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.
Did DC Rod Marinelli Have Increased Role in Cowboys Loss at Rams?
The Dallas Cowboys Divisional Round loss at the Los Angeles Rams is still fresh on the minds of their players, staff, and front office. So much so that the team had to fan the flames on a Jason Garrett comment expecting Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to return. Garrett himself walked back this "report" once Stephen Jones noted it's still too early for any coaching staff changes. The focus will remain on Linehan's post until it's removed or the Cowboys OC is retained, but one coordinator the Cowboys now expect to keep is Rod Marinelli on defense.
Marinelli himself disputed the season-long belief that this was likely his last as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. With Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard not taking any of the three HC positions he interviewed for, Marinelli doesn't have to worry about shuffling his title to accommodate Richard - who called the plays from week one this season anyway.
Rod's title does include his specialty as defensive line coach though, a unit that the Rams dominated with their offensive line to a historic degree. The Rams' season-high 273 rushing yards was provided by both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson surpassing 100 yards on the ground, the first time in team history they've had two backs reach this mark in a single playoff game.
Rams HC Sean McVay hardly had to reach into his vaunted 'bag of tricks' to expose the Cowboys defense in a way they hadn't been all year, but there was still an element of brilliance in his offensive game plan. It came out after the game that the Rams picked up on the keys the Dallas defensive linemen used to signal stunts and twists before the snap. While this is nothing more than just great scouting yielding an unforeseen advantage, it's left the Cowboys with more than enough time to ponder what went wrong in the Coliseum.
The Rams offensive line knew what the Cowboys defensive line was going to do before the snap on Saturday. https://t.co/oGo6Eiz4av
The answer to this may be nothing other than the coaching questions the Cowboys are already considering. With Richard's interviews in Tampa Bay, Miami, and New York coming at the beginning of the week leading up to game day, it's possible Marinelli had a larger say in the Cowboys preparation on defense.
It was Marinelli's defense that conceded 412 yards to the Rams in 2017 in a loss at AT&T Stadium. Matching him up with McVay leaves a lot to be desired, while Richard helps bridge this gap - something he was seen desperately trying to do on the sideline with a battered Cowboys defense.
As each day of the offseason passes, a change at either coordinator position becomes less likely in Dallas. On offense, the play caller has more than a season's worth of evidence showing the deficiencies of the Cowboys attack. In a league fueled by recency bias however, Marinelli certainly didn't leave his best performance on the field in Los Angeles.
Somewhere in the middle of this is Jason Garrett, safely in place as the head coach that should be personally trying to upgrade his top two assistants however possible. Marinelli signing up for another year makes this hard on defense, though Richard should resume play calling duties next season.
Again, this leaves the onus of the Cowboys improvements for 2019 on the offensive side of the ball, something that'll be realized when the shock of their defense letting them down in the biggest game of the season is gone.
Cowboys Getting Over $30 Million Cap Space from Expiring Dead Money
You may have already heard that the Dallas Cowboys will be flush with salary cap space in 2019, and that's very accurate. A huge portion of it comes from over $30 million in expiring cap penalties, otherwise known as "dead money."
Quick explanation; dead money occurs when a player is released or retires prior to the expiration of their contract. Any guaranteed money, such as the original signing bonus or money converted in a restructuring, that has not yet been paid out according to the contract schedule is accelerated.
For example, when Tony Romo retired after 2016, he still had $19.6 million in guaranteed money owed to him. Dallas chose to split this dead money over two years, and thus had a $10.7 cap penalty in 2017 and $8.9 million last season.
But now Romo's dead money, along with Dez Bryant's and several other players, is coming off the Cowboys' books. The result is a roughly $30 million infusion of salary cap space for 2019.
Here were the major culprits for last year's dead money:
(All cap figures are taken from Spotrac.com)
- QB Tony Romo - $8.9 million
- WR Dez Bryant - $8 million
- DT Cedric Thornton - $2.5 million
- CB Orlando Scandrick - $2.3 million
- CB Nolan Carroll - $2 million
- WR Deonte Thompson - $1.8 million
- DE Benson Mayowa - $1.1 million
- K Dan Bailey - $800 thousand
- TE James Hanna - $750 thousand
Those players alone make up a little over $28 million. Another $4 million or so came from over 30 players with lesser penalties that still added up.
Right now, the Cowboys have only $1.76 million in dead money on their 2019 salary cap. Nearly all of that is the $1.6 million still owed to Orlando Scandrick.
That difference is where the cap space comes from, and it will be of tremendous help to Dallas as they have major financial moves coming. They need to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, deal with a major salary bump for Amari Cooper, and consider a contract extension for Dak Prescott.
The 2019 number will change, of course, as the offseason rolls on. If Dallas elects to release players like Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, or others, some dead money will appear. But that will be offset by whatever cap savings motivated the move in the first place.
This is a good reminder of why the Cowboys' new era of fiscal conservatism is a good thing. After years of what felt like perpetual "salary cap hell," they are finally getting out from under those penalties and have complete flexibility this offseason. They may not even need to cut a guy like Crawford, who they almost would have been forced to in past seasons.
We'll be talking a lot more about individual players and their contracts in the weeks ahead, but this summary helps us see that Dallas isn't nearly up against the financial wall as they have been. We still miss guys like Romo and Dez, but we won't miss that awful dead money in 2019.
Cowboys Expect C Travis Frederick Back for Offseason Program
Lost in yesterday's hoopla over Scott Linehan's return was a positive report about Center Travis Frederick. In his comments to the media, Jason Garrett said that Frederick's recovery timetable should allow him to a full participant in the team's offseason program.
After never missing a start in his first five years, Travis missed all of 2018 dealing with the effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The disease attacked his neurological system and required immediate and intensive treatment.
Jason Garrett says the team anticipates Travis Frederick being involved in the offseason program right from the start this spring if he continues on the same positive track in recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. #cowboyswire
While Joe Looney performed admirably in Frederick's absence, he's not an elite talent. Travis has been arguably the best center in the NFL since entering the league in 2013.
It's hard to qualify what effect not having Frederick had on the Cowboys offense in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing, but short-yardage plays weren't as automatic as we've seen in past years. A 4th-and-1 stuff was part of what led to the Cowboys' loss this past Saturday.
Dak Prescott was the second-most sacked QB in the NFL in 2018. After being sacked just 25 and 32 times in his first two seasons, the number skyrocketed to 56 sacks.
That's not all on Frederick, of course. Tyron Smith had some health issues and there were was turnover at left guard.
But having your All-Pro veteran center out there to help with the pre-snap reads, and help the rookie guard on his left, might have helped avoid some of those issues.
Indeed, Travis Frederick's return is just one of many reasons for optimism with the 2019 season. One of the best players on the team, he was sorely missed this year and can only help as Dallas looks to build on their division title and playoff appearance.
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