An optimist might suggest that Chidobe Awuzie's expected return to the field this Sunday against the Vikings is much needed relief in the wake of rookie Trevon Diggs breaking his foot in a loss to the Steelers.
But in reality, it has been difficult to be optimistic about the cornerback position in Dallas at any point this season.
Although the Cowboys chose to let Byron Jones leave in free agency, the expectation going into the year was that if a few things went right, it could be a promising position. However, not much has gone right for the cornerbacks this year.
Awuzie, who missed time in training camp with a knee injury, has been out since Week 2 with a hamstring strain, and his return has been anticipated for a few weeks now. Mike McCarthy confirmed on Monday that he believed Awuzie would play this Sunday and added that the cornerback "looked great" in practice.
As a result of injuries and inconsistent play, the Cowboys still don't really know what they have at cornerback going forward, and opposing receivers have mostly been flourishing while they try to figure it out.
Their bad luck started early with a rib injury to Anthony Brown and an ankle injury to Jourdan Lewis. By the time Awuzie strained his hamstring a team that didn't have a clear number one cornerback also had essentially no depth at the position. Free agent Daryl Worley proved ineffective. The Cowboys even tried to bring back Brandon Carr midseason to help in the secondary.
Eventually Worley and Carr were both cut and Diggs was routinely asked to cover some of the league's most elite receivers. He performed admirably and even shined in some moments, but the rookie was asked to carry the load of a veteran and sometimes it showed. Still, a rookie out of his depths was the best option the Cowboys had until Diggs went down during what was shaping up to be a huge upset over the Steelers. Saivion Smith, who had recently been called up from the practice squad, replaced Diggs and was exposed almost immediately by the Steelers' passing attack, perhaps costing Dallas the game.
If there's a bright spot to be had, Diggs at least proved he's a player that belongs in the NFL, and has every bit the promise of eventually being in Pro Bowl conversations. On Monday McCarthy implied that Diggs had shown the Cowboys enough this year to make them feel good about drafting him in the second round.
"Definitely Trevon has been a big part of how we want to play on defense," McCarthy said. "He's definitely done a heck of a job as a rookie."
Dallas is hoping that Diggs can develop into a number one-caliber cornerback, but hanging over this debacle in Dallas is the fact that the Cowboys let Jones leave in free agency last offseason. Jones was often criticized for his low number of interceptions, but the Dolphins have given up eight less passing touchdowns than the Cowboys this season after signing Jones to a lucrative contract.
Dallas can't control the injuries their cornerbacks sustain, but they do have future decisions to make and evaluations to determine. Lewis and Awuzie will be free agents after the season and their play for the second half of this season may well determine if they will be on the Cowboys for coming years.
McCarthy said Monday that "the next man has to step in there and create opportunities for others" in reference to Diggs' injury, and there is still a resource Dallas has yet to tap into that fans might find more enticing than relying on Smith again: Reggie Robinson. The fourth round pick was drafted out of Tulsa last year as a special teams ace, who thrived as a playmaking cornerback in his senior season. He was a favorite of Vice President of Player Personnel Will McClay in the scouting process, but has yet to see the field.
If ever there was a season for Dallas to find out what they have in a fourth-round cornerback, it's this one. Not necessarily because of the Cowboys' record, but because they need all the help they can find.