Winning - it’s not everything, it’s the only thing.
First off, if you are firmly on Team Tank, you may not enjoy this. This article is to build a case why winning the last two games of the season is far better for the Dallas Cowboys than losing either. Regardless of what the Washington Football Team does, coming out of the final two contests with the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants victorious is much more valuable for the future of the team.
It goes beyond the famous quote above, which is commonly attributed to Vince Lombardi, but actually was used by more than one coach before him at the college level. While it is true, as Herm Edwards emphasized when he was with the New York Jets, that you play to win the game, the real point is about something that is unmeasurable but absolutely real. That is intangibles. In this case, the main things affected are confidence and growth.
Up until Dallas found its footing against the Cincinnati Bengals, this season had turned into one blow after another. Injuries depleted the roster. Backups struggled. The coaches seemed to have no answers. What was starting to develop was a culture of losing and futility. No matter what the players and staff were saying to the reporters or putting out on social media, all those failures had to be taking a toll. When you start to doubt your coaches, your teammates, and most crucially yourself, your performance degrades. Some players try too hard. Others give up, on individual plays or just overall. Mental mistakes are more frequent. None of that really can be measured and evaluated by analytics, but if you have ever been part of a team or any organization that is failing, you know how real it is.
There’s only one fix for all that. It is to get some success. Two wins against teams undergoing their own seasons of futility may not seem like much, but beating lesser opponents is what winners do. After twelve games when the few victories were difficult struggles, the Cowboys put up relatively easy wins. Yes, those were largely due to the other teams coughing up the ball early, but give the defense some credit for closing the deal. And the offense gets its due for turning those opportunities into points. Even the special teams stood up, with big returns including the CeeDee Lamb touchdown. That was an instinctive play by him when just going down with the ball was actually the best strategic move. But putting the team above the 40 point line is hardly a bad thing. It didn’t hurt them at all, and as Lamb gets more experience, his situational awareness should improve.
More wins will just build on the benefits. Just as importantly, seeing players like Neville Gallimore, Donovan Wilson, Brandon Knight, and Terence Steele show marked growth as they are tested on the field is important for the future. The first two are likely to be starters or at least key role players next season, while the backup tackles offer some real options at swing tackle, assuming Tyron Smith and La’el Collins are healthy at the start. They are not the only ones finding ways to contribute, either. Dalton Schultz has been perhaps the best replacement player the team has had, Connor McGovern is getting better, Hunter Niswander may be about to supplant Chris Jones at punter, and Dorance Armstrong may have found a rare role as a defensive end depth player who also plays many productive snaps on special teams.
Many have made the argument that the team needs to get more of the younger, inexperienced players on the field by sitting some of the better options. Dallas really doesn’t need to do that. They have had to put so many of those down roster players out there just to field a team that they have had plenty of evaluation. Some would like to see Garrett Gilbert have another starting opportunity after his rather impressive outing in his one start, but Andy Dalton still probably gives them the best chance to win. And it helps the team to have him burnish his season, because he could get them a good compensatory pick down the road. As Bryan Broaddus noted, Gilbert is working with the second team in practices. That is another way to evaluate him as a potential backup for Dak Prescott.
This is good for the coaches as well. It is certainly helpful to see some things actually work. They have too many examples of what doesn’t so far, so the wins have to feel good for them, no matter if they are going to be back. It still seems likely that Mike Nolan and much of his staff will be replaced, and now we have to worry about Kellen Moore getting lured away by Boise State. But even for new coaches coming in, having some video of wins can be crucial in figuring out how to handle their new position. Losses are illustrative as well, but you really need to have some data on both the good and the bad.
To me, the most important thing about wins is that they are very helpful in building the new culture under Mike McCarthy. Not only do they give him something to point to in selling his approach, they also show that he managed to keep the team focused through all the travails. Losses in the final two games don’t destroy that, but they certainly wouldn’t help.
It is not going to be easy. The Eagles finally have admitted that Jalen Hurts is their starting quarterback, with Carson Wentz now the most highly paid backup in the history of the league. That makes them a more dangerous team. The Giants may have Daniel Jones back for the season finale. They showed some real improvement before he was hurt.
These are still winnable games, however. Ironically, Dallas wins will just help the draft position of their division opponents as well as hurting their own. High draft picks are no guarantee of draft success, however. We are just getting into the evaluation of the draft class, which is also made more difficult by the COVID pandemic. This could be a much more uncertain pool of talent than normal.
It is just one more reason to focus on winning the games. That benefit is more certain. Ending things on a couple of high notes would carry over into a very crucial offseason.