They may not be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention just yet, but for all intents and purposes, the Cowboys are out of the playoff race. And arguably, they’ve been out of the playoff race for quite some time. That’s just the way the cookie crumbled this year.
However, the season isn’t over yet, and the Cowboys still have five games to play. With the playoffs out of the picture, what’s left for the Cowboys to play for?
The discerning fan will immediately point to a high draft pick as something to “play” for, but that is not something the players or most of the coaches are in any way concerned with.
Exactly 10 years ago, the Cowboys were pondering that very same question, as they were also heading into the last five games of the 2010 season with a 3-8 record.
On a whim, I dove into the BTB archives to look at what the players on that team were saying at this very time, and I was lucky to find some quotes from players on that 3-8 team that I thought illustrate quite well what players could be playing for in such a situation.
The quotes were originally taken from videos at Dallascowboys.com at the time, and while those videos have long since disappeared, the quotes live on in our BTB archives.
Jay Ratliff sounded a little like DeMarcus Lawrence does today. Asked where he finds the motivation to play the game, Ratliff said:
“Look, I love the game. And I feel it’s my job as a professional to finish strong. […] Everybody here feels the same. We’re all passionate about what we do. And that’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to go out and finish strong and we’re going to win every single game we have left.”
The Cowboys ended up going 3-2 down the stretch, and Ratliff played with enough passion to make the Pro Bowl that year.
Roy Williams, who would be told not to bother reporting to training camp in San Antonio seven months later, already saw the writing on the wall and wanted to make sure his tape looked good:
“Just don’t want to let my guys down. Don’t want to let my teammates down, don’t want to let the fans down. You are what you put on tape. I want my tape to be the best guy in the NFL. That’s what I strive for every week”
Think of Williams what you will, but he addresses a key issue here: Almost every Cowboys player is auditioning for a job next season, either in Dallas or elsewhere. The Cowboys coaching staff is more than likely to take a long, hard look at the tape of the last few games to see who they want to keep going forward, and who they don’t.
The coaches are another group that has got to be concerned with job security, and many of them are likely coaching for their job. As such, they are likely to make their coaching decisions based on maximizing the team’s chances of winning as opposed to, for example, developing younger talent but piling up more losses in the process.
Neither the players nor the coaches are likely to sandbag the remaining games in the vague hope of securing a high draft pick for an organization they may not be employed by in 2021.
And then there are those players that might be playing for pride only, like Jon Kitna said at the time:
“You’re a professional,” quarterback Jon Kitna said. “You get paid to play 16 games in this league, and your job is to play them to the best of your abilities. That’s my job, that’s everybody’s job. So to sit around and lick your wounds or throw a pity party ... You have a job to do, and we’ll do our job well.”
Different strokes for different folks: Pride, job security, professionalism, teammates, fans - whatever the Cowboys are playing for over the next five games, a high draft pick is not a consideration.
As fans, most of us will continue rooting for the Cowboys, and take some measure of comfort in the fact that this year’s disappointment will at least be rewarded with a lot of draft capital and the hope for a better season in 2021.
But that still leaves us with five games to go. As a fan, what’s left for you to watch for?