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The NFL rule change that could save the Cowboys’ season

This change in the rules is turning out to be big for Dallas.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He was just injured a week ago, and already it seems like ancient history.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is often very slow to make changes to their rules, even when there are compelling arguments to do so. The competition committee, which makes the decisions on such things, has often been guilty of, shall we say, outdated thinking. With members like the New York Giants’ owner John Mara and Dallas Cowboys EVP Stephen Jones, innovative and creative ideas are not exactly going to have an easy time.

However, last year the committee was forced to think way outside the box in trying to deal with the COVID restrictions and impacts. They came up with multiple things that have been retained this year, often with good implications for all the teams. The 16-man practice squad is one that frankly should not go away since more available talent to manipulate through the year is always a good thing. For the Cowboys, there is one that is definitely even more important. The league continued the 2020 rule that unlimited players can return from the injured reserve list, and they can do so after only three weeks.

Prior to the changes last year, only two players put on IR could return over the course of a season, and then only after eight weeks. That was put into effect in 2017. Before that, only one player per season could be returned to the field from IR, and that player had to be designated in advance.

Had those rules not been changed, Dallas would be facing an even tougher challenge than it is at the moment. While COVID protocols and suspensions are also a factor, the Cowboys have already been hit with a flurry of players put on injured reserve. That includes three starters in WR Michael Gallup, DE DeMarcus Lawrence, and DT Neville Gallimore, plus some that were being looked on to have significant depth roles at the least in CB Kelvin Joseph, RB Rico Dowdle, and possibly WR Malik Turner.

Under the 2019 rules, that would mean the Cowboys staff would be faced with agonizing decisions. Who would you bring back from the list above? Lawrence is the obvious choice, but he is looking at six to eight weeks before he is healed enough from the broken bone in his foot. Gallup may be available earlier and is the third leg of one of the best WR trios in the league. But Gallimore was a planned starter at DT, and the team probably needs more help there than at receiver. Already we have seen struggles in the secondary, and while Joseph is an untested quantity, it would certainly be nice to have him as a possible help.

Before the COVID adjustments, two of them would be lost for the year, or the team would have to carry injured players on the active roster. That would hamstring them in taking up spots that are needed to make adjustments in the short term. Now all the missing players listed will be back for possibly a majority of the games without having to tie up those needed slots in the meantime. Gallimore and Joseph could be back as soon as the week 4 matchup with the Carolina Panthers. Gallup will probably be back before the bye in week 7, with Lawrence coming shortly after that.

This is one reason why my partner on the Ryled Up podcast, Roy White, thought that this was the best time to have to get through some IR issues for the team. (You can find the link to listen to his point in this article.) After the Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas faces a string of teams that don’t look all that formidable, at least based on the first week’s results combined with what we think about them. The Chargers certainly are not going to be pushovers, but as long as the Cowboys have Dak Prescott, they have a shot against anybody in the NFL. (If this seems disrespectful of week one winner the Philadelphia Eagles, well, of course it is. It is the way.)

When we look at the growing and seemingly endless list of banged up players, all we can do is hope desperately that it is going to stop or at least slow significantly. No one has any real control over that, obviously. But it is not unreasonable to anticipate some regression to the mean given the random and chance driven nature of injuries. If Dallas can survive this early spate of lost games, they could be in very good shape for the more difficult appearing back half of the schedule.

It is only really possible because the often stodgy competition committee actually thought something through to a logical conclusion. Hopefully the new IR rules will become permanent rather than reverting back to how it was. If Stephen Jones is not pounding the table for keeping this next year, something is really wrong with him. But in any case, the way things are now might wind up saving this season for the Cowboys.