If there are supposed to be silver linings that come out of a season with seven losses before the bye week, it's that the Cowboys have an opportunity to give significant playing time to enticing young players.
On Sunday that playing time went to rookie defensive end Neville Gallimore, and if his performance was any indication then his future looks a lot brighter than the Cowboys' present.
Dallas drafted Gallimore out of Oklahoma in the third round of the NFL Draft last April, and Gallimore told Dallas media that night that his "best football" was ahead of him. The Cowboys followed that draft up with the signing of veteran nose tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe signaling a stance on Gallimore: They were excited about his potential but considered him a project.
McCoy and Poe are no longer on the roster and that project has been accelerated. His breakout start last Sunday came against the Pittsburgh Steelers and center Maurice Pouncey, arguably the best center in football. The rookie managed to make it look like an even matchup, at times getting the best of the Steelers' offensive line.
"I thought he was extremely physical and impactful," Mike McCarthy said of Gallimore on Monday. "I thought he did a lot of really nice things in Monday's game."
Gallimore finished with three tackles, a tackle for loss, and a quarterback hit. But it's also not hyperbole to suggest that the consistent push into the backfield that he was generating played a large part in the massive upset the Cowboys nearly took from the Steelers. A dominant rushing attack was an element in the Steelers 7-0 season coming into last Sunday, but they managed only 46 rushing yards against Dallas. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan claimed that the success of the Cowboys' run defense "forced [the Steelers] to go into a different type of offense."
After the game, Gallimore sounded like a player who just got his best taste of NFL football and felt comfortable with his chances going forward. "I think the only thing about being a rookie is the adjustment," Gallimore suggested. "Every play is going against a great player. So getting the opportunity to get more than just my feet wet in the middle of the game---[I got to] get better and see where I can grow."
Coming into this season, the assumption was that the practice field would be Gallimore's primary space to shine. According to Nolan, Gallimore has been a consistently terrific practice player all season. "He's improved every week," Nolan said. "He's continued to work extremely hard in practice and it showed yesterday."
Opponents had been slicing through the Cowboys run-defense for the majority of the season, but it looks like they may well have drafted a run-stopper. Nolan stated that it was fairly obvious that Gallimore played his best game "to date." The most clear test that the rookie has appeared to pass is that he has reached the point of being "game ready."
Nolan claimed that they looked at the film and it proved what seemed true in the moment: Gallimore made plays that he wasn't quite ready to make or failed to make earlier in the season. "I think it made him feel good and I think he'll build on those successes."
The best way to turn winning seasons into losing seasons is through the development of drafted players. In a season when bright spots are few and far between, the combination of Gallimore's play against Pittsburgh and his reported practice habits, his future with the Cowboys is providing some much needed optimism.