No backup position on a football team causes more anxiety than at quarterback. A sense of insecurity there can lead to panicked analysis from onlookers and sometimes even panic moves from organizations. After the last few years, no team has earned the right to panic more than the Dallas Cowboys.
In 2015, they watched an entire season go down to the tubes because Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore were all unable to provide solid play after Tony Romo's injury. The very next year, Dak Prescott was beyond solid as he quarterbacked the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and contender status.
After living through the agony and ecstasy of what QB2 can do so recently, it's understandable that Dallas management and fans might be more focused on the position than any other team. I even get why you might be quick to turn on Cooper Rush after a slow preseason.
Everyone wants the next Nick Foles on their roster, but the truth is that you won't know it in August. Watching Rush and Mike White play with second and third-string talent and against similar competition isn't going to show you what they could do if they had to replace Dak Prescott in the regular season.
The Eagles didn't know Foles could win them a Super Bowl before it happened, anymore than Dallas knew Dak Prescott would be a rookie phenom. Both teams assumed, logically, that their chance to compete ended when Carson Wentz and Tony Romo went down.
The great backup QB stories in NFL history occurred because they were unexpected. Whether it was saved seasons like with Foles and Prescott, or a single game like Jason Garrett's 1994 Thanksgiving Day heroics as the Cowboys' third-stringer, these came out of nowhere and are memorable for that very reason.
One player who encapsulates both sides of this topic is former Cowboy, Patriot, Bill, Chief, Titan, Viking, and current Lion Matt Cassel.
The journeyman QB will forever be remembered for his storybook 2008 season with New England, where he had to replace an injured Tom Brady in Week One and got them to 11-5. Almost any other year, that record gets you into the playoffs. But the Patriots missed on tiebreakers in their division and on wild cards.
Cassel flipped that big year into a chance to start in Kansas City, but he wasn't the same guy. After flaming out there, he bounced around as other teams hoped they might restore the magic that the Patriots had for one great season.
When Tony Romo went down in 2015, Dallas immediately traded to acquire Cassel from Buffalo. Even thought they'd had Brandon Weeden the year before and went into that season with him as the returning backup, their true faith in him showed.
Weeden got a few more games while Cassel learned the playbook, and then the switch was made. But the results stayed the same, both in wins and losses and just the general performance from the QB position. Eventually, Cassel was dumped for Kellen Moore.
Dallas clearly thought they were getting an upgrade when they acquired Cassel. They gave up a fifth-round pick for him, plus dumped the year-plus they'd spent working with Weeden.
But the truth about guys like Cassel and Nick Foles is that they'll only thrive when circumstances around them are ideal. They need the right system and teammate talent to be able to perform.
And who knows, maybe we'll be saying that one day about Dak Prescott.
But right now, that is the dilemma when it comes to Cooper Rush and Mike White and their fitness to be the backup quarterback. Could one of them have a magical season if they were playing behind an All-Pro offensive line and working with the first-team weapons?
The alternative is to go try to find another guy like Cassel, whose past success gives you more confidence in potential performance. But that's exactly what Dallas did in 2015 and we saw the result.
Now you might argue, "you've got nothing to lose." But is that really true?
Bringing in some journeyman veteran pushes Rush and White further away from development. It also pushes one of them off the roster, and I don't know if either would last on the practice squad.
But let's take Rush for example. You won't get to see him step in for Prescott and perhaps show the spark we saw in the 2017 preseason. You won't see what Cooper can do when he's not running for his life behind second-string linemen.
You'll never get to see his full potential, and neither will any other team. You won't get to maybe trade him someday for a Day 2 draft pick.
That's highly optimistic, of course, but it's still a possibility. You eliminate any potential of that happening if you keep relying on veteran band-aids.
"Progress stopper" can be an overused cliché in roster analysis but it really does apply here. Not only are your young prospects getting less opportunity to work with the starters, but you're also stunting the growth of their market value.
There will be some experienced veteran QBs who'll become available this week, guys who on paper sound like upgrades over Rush and White. Heck, maybe Matt Cassel will be one of them.
But the decision to sign one of them, and push your other guys down the ladder, is weightier than you think. You just might be losing more than you gain.
Snap Judgments: Cowboys’ Linebacker Depth Stands Out in Win
The Dallas Cowboys evened their record at 1-1 with their 20-13 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday night. The Cowboys linebackers had a huge impact on the outcome of the game and it wasn't just the guys at the top of the depth chart either. America's Team got contributions from guys at the bottom of the depth chart.
What a difference a year makes.
The Dallas Cowboys worked hard this offseason to fix the linebacker depth that failed them in the 2017 season. When Sean Lee or Anthony Hitchens -- or both -- were sidelined with injuries, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, and the rest of the linebacker group struggled to keep up with opposing offenses. Specifically, in games against the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers the major depth inadequacy was revealed.
One year later, the Dallas Cowboys have a linebacker corp that allows them to go five deep with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Joe Thomas, and Damien Wilson all making considerable contributions for the Dallas Cowboys in Sunday nights victory.
Here are the final snap counts for the five linebackers that played a defensive snap against the Giants.
- Jaylon Smith - 57 (84%)
- Sean Lee - 41 (60)
- Leighton Vander Esch - 28 (48%)
- Damien Wilson - 17 (25%)
- Joe Thomas - 14 (21%)
Jaylon Smith led the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night with 10 tackles (seven solo) and played really well roaming sideline to sideline and making plays. He was tasked with the difficult assignment of containing New York Giants Running Back Saquon Barkley and allowed four catches for 41 yards in his coverage area. Smith was credited with three stops or plays that result in a "loss" for the offense (per Pro Football Focus). Smith led the team in snaps for the second straight week.
Sean Lee had a better game on Sunday night than he did in week one. PFF credited him with four stops, four tackles and an assist. Lee allowed two catches for 24 yards on two targets to Wayne Gallman and Evan Engram. Lee pulled his hamstring at the end of the game and was held out the rest of the way for precautionary reasons. He'll be an interesting name to watch on this week's injury report. Age catches up with everyone, but hopefully Sean Lee can stave it off for at least another season.
Rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch saw a big bump in his snap count from week one (17) to week two (28). The rookie played well too. As many players seemed to struggle with tackling Saquon Barkley, Vander Esch was able to bring down the number two overall pick on several occasions. Vander Esch had seven solo tackles in his second career game.
Damien Wilson was the surprise player of the night. He had three tackles on the night, including one on special teams, a sack, and a forced fumble. Though his time on the field might have been short, his impact was certainly felt. His forced fumble led to a field goal that gave the Dallas Cowboys a 13-0 nothing lead. Wilson was also credited with two stops on the night.
Joe Thomas has been a good player for the team off the bench as well. Though he only had one tackle, it was good enough to be credited with a stop. He's a player that can play both the WILL and MIKE linebacker spots. As the fourth or fifth linebacker on the depth chart, Thomas is a great role player.
Other Snap Count Notes
- Taco Charlton may not have started, but he played 84% of the team's defensive snaps. That number is up from 73% in week one. Charlton had a sack, a hit, and a hurry as well as three stops on the night.
- Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns led the wide receiver group in snap percentage from week one to week two. The big difference at wide receiver was seeing Michael Gallup take the third most snaps on offense instead of Deonte Thompson. Thompson still had the bigger impact with four catches for 33 yards on five targets including two for first downs.
- Geoff Swaim was the far and away leader at tight end in snaps with a 94% snap count. Only the offensive line and Dak Prescott had more snaps on the night than Swaim. He's the TE1 for the team, though he didn't have an impact in the passing game.
- Rico Gathers only played five snaps, but there was concerted effort to get him the ball as he had two targets in his five snaps. He may not have come away with a catch, but it's a start.
- Jourdan Lewis continues to be the odd man out on defense. He only played one snap.
- Dorance Armstrong saw a snap jump from week one to week two going from 28% of the defensive snaps to 40% of the snaps. He had two hurries and an assisted tackle.
Why Cowboys Need Tavon Austin More Involved Offensively
Two games into the 2018 season and I'm still not quite sure what to make of the Dallas Cowboys offense. To me, there is a void of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. With the exception of Ezekiel Elliott and maybe Cole Beasley, there is a lack of consistency that is really hurting this offensive unit. Changes need to be made or someone needs to step up in a hurry.
Enter Wide Receiver/Running Back Tavon Austin.
Just looking at Tavon Austin you would probably put him in the category with Cole Beasley, a small/diminutive WR who should strictly be playing out of the slot. That's typically where the smaller WRs get placed in the NFL because teams would like you to believe that due to their diminutive stature, they can't succeed on the outside.
Well, guess what? The passing game is changing around the league and we're starting to see more of these smaller/quicker WRs earn more prominent roles. The reasoning is these types of receivers are generally known to be better route runners, who are more capable of creating separation on their own.
The Dallas Cowboys must be buying into this philosophy because during the offseason they pretty much revamped the entire wide receiver position with that thought at least in the back of their minds. They didn't bring in a lot of "undersized" WRs, but they did focus on adding pass catchers who can run better routes and create separation on their own.
Wide Receiver Tavon Austin is one of those pass catchers Dallas brought in to improve their passing game. Austin really hasn't been utilized as much as I thought he would in the first two games, but he is starting to look like a dynamic weapon the Cowboys can't ignore much longer.
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Last Sunday night against the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys finally decided to utilize Tavon Austin's speed in the passing game. The result, a 64 yard touchdown pass from Quarterback Dak Prescott.
Austin's speed to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally is something the Dallas Cowboys need to incorporate more of into their offensive game plan. Forcing opposing defenses to have to cover more of the field should create more opportunities for big plays in both the running and passing game.
Stretching the field vertically with Austin's speed will open up things up underneath in the passing game. It takes at least one, possibly two defenders out of the play, leaving nine to defend against 10 Cowboys offensive players. That benefits Ezekiel Elliott in the running game and the other WRs running those underneath routes.
Stretching the field horizontally mostly helps the running game, which is great news when you have a dynamic running back like Zeke. Utilizing Austin's speed on jet sweeps or reverses forces the edge defenders from crashing down on inside runs. It also forces the linebackers to hesitate more because they have to respect the threat of both an inside or outside run.
Against the Giants, Tavon Austin turned three touches into 94 total yards, two receptions for 79 receiving yards and one rushing attempt for 15 yards. Imagine if the Cowboys were to give him about 10 touches a game. It seems like such a simple thing, but I think it could have a huge impact (for the better) for the entire offense.
Do you think the Dallas Cowboys need to get Tavon Austin more involved?
Takeaway Tuesday: Prescott’s Legs Give Offense a Much Needed Spark
When the Dallas Cowboys took the field last Sunday against the New York Giants, they did so very differently than last week, starting with a 64-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to connect with WR Tavon Austin in the third play of the game. Although there are still many things this team must continue to work on, they looked like a very improved unit in week 2.
Here are my main takeaways from the Dallas Cowboys' first win of the year. Let me know what yours are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL and let's talk football!
Cowboys' Secondary Capable of Holding Top WR
If there was one player who could've changed the outcome for the New York Giants, it was WR Odell Beckham Jr. Widely recognized as one of the best wideouts in the nation, Beckham was the biggest challenge the cornerbacks, led by Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie, have had in the first two weeks.
None of them followed Beckham all over the field, each stayed on their side of the field and still managed to limit him to four receptions for 51 yards in nine targets. The Giant's offense is not known for being one of the best in the league, but it's the fact that this defense was able to limit exactly the player they needed to. They did their job.
Also, props to the defensive line for keeping the pressure on Eli Manning.
Taco Charlton Was Dominant VS Nate Solder
With Randy Gregory ruled out for the game, Taco Charlton had a golden opportunity to stay on the field for more snaps. He took advantage of this, as he finished the night with three tackles, one for a loss, a sack and a fumble recovery.
Charlton still has a long way to go in order to prove he was worthy of a first round pick, but we can't deny he hasn't stopped developing. It will be interesting to see how he does now that Gregory is expected to return for week 3.
Dak Prescott's Legs Give Offense a Needed Spark
One of the things I liked the most about the Cowboys' game versus the Giants was how Dak Prescott was utilized. Criticized after a poor performance in Carolina, Prescott came out with a chip on his shoulder.
We've been talking a lot about how Scott Linehan must play Prescott to his strengths and that's precisely what he did by letting Dak run for 45 yards in seven carries. It's completely understandable if the Cowboys don't want to run him as much as the Panthers do with Cam Newton, but the truth is, if #4 hurts defenses with his leg, Ezekiel Elliott won't receiver all of the defense's attention.
Also, shoutout to how they used Tavon Austin. With Elliott, Prescott and Austin being a threat on option plays, this offense could take a step on the right direction.
Rico Gathers Will Be Used
The Cowboys' Rico Gathers project is moving in the right direction. The 2016 sixth-round pick was active for the first time in his career last Sunday. The first question that popped into our heads was whether or not he'd be actually used in the game. He was.
He even managed to get open in the end zone in a play that could've been TD but Prescott didn't throw a good pass. However, the mere fact that he was able to get open and that the coaches actually put him on the field told us a lot about his future. Cowboys Nation should be excited to see him involved.
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