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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Playing versus resting the starters against the Eagles

Trying to figure out what to do in a “meaningless” game 17 between the Cowboys and Eagles.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
Are we prepared to risk a key player?
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys play the Philadelphia Eagles in the final regular-season game of the year. The contest has been rescheduled to Saturday night. With a small chance still remaining for the Cowboys to improve their seeding, but not knowing the outcome of Sunday’s games, it gives Dallas a real incentive to play to win. That would mean putting the starters out there to give them the best chance.

But that comes with the risk of losing one or more of those key players to injury for a very low probability outcome. It is a real quandary, and our Tom Ryle and David Howman have tried to figure it out.

Tom: This is complicated. My first reaction is that the team needs to play the starters. They were a hot mess for much of the loss to the Arizona Cardinals, and it would not hurt to have them get some reps to build a little confidence for the likely rematch with the Cards in the wildcard game. That applies as well to the coaching staff, especially Kellen Moore. He seemed to have little idea how to beat the Arizona defense and it would likely be good to work on some of the kinks.

But that comes with the ever present risk of injury. And, as someone once said, there’s the rub.

David: Having to play this game on Saturday night does complicate things, since Mike McCarthy and company won’t even have the luxury of checking the scoreboard of other games to make his decision for him. McCarthy seems to have made his mind up on playing to win the game - Herm Edwards, the head coach at my alma mater, would co-sign that sentiment - but the risk of injury far outweighs the minimal reward of higher seeding.

The Cowboys just lost Michael Gallup on Sunday. Their running backs have been playing through injury until recently. Tyron Smith just got back onto the field. And now Micah Parsons is likely to miss Saturday’s game with COVID-19. Sure, the Cowboys have a chance to get a higher seed, but in looking at what all needs to happen to do so, are you actually confident in all those things falling their way?

Tom: That is what makes my head hurt. I already said I think the starters need to get some more work in live action. But the Gallup injury tells me that I may need to tap those brakes - if not stomp them.

And now there is a chance that Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni may sit his own starters.

I hate the idea of letting Philadelphia dictate what the Cowboys do in any shape, form, or fashion, but this is one case where I am prepared to make a big exception. If the Eagles put mostly backups out there to start the game, then Mike McCarthy should do the exact same. Let Cooper Rush and company fight for the win, and protect Dak Prescott and the rest of the starters. With Gallup out, it really is a bit frightening to think of risking Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. And if Sirianni treats it like a preseason game with just a series or two for his starters, then reciprocate.

David: That’s exactly right, and if the Eagles really do rest their starters then Dallas should really have no choice. I think the biggest factor for me is that there’s this idea that the Cowboys would stand to gain a near-certain playoff win by avoiding either the Cardinals or Rams in the Wild Card round, instead drawing the San Francisco 49ers, Eagles, or New Orleans Saints.

I’m not about to argue that the Cardinals and Rams aren’t marginally better teams than those other three, but I’m not sure the disparity is as stark. The 49ers and Eagles both win because of their strong, efficient running games, and run defense is the one weakness for this Dallas defense. Meanwhile, the Saints put up a good fight against the Cowboys and are healthier now than they were then. I’d argue that winning that first playoff game is going to be hard no matter who the opponent is, which is why getting the first round bye was so critical. Now that that’s off the table? I just don’t see a huge difference in value between the remaining seeds for Dallas.

Tom: Now add in the fact that playing the backups, especially if it is against the Philadelphia second-teamers, does not mean that the Cowboys can’t win that game. As a matter of fact, I admit to being curious to see a test of depth against depth. Avoiding injury in this game doesn’t change the fact that there will likely be more in the playoffs, and a game for the Dallas backups to get some good work in has its benefits.

But there are still the negatives. A two-game losing streak is not a good way to go into the playoffs. There is some thought that the team needs a boost in confidence after the Cardinals debacle. It would be nice if there was a clean, mathematical formula to decide this, but there isn’t. We are talking about intangibles and the mindset of players, plus the truly random factor of injury. I admit I started out thinking that they need to get at least some time for the starters. The more I look at it, the less confident I feel in this. So maybe you win this one. Sitting as many as they can may be the way to go.

David: I agree with you on me being right all along, Tom. In all seriousness, you make a compelling point about the mindset of these players. Maybe they need a game to regain confidence in themselves, or maybe they would do well to enter the postseason knowing everyone is down on them. The underdog mentality worked really well for the Eagles back in 2017, after all.

Only this coaching staff knows where they’re collectively at and, despite their latest game result, I still have no reason not to trust them. All we can do now is sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Or, if you’re like me, sit on the edge of my seat, get irrationally angry for three hours, and then feel either extremely happy or extremely upset based on the final score.