ARLINGTON, Texas -For outsiders and even the Cowboys' starters, it's the most meaningless game on the schedule every year. But for a handful of players trying to make the roster, the final preseason game might as well be the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys entered Wednesday's matchup against Miami with probably around 50 of their 53 roster spots already accounted for, but in the 30-13 win over the Dolphins, several players made a decent case to stick around past the final cut-down date, coming up Friday evening. Of the 22 starters, only center Phil Costa played in the game, and most key contributors got little to no action as the team attempted to rest them for the start of the regular season.
"In some cases it probably validated some of those decisions that we are going to make," Garrett said of the preseason finale. "But in some cases it probably made us rethink some things. We will go back and watch the tape as quickly as we can (Thursday), continue to make those evaluations and there is a lot of different decisions that you have to make."
In addition to picking the team on Friday, the Cowboys coaching staff will also spend the day finalizing their game plan for the season opener against the defending champion New York Giants, next Wednesday.
Between now and Friday, most of the players who participated against the Dolphins will be left to wonder if they did enough to earn a roster spot. That includes not only the guys who didn't perform well, but some who made the plays that won the final exhibition game.
"We'll see what happens," said Lance Dunbar, the undrafted rookie running back who pulled off the highlight of the night, a 58-yard touchdown run up the gut. "I think I did enough. I think I could've done better. I could've made more tackles on special teams, punt return, kickoff return, but it was an all right performance. I'll leave it up to God. Whatever happens, I gave it my best tonight."
Dunbar, who missed most of training camp and the first two preseason games with a hamstring injury, rushed for 105 yards on 15 carries, and also had three punt returns, including a 27-yarder.
While he was the most outstanding player in the victory, he's competing for a roster spot along with several other players who had nice nights. The Cowboys will have to decide whether he deserves to be a third or fourth running back for them, as second-year pro Phillip Tanner was also productive. Just as debatable is whether such a spot is as important as a sixth wide receiver, 10th offensive lineman, fifth safety or a ninth linebacker, for example.
Players at each of those positions made a case for themselves on Wednesday.
It was linebacker Orie Lemon who scored the Cowboys' first touchdown, intercepting a Matt Moore pass early in the second quarter and returning it 26 yards, putting the team up 10-6 after a Dan Bailey extra point. A practice squad member last year, Lemon has been trying to prove he belongs on the team, facing competition from the likes of second-year pro Alex Albright and undrafted rookie Adrian Hamilton.
"It opened up a couple eyes," Lemon said of his pick-six. "It's very nerve-racking, but I've got to stand up to what I've got to face. Last year I was fortunate enough to be put on the practice squad. I learned a lot on the practice squad … Next, whatever happens, happens."
Quarterback Stephen McGee started the game, which could be his last in a Cowboys uniform. The 2009 fourth-round pick, who the team had hoped to groom as a potential future starter, will be no better than the No. 3 signal-caller on the roster behind Tony Romo and Kyle Orton, and a 9-of-18 performance might not have bought him more time to grow. Rudy Carpenter, in his second stint with the team, played the majority of the second half at quarterback, and could find himself on the practice squad if McGee is released.
A one-yard touchdown for Tanner for Tanner and the second of three Dan Bailey field goals put the Cowboys up 20-6 at the half. Dunbar's big run early in the third quarter extended the lead to three touchdowns. Defensively, the Cowboys' reserves gave up only one touchdown, on a one-yard run late in the third.
The team must trim the roster from 75 players to 53 by 8 p.m. (CT) on Friday. The released players will have to pass through an abbreviated waiver period before the team can officially assign them to the eight-man practice squad before on-field preparations for the Giants. The day after cuts is typically a busy one, as rosters are hardly set at any point during the NFL season, and teams will find players on the street who they believe can help them.