. The debut of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Ben DiNucci as a starter against the Philadelphia Eagles was not good. Even Jerry Jones abandoned his normal circuitous and optimistic language in describing things.
#Cowboys' Jerry Jones (@1053thefan): QB Ben DiNucci's first start "was a lot for him" and the team "paid the price" to have him come in under those circumstances. Frankly, it was more than he could handle. I don't know what else you could have expected.— Mark Lane (@therealmarklane) November 3, 2020
Now Andy Dalton has been placed on the COVID list, and the Cowboys are facing a real dilemma as to who will the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers this week. The latest word is that they are leaning to starting Garrett Gilbert over both DiNucci and Cooper Rush, who was just signed to the practice squad.
With the loss to the Eagles, even the faint hope of “earning” a playoff spot by being the least incompetent team in the NFC East is pretty much down the drain. The Cowboys could win a couple more games this season, but there is a real chance they will lose them all, even with Dalton back at the helm after he finally gets through all his health issues. The offensive line remains a mess, especially at right tackle. Partly, but not entirely because of that, the running game continues to sputter. The defense made some strides on Sunday but hardly seems capable of carrying the team to a win or two.
There are some logical reasons to keep Dalton on the sidelines even if he comes back. In essence, the rest of the season may become a long evaluation of who can earn the backup QB job for the future, with DiNucci, Gilbert, and Rush all in the mix.
DiNucci’s very inadequate performance was, as Jones noted, entirely predictable. He has spent training camp and the weeks prior to Dak Prescott being lost to injury preparing to not even suit up for games. The plan was evidently for him to just observe and learn until perhaps late in the year when he might get a few series if the season was decided for Dallas and letting him go out affected nothing. That means he was getting far fewer reps than Prescott and Dalton. A week as the new QB2 followed by one when he was going to have to start hardly is enough to have him ready to perform well, no matter how he was slinging it around in practice.
Presumably he was drafted in the seventh round as a potential long-term backup to Prescott. No one seriously saw him as the likely future franchise QB. Clearly, he is too inexperienced or raw to be ready for the demands of even the backup role.
Now the team is looking at Gilbert to start this week, who hardly has what could be called extensive experience. He has all of six passing attempts and two completions from his time with the Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns. This is getting to be real bottom of the barrel time for Dallas.
The fact is that right now, due to not only the lack of playing time but the very limited practice snaps all have gotten, the Cowboys don’t have a truly viable backup active, much less a legitimate starter.
That does not mean they can’t be decent backups with more practice and game time. And, if they can just protect and keep healthy whoever they have to throw out, this is a fantastic opportunity to get someone, or even more than one of them, a chance to gain that. The team may have an immediate chance to see if one of them have something to offer. They may even try more than one of them this week. With the Steelers rolling into AT&T Stadium as the last undefeated team in the league, there is no reason to think that the Cowboys could beat them even with Dalton back on the field. Now we’ll get to see how the young players respond to the challenge. Accept that the game is going to be another loss and focus on seeing what their replacement players can do against the Pittsburgh defense. It could pay big dividends down the road if one of these guys is indeed the heir as the QB2. After all, there is not much chance this team is going anywhere.
If the team is going to bring Dalton back as the starter it will be, at the earliest, against the pretty bad Minnesota Vikings instead of the surging Steelers, and that would seem like a favor, not a disservice. Dalton is possibly playing for another chance somewhere outside of Dallas, and having him skip what has every indication of being a blowout would at least let him have the opportunity of showing what he can do under less duress.
And there is an argument to be made for putting DiNucci back out as the starter down the road, or at least once things become mathematically impossible for the Cowboys. Let’s say the team still doesn’t win any of the next three or four games, even if Dalton is back in as the starter soon. There would be little to prove by keeping Dalton on the field, and he really doesn’t need any more starts to hone his game. On the other hand, one of the others could either learn a ton in live action, or perhaps prove to the team that maybe he is not the answer at backup. Both outcomes have value to Dallas in making their plans for the future.
Then there is the concept of organic tanking. For those who aren’t familiar with the idea, it is going out and playing hard, but focusing on young, developing players rather than putting veterans out there who have little realistic chance of getting into the win column. Any victories would only serve to move the Cowboys back in the draft order. Right now, they hold the fifth overall pick. That is some valuable draft capital, and they have a real chance of seeing that improve, even with a full effort on the field. Starting an inexperienced young QB with the stated objective of seeing what he can do would have less chance of messing up that pick. There seems almost no chance of the Cowboys doing anything even if they should somehow stumble into the playoffs. Good draft position, as distasteful as losing is, would be far more valuable.
Dalton may not be happy with that, but his salary is fully guaranteed this year. The only negative thing that not starting him might do is disrupt any idea the Cowboys might have had about trying to bring him back next year to be Prescott’s backup again. Some honest discussions with him might mitigate that. It can also possibly be sold to him as a way to protect his much older body with that shaky line. And there might be some picking and choosing even if the team is trying to win more games. One of the other options could literally be put out there as a sacrificial goat in the more difficult games, like the one against the Baltimore Ravens. Even the second matchup against the Washington Football Team and their strong pass rush might be one to protect Dalton.
This all may not be palatable to Mike McCarthy and Jerry Jones. Frankly, the team is probably going to play Dalton when he is deemed healthy enough. But there are plenty of reasons to take another look at the idea. This is one of those sad situations when putting the best players on the field is not the best way to approach the last half of a lost season.