They say "every game matters" in the NFL, and that's generally true. But for several years now, the Dallas Cowboys' regular season finales haven't had any meaningful impact on their season. Week 17 of the 2018 season, on the road to face the New York Giants, is no different.
The last time that the Cowboys were playing for something in Week 17 was the 2013 season, when the Eagles came to Dallas for a winner-takes-all division showdown. But with Kyle Orton playing for an injured Tony Romo, the Cowboys didn't have enough to get the job done.
In fact, before the 2014 season, high stakes were the trend in the finales. As we painfully remember, Dallas had a shot at the playoffs in all of Jason Garrett's first three full seasons as head coach. But all three years ended with disappointing letdowns and 8-8 records.
But since then, Dallas has either secured or sunk their playoff spot before Week 17. Three of the last five seasons (2014, 2016, 2018), the Cowboys have already clinched the NFC East and couldn't help or hurt their playoff positioning in the final regular season game.
The other two years, Dallas was eliminated before they could get to Week 17.
This year's finale was rendered moot thanks to the Cowboys clinching the division last week with their victory over Tampa Bay. They could have accomplished it a week earlier in Indianapolis, but we saw how that went.
Thanks to the current NFC standings, Dallas has nothing to play for this week. They are locked into the fourth seed in the playoffs, being two or more games behind the Chicago Bears and other division winners. A win or loss won't change next week's game one bit.
All the Cowboys can do now is wait to see who's headed to Dallas for the first round of the playoffs. Right now it's the Seahawks, but a Seattle loss coupled with a win by Minnesota would bring the Vikings to AT&T Stadium.
The Philadelphia Eagles could still make the playoffs, but there's no scenario that would allow them to be the fifth seed and play Dallas in the first round.
So with the Cowboys unable to affect their playoff position in any way, how will they treat Sunday's game in New York?
We've seen the team handle this situation in different ways depending on the year. In 2014, Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and the gang played to win. Dallas wanted to keep their momentum going into the postseason
The 2016 season saw a bit of both. Dallas played their starters in the first half and then brought in the backups in the second. But that year they also had a first-round bye, so rest wasn't much of a concern.
There's a lot to be said right now for giving players rest. Zack Martin, for example, has been battling a knee injury all year and had to miss Week 15 with it. He will almost certainly get the week off to avoid any sort of regression before the postseason.
Tyron Smith also has nagging injuries which have limited his performance lately. A week off could be big for him, too.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott could also use a breather. The Cowboys' workhorse has looked banged up lately and needs to freshen up for the playoffs. Last week, Dallas called up Darius Jackson from the practice squad so that may indeed be their plan.
With just those three names, you see the potential ripple effect of rest. Even if you weren't going to rest him, do you want to see Zeke getting banged up behind backup offensive linemen? Or do you want to risk Dak Prescott behind second-string protection?
Other veterans such as Sean Lee and Tavon Austin have only just been cleared to play in the last week or two after long absences. Would another week off help their health, or is this meaningless game a good opportunity to get them some run and hopefully find some rhythm?
That's what the Cowboys coaches are up against this week; what's best for individual players and the team as a whole? Momentum is a valuable thing, but so are good health and rest. And in these scenarios, you can almost never work towards both.
But at least it's not a new quandary. As we discussed, Dallas has been in this spot for Week 17 in each of their last two playoff runs.
Hopefully, those experiences will help make the best choices for this Sunday.
Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke
It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?
This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.
if you can only pay one it should be
The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.
Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?
On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.
To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.
Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.
Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.
As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.
Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.
In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.
Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.
Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.
Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.
Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.
Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.
BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb
According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.
Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T
The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.
During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.
After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.
This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.
Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!
REPORT: Dallas Cowboys Re-sign Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur
L.P. Ladouceur is returning for his 15th season as the Cowboys' long snapper. The veteran free agent was re-signed by Dalals today to a one-year deal.
Thanks to Jason Witten's one-year sabbatical with Monday Night Football, Ladouceur has now been with the Cowboys for more consecutive seasons than any current player. He just turned 38 last week, but Louis-Philippe remains one of the top long snappers in football.
The Cowboys have signed long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur to a one-year deal worth $1.03 million and $90,000 in bonus money, but he will count $735,000 against the cap. This will be Ladouceur's 15th season with the Cowboys, tying Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Mark... https://t.co/2iDsi6RX7e
Retaining Ladouceur is an underrated move for the Cowboys given their situation at kicker.
Brett Maher was only 80% accurate overall on field goals last year. The team could be considering an upgrade in free agency.
Whether they bring Maher back or try someone new, having a long snapper with Ladouceur's performance perfection will make things much easier for them.
Dallas Cowboys1 week ago
5 Realistic Free Agents Cowboys Should Sign Before the Draft
NFL Draft1 week ago
Hypothetical La’el Collins Trade Could Recoup Cowboys a 2019 1st-Round Pick
Dallas Cowboys7 days ago
Cowboys Show Interest in Browns DE Emmanuel Ogbah
Player News1 week ago
Chiefs Release Eric Berry, Should Cowboys Be Interested?
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
REPORT: Cowboys Keeping OL Joe Looney, WR Tavon Austin, WR Allen Hurns in 2019
NFL Draft2 weeks ago
7-Round Dallas Cowboys Mock Draft: Post-Combine Edition
Dallas Cowboys7 days ago
BREAKING: Dallas Cowboys Sign DL Christian Covington
NFL Draft1 day ago
Cowboys Draft Target: Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.