FRISCO, Texas – Before the season even began, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was asked about his philosophy regarding the use of rookies and young players.
He said in August, that you want them to contribute as early as possible, but the most important thing is to "get them ready for the end of the season." The veteran coach said his experiences in Green Bay taught him that it's vital to have the rookies contributing by the end of the season when the games matter the most.
Well, here we are.
The Cowboys are 6-9, winners of three straight games, and needing a win, plus a loss by Washington to win the NFC East and advance to the playoffs.
While they need some help, it doesn't change the fact the Cowboys are in a must-win situation on Sunday. In fact, they've been there the last two weeks. The Cowboys would've been eliminated had they defeated San Francisco or Philadelphia the last two games. And the only reason they're still in this is because Washington has also lost the last two games.
But the Cowboys have managed to stay alive in this playoff race, and they're doing it with a lot of young players – just like McCarthy predicted would happen back in the summer.
"You can see the impact our young players have made on our season," McCarthy said Thursday. "That's really a reflection of the coaching and veteran influence. Really from day 1, we always speak on having the young players ready for November and December because that's usually when they play and that's definitely been the case, probably more so this year than we would've anticipated because of our injuries. That's always been the case. We've had a lot of people step up and grow."
While the Cowboys had 11 rookies active for last week's game with the Eagles, the team's first three draft picks are all starting – and all contributing in their own way.
First-round pick CeeDee Lamb has been as-advertised. He ranks second in most receiving categories, but he's tied for first with five TD catches and he's tied for the overall team lead with seven touchdowns. Lamb is the only Cowboys player to score a touchdown in three different ways. Lamb needs 108 yards to become the first Cowboys rookie to record a 1,000-yard receiving season.
Second-round pick Trevon Diggs leads the team with three interceptions, despite missing four games with a broken foot. He's also started 10 of 11 games this year, often forced into action because of the team's injury issues at cornerback. Diggs has certainly had his share of challenges, forced to play elite receivers such as De'Andre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf and Julio Jones. But Diggs has also proven that he's up for the challenge, leading the Cowboys with 12 pass deflections.
Naturally, the next-best rookie has been third-round pick Neville Gallimore, who was supposed to play this year behind veterans such as Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and even second-year pro Trysten Hill. None of those three are on the active roster as Hill has been on IR and the other two have been injured and/or released.
Gallimore is fourth on the team with four tackles for loss and has taken advantage of the extra playing time here in recent weeks. Gallimore has been a steady force in goal-line situations and is one of the few bright spots on a defensive line that ranks last in the NFL in rush defense.
But it's not just the draft picks making a difference. Rookie offensive tackle Terence Steele has been thrown into the fire since Week 1, but despite several moments where the game looked too big for him, Steele has since responded. Sunday will be Steele's 14th start of the season and he figures to be one of the young building blocks on the offensive line, even when Tyron Smith an La'el Collins return next year.
Those are the rookies that start. The Cowboys still have youngsters such as Brandon Knight, Connor McGovern, Donovan Wilson, Hunter Niswander and Tony Pollard playing either as starters or regular contributors.
McCarthy gives credit to the young players for learning on the run, but continues to applaud veterans such as Ezekiel Elliott for setting prime examples.
"Any time you have one of your star players just stay the course ... Zeke has been the same guy every day," McCarthy said of Elliott. "He's been excellent to work with. You can really feel his presence, the way he's gone about it. It's a very demanding position. And he brings it every day and has been a very positive influence on our younger players."
And with a game to go – and the season on the line again – the Cowboys will need to rely on their young players. But that's not something Cowboys owner/GM Jerry Jones seems worried about.
"Because of the nature of our season, we have had a lot of different players get a lot of reps, just the nature of it," Jones said. "So, you're not putting anybody out there that hasn't had reps throughout this year. And, so, that's comforting to know that they've played. I don't want to take away the contribution of any one player, but I feel real good about the players we'll have on Sunday, as good as I've felt."