A lot has happened since the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during Week 15's edition of Sunday Night Football:
- The Philadelphia Eagles beat the New York Giants on Thursday Night Football, giving the Cowboys the NFC East, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as the NFC's top seed.
- The Washington Redskins beat the Chicago Bears, putting them at 8-6-1 on the season and depending on the Cowboys on Monday Night Football (I'll explain in a bit).
- The Green Bay Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings, putting them at 9-6 on the season and a win-and-clinch scenario away from the NFC North title.
What's At Stake This Week?
That final little bit about the Green Bay Packers is very pertinent to the Cowboys match-up against the Lions. Detroit enters this game at 9-5... with a win they will clinch a playoff berth (worst case scenario as the NFC's second Wildcard), but with a loss their hopes remain alive to win the NFC North.
Week 17's Lions/Packers game has already been flexed to Sunday Night Football as - regardless of what happens between Dallas and Detroit - the winner of the game will win the NFC North. The only way that can change any degree is with a Lions-over-Cowboys win, which would give Detroit some room for error against Green Bay.
The stakes could be even higher in that Lions/Packers game if the Cowboys beat Detroit. Should Dallas topple the Lions, then the Washington Redskins will have an opportunity to clinch that second Wildcard spot themselves next week with a win over the New York Giants. That would mean only the winner from Lions/Packers would head to the playoffs.
Derek Carr And Marcus Mariota: A Lesson Learned
Typically on Christmas Eve a fine gentleman named Santa Claus travels across the world to bring presents and joy to everyone... such was not the case in Oakland or Tennessee.
On the day before Christmas we saw both Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota incur broken fibulas, ending their 2016 seasons. Tennessee was still fighting for a playoff spot, and obviously that hurts a lot, but Oakland was already playoff-bound... simply fighting for their division and other advantages.
The NFL is a cruel, cruel thing. Your season can be taken away from you on one random play, we in Cowboys Nation know that all too well (see: 2015). I've cautioned before here at Inside The Star that if/when the Cowboys find themselves in a meaningless game... Tony Romo should not play.
This same notion is applicable to Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, if you can name a player that's important to the Cowboys - he's involved. While both Carr and Mariota were playing with something at stake, do you really not want to learn the lesson from that? It's a miracle - a gift - that the Cowboys are where they are, with what they have, and are actually getting healthy (Claiborne, Wilcox, etc.).
Rest Vs Rust
The primary reason why you wouldn't want to put the important players on ice until football games have consequences again (Saturday, January 14th at the earliest for the Cowboys) is because "we don't want them to be rusty in the playoffs."
Do we want anyone to be rusty in the playoffs? Of course not. That goes without saying.
What we want is all of our players... in the playoffs. The Cowboys are at a point where they can have what they want, but yes it comes at the risk of accumulating rust. The counterpoint to that is the risk that's involved with playing them in two meaningless games... losing them altogether like Oakland and Tennessee lost their quarterbacks.
The Detroit Lions Game Is Essentially Meaningless
The Cowboys will play (depending on when you've read this) in Week 16's finale on Monday Night Football. It was a big loss for ESPN that the Cowboys clinched everything back during TNF and that the Green Bay Packers won on Saturday. Why?
The Cowboys side of things is obvious, they have literally nothing to gain. They have it all. On the other side of things, the Lions really can't do much in this game. Yes, they can clinch a playoff spot and I acknowledge the importance of that... but Detroit is basically starting the playoffs now with an extra life that they can burn on their first game.
Even if the Lions win, they are playing for the rights to the NFC North and keeping Green Bay out of the playoffs in Week 17. It is essentially the most meaningless meaningful game ever.
An Allowance For The Alternative
I've been staunch in the notion that Tony Romo, nor any of the important players on the Cowboys, should see any playing time when things are meaningless. The word "meaningless" literally means that there's no meaning... so play people who have no meaning to you.
While I don't agree with it, I understand the argument that players, Romo included obviously, could incur rust with so much time off. As a result, here's my proposal for how the Dallas Cowboys should handle Weeks 16 and 17 at the quarterback position:
- Dak Prescott plays the first three quarters against Detroit.
- Tony Romo plays the final quarter against Detroit.
- Mark Sanchez plays the entirety of the game in Philadelphia.
I called this an allowance because I'm allotting for time for Tony Romo. It's not something that I want happening, but if there is a quarter to play him in... it's this one. The fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions - with the game likely decided - is the safest quarter of the season for Romo. We're talking about potentially two quarters against what will then be a winded defense who is playing in a pseudo-meaningless game.
Why Is Tony Romo Such A Focus In This Conversation?
Tony Romo is the backup quarterback on the Dallas Cowboys. We all know that.
The reason that Romo and his health are of extremely high priority for us is because of what we've learned from this season across the NFL - a backup quarterback is an insane luxury.
Current AFC Playoff QBs: Tom Brady Matt McGloin Ben Roethlisberger Tom Savage Alex Smith Matt Moore No I didn't make any of those names up
Let me reiterate - Dak Prescott is the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Tony Romo is the backup. We all acknowledge this.
We also need to acknowledge the lottery ticket that Tony Romo is if something happens to Dak like we saw with Carr and Mariota. Tony Romo's health - he's been hurt three of the last six times he's put on an NFL uniform and saw action - is of the utmost priority to this team. He isn't simply a backup quarterback, he's QB1B. His role should not be diminished by the name assigned to him on the depth chart.
This also has an opposing argument laced with, "well if you think Romo is that injury prone then let's just roll with Sanchez." You tell me who you want in a playoff game at quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. A rusty Romo that could potentially get hurt or Mark Sanchez? The answer is obvious.
Maximizing Odds With Rest
The notion is that if the Cowboys sit out players in Philadelphia that they'll go "three weeks without playing." There are 19 days between the Lions game and Saturday, January 14th (the day that the Divisional Round begins). They are "missing" what would otherwise be two football games in that span. That's eight quarters of supposedly accumulated rust.
Jason Garrett is this season's Coach of the Year. It's not debatable, accept it or don't - it's true. If anyone is well-equipped to handle that stretch of missed time with his players, it's Coach Garrett and his staff.
In a perfect world the Dallas Cowboys would play every available quarter of football, keep "momentum", and suffer no injuries. Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota just proved that this is not a perfect world.
This is a world - a game - of maximizing odds. We're playing a game of chess, looking far down the road. You do what you can to put yourself in the best positions for success, and this is it. Huzzah.
How Will Safeties Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier Fit Kris Richard’s Secondary?
Unfortunately, David Irving's most recent four game suspension is the main story for a Dallas Cowboys team finished with OTAs and mini camp, left only to wait for training camp now. I've chosen to focus on the players that were on the field for the offseason program, that will continue to contend for starting jobs in Oxnard. Standing out from a lackluster group of safeties, for a Kris Richard led secondary that is off to a fast start, are safeties Xavier Woods and Kavon Frazier.
Joined by Jeff Heath, Tyree Robinson, Jameill Showers, and Marqueston Huff, the Cowboys are lacking a dominant force at safety to pair with their young and talented group of cornerbacks. With the likes of Chidobe Awuzie, Byron Jones (the former safety), and Anthony Brown already improving under Richard, the Cowboys hope is that the same will apply to this group of safeties.
It's still entirely too early to know how the Cowboys want to deploy their safeties this season, but the only players that have shown their strengths and weaknesses over any period of time are Heath, Frazier, and Woods. This is sure to cause an uphill battle for the fringe players looking to push this trio of versatile safeties.
Jeff Heath has appeared in 77 games over five seasons with the Cowboys. Frazier and Woods combined? Just 24 games, with 16 of them making up Woods' rookie season a year ago. This makes finding a potential role for both players vital to the Cowboys.
Safety Kavon Frazier
Working mostly as a special teams player through two seasons in Dallas, Kavon Frazier has patiently awaited his opportunity to spark the Cowboys defense as a sixth round pick of 2016. Doing so in a memorable week 13 win over the Washington Redskins, Frazier earned an increased role as an enforcer on defense.
This is a player whose straight line burst and power is ideal for a ST starter, and when Frazier connects coming downhill on defense, the results can be catastrophic for an opposing offense. Surely these are traits that will remind Kris Richard even slightly of his Super Bowl winning "Legion of Boom" defenses.
The distinction between Frazier being a part-time player or one maximizing his potential to start deep in the Cowboys secondary is an important one. Limited in coverage, Frazier may be at his best when conceding snaps to another safety on the Cowboys roster with more of an all-around game -- which the Cowboys can only hope Xavier Woods continues to be.
Safety Xavier Woods
Xavier Woods may not have the pure stopping power that Kavon Frazier possesses, but as a fellow sixth-round pick there is more than enough to like about what Woods brought to the Cowboys in 2017 out of Louisiana State. With 14 interceptions and six forced fumbles out of college, Woods slid in the draft enough for the Cowboys to trade up for his services.
The team wasn't cheated out of their investment in Woods last season, giving him the "Byron Jones treatment" as Woods lined up all over the field. It was Richard that came to Dallas and almost immediately moved Byron Jones down to cornerback, seeing a better use of his natural size and skills there.
Doing the same for Woods -- while keeping the natural FS free to react -- should be next up on Richard's offseason to-do list. This is a player with sideline to sideline range, enough athleticism to cover down in the slot, and the functional strength to compete in the box.
Amidst this uncertainty for both Frazier and Woods, early reports out of the Cowboys practices thus far have Jeff Heath specifically matching up against the tight end. This is an ideal role for Heath, and one that could compliment Woods very well.
Regardless of where Heath is on the field, Woods should be able to coexist with him as a similarly instinctive safety.
There is also the possibility that both Heath and Woods struggle to handle these "starting" responsibilities, leaving the Cowboys with very little trusted depth at safety. If there is an area Woods needs the most improvement in, it is the angles he takes against the run to consistently make stops, a weakness also potentially mitigated by the Cowboys improved linebacker play (investing the 19th overall pick at the position).
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
Between Frazier and Woods, it feels safe to say the Cowboys must find a starter for a secondary that could still achieve great things in 2018. The Cowboys are entering this season with a loaded group of cornerbacks, all capable of making a safety's job relatively easy, especially while learning under Richard.
Such can be the hope for a raw player like Frazier and, in a sense, Xavier Woods. The second-year player in Woods is a great unknown for the Cowboys right now, as he'll remain that way for some time before next month's training camp.
With this, we'll have much more time to sit around and continue pondering what certain position groups will look like once meaningful Cowboys football graciously returns. I've written before that I'm paying close attention to this team's group of wide receivers, and you can add in the secondary players they'll be competing against too.
No, Cowboys Shouldn’t Cut David Irving
For the past five years, Dallas Cowboys fans have gone through painful offseason stories regarding upcoming suspensions for defensive players. It doesn't matter how much talent the front office is able to find through the Draft, there's always one player that ruins what feels like a successful offseason. This time, for the second consecutive year, David Irving is the player to let Cowboys Nation down.
On Friday it was announced that Irving will serve a four-game suspension after violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Understandably, a lot of Cowboys' fans want to see Irving released by the franchise that has preached the "Right Kind of Guy" philosophy while failing to establish such a thing. It's disappointing to see such a talented player limiting himself by not "wanting it" bad enough and by making mistakes like this repeatedly.
However, even if it's a very frustrating situation, the Cowboys shouldn't cut David Irving.
First of all, Irving's hit against the cap space is pretty minimum and nothing to be concerned at all. After being handed a second-round tender earlier in the year, #95 was set to earn $2.91M during the season. With a four-game suspension ahead of him, that number will be even lower.
We're talking about a guy who in eight games managed to get to the quarterback seven times in 2017 and consistently pressured opposing signal callers. Not to mention he's going to be just 25 years old when the season begins.
For the Cowboys, David Irving has the talent needed to average one sack per game. All of this for less than three million.
Irving has proven by now that he's not worth a long-term extension. That much is clear. In order to get one of those, a player must prove his availability.
Talking specifically about 2018, though, I'm sure the Cowboys will be better off if they count on Irving for the final 12 games of the season. The team counts with pretty decent depth at the position with Maliek Collins, Datone Jones and Jihad Ward, but Irving has the potential to end the season with double-digit sacks.
The team gains nothing by releasing Irving. The team will not even be "sending a message" if they were to release #95. Maybe if the team had consistently sent this kind of "messages" over the years it would make sense.
However, we know this team sticks with their players and supports them in moments like this. They have done just that with Randy Gregory and it seems like it will pay off soon.
Whether we're mad at Irving's actions or not, the truth is letting him go wouldn't be wise at all. The Cowboys are not paying him big-time money, he's young and he'll be productive on the field when the defense needs him to.
We're talking about a football team that wants to make a run for the Lombardi Trophy. They can't be letting starting-caliber players go just like that. They need all the help they can get and even though his situation is far from ideal, David Irving will play a big role on defense.
Should Cowboys Add Another Safety Before Training Camp?
The Dallas Cowboys are extremely thin at the safety position. Fact. They haven't really brought in anyone to upgrade the position from last season. Fact. I just wanted to point that out because there's a lot of discussion as to whether or not the Cowboys need to add another safety before training camp.
I don't know where you stand on this debate or how I feel about it personally, but it's definitely something that needs to be discussed from the Cowboys end. It is the one position where there is a lot of unknown and inexperienced. If one of their current safeties were to go down with an injury and miss any time, the whole defense would suffer.
As things stand right now, Jeff Heath is the only one who will reprise his starting role on the backend of the Cowboys defense. Behind him are Xavier Woods and Kavon Frazier, but knowing exactly how they fit in at this moment is completely up in the air.
Unfortunately, that's the top three safeties for the Dallas Cowboys heading into the 2018 season. What's even more bothersome is their fourth might be an undrafted rookie, Tyree Robinson. I don't know about you, but I find that very concerning. But, maybe Kris Richard, the defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator, knows something we don't.
Fortunately, Kris Richard was recently asked if he had any concerns about the safety position on the "Doomsday Podcast" with Matt Mosley and Ed Werder. He said he had "none".
"I'm confident. I feel really good at this point in time and it's because the level of character of our guys," he said. "We're going to get better. That's the deal because our guys are young, focused, I think the hunger's there. I love the look in their eyes. I love how everyone is buying in, is focused and paying attention to detail. It makes a difference when guys care. It makes a difference when each one wants to teach one. We're trying to build something special. We want to be tribe-like. We want to be more than a team."
It certainly sounds like Kris Richard is excited about the Dallas Cowboys current safeties. Of course, he would never just come out and say that this group is terrible or he wished they'd add
Earl Thomas another available safety. That's just not how things work. He's here to coach up the guys on the roster and not worry about personnel moves.
I don't know about you, but I know I would feel a lot better if they had one more experienced safety who could come in and compete for a starting job. Maybe someone like Tre Boston or Kenny Vaccaro, who are still unsigned. Maybe make that trade for Earl Thomas? That's a dream that just won't die.
Regardless, the Dallas Cowboys need to do something to address their depth at the safety position. I don't know what their plans are moving forward, but hopefully they have a contingency plan in place. It's just smart business.
Do you think the Dallas Cowboys need to add a safety before training camp?
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