FRISCO, Texas – The playoff implications might be gone, but the intrigue never really goes away.
I shouldn't be shocked to learn that lesson at the tail end of my fifth season covering the Dallas Cowboys, but it still comes as a small surprise. Even with the playoffs ruled out of the conversation, there's a never-ending dialogue around this team.
Take your pick between a dozen topics. We're talking about coaching job security, we're talking about Dez Bryant's production, as well as his salary. We're talking about who should play in this Week 17 finale against Philadelphia – and how much.
The conversation never truly ends – which I suppose I should've known. So, as we head into this final game of the season, I'm going to do my best to touch on all of it.
*1. *I've said this numerous times this week across a variety of platforms, so I'm sorry if I'm being repetitive. But I just don't understand the benefit of throwing the Cowboys' starters out there this weekend at Lincoln Financial Field.
Sure, the Cowboys can attain a winning season with a win. They can end the year on a high note and feel better about themselves heading into the offseason. They are, after all, professional football players whose job is to play football – regardless of the circumstance.
It's an admirable sentiment, but I worry that it's a bit misguided. The reality of the situation is that the Cowboys are at the end of a six-month grind, which began two weeks before everyone else in the middle of July. Everyone on the roster is battling various injuries, and the outcome of game will determine nothing about their playoff hopes.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has said several times this week that players who aren't healthy enough to play likely won't. For instance, Tyron Smith will likely sit out, given the numerous injuries he's fought through this year.
I'm sorry if I'm a worrywart, but I can't get behind the idea of playing Dak Prescott without Tyron Smith in a game that has no playoff implications. We've seen what can happen to Dak in a game without his left tackle, and it isn't pretty.
So if you're going to spare your quarterback, why not take a look around the rest of the roster? Sean Lee is the Cowboys' best defender, and injuries have been a big issue for him in 2017. Why subject him to further risk? Something similar can be said for DeMarcus Lawrence, who has dealt with back injuries the past two seasons.
How about La'el Collins, who has battled through back problems this year? Or Dez Bryant, who claimed just this week that he's been dealing with a knee injury.
Every guy I just named is a valuable asset for this organization heading into 2018. And it's not like we're talking about the preseason, when the upcoming season is a full calendar year away. By Dec. 31, we're just five months removed from OTAs and seven months removed from training camp.
It's not an exaggeration to say that a major injury on Sunday afternoon could severely alter your roster for 2018. That more than anything else is where my mind is in Week 17.
*2. *Like I said earlier, I know these are professional football players. There's no doubt in my mind that these guys want to play on Sunday. Given how competitive they are, I'm sure they want to wash the taste of last week's loss to Seattle out of their mouths.
I respect that fact, but I'm not going to let it affect my game plan for the coming year – assuming I'm the one making the decisions, that is. Which I realize I am not.
If the Cowboys play this game and win, then great. They feel better about themselves, they end on a high note and they go into the offseason. I'm not buying that the result allows them to build some sort of momentum in three months, when they get back together for the offseason program. If anything it's a footnote at the end of a bizarre year.
The risks outweigh the rewards by a long shot, and if it's up to me, I'm just fine protecting these guys from themselves.
*3. *What's the flipside of this? Well, a chance to see something from your younger players.
Garrett has said at times this week that the Cowboys have already played a lot of their younger players this season, and that's true – but there's so much more that could be done.
The obvious example is Cooper Rush, who has been an afterthought since the end of his fantastic preseason. The rookie quarterback was a game day inactive for the first half of 2017, but he has been Dak Prescott's backup since October, when Kellen Moore was demoted to the practice squad.
Personally, I'd love to get a longer look at Rush in a regular season game – regardless of who's playing and who's sitting. There's a lot of reasons to feel optimistic about the guy, but there's no telling how much a full game could do for him as he heads into his second season.
The same could be said for Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown. Both draft picks have carved out niches for themselves, but it'd be fair to call their roles limited. Switzer has been the Cowboys' primary kick and punt returner all season, but he has played just 65 offensive snaps. Brown's abilities as a blocker have gotten him onto the field a fair amount, but he has still taken just 13 percent of the offensive snaps – managing four catches for 33 yards in the process.
I'd be fascinated to see what both guys could do with 60 or 70 snaps of offensive duty, as it'd allow them to incorporate into things even more than they already have. Not to mention, Bryant was limited by a knee injury all week, and Cole Beasley has been laid low with an illness.
Those two veterans have proven plenty about what they can bring to the table. I'd love to see what other kind of talent is on hand. And that goes for plenty of other positions. Blake Jarwin, Lewis Neal, Daniel Ross and Kavon Frazier all come to mind.
It seems like there's a lot more to gain for these young players than the vets.
*4. *Speaking of Dez, the Cowboys' All-Pro receiver sparked plenty of this week's discussion himself – both with his play on Sunday and his comments on Wednesday.
It's unusual for Bryant to talk on a Wednesday, but that speaks to the nature of the criticism that has surrounded him since that Seattle loss, when he lost a fumble and bobbled an eventual interception.
Bryant is an easy scapegoat for a team that hasn't lived up to expectations this year. He hasn't had a 100-yard game. He hasn't been on the same page as his quarterback. He's dropped what feels like a dozen catchable passes over the course of the year. And on top of all of that, he's one of this team's highest-paid players. It's easy and understandable to lay the Cowboys' woes at his feet.
I'm not going to defend Dez too much, because it's inarguable that he's had a bad season. He has struggled for one reason or another, and his salary makes that even harder to ignore.
And yet, despite that, I'm not convinced the Cowboys should make any drastic decisions regarding their star wide out.
It's a long offseason, so it's a situation that bears monitoring. But there's far more that goes into cutting Dez Bryant than whether or not he has been disappointing. You're talking about a guy that's set to make roughly $13 million next year, with a cap hit of roughly $17 million. If you release him, you could theoretically save $8.5 million – but he also hits your salary cap for $8 million of dead money.
Now, let's say you weigh your options and still decide to part ways with Dez. You can take those savings and try to spend them on a free agent wide receiver – which hardly seems like it makes sense. If you're going to overspend on an older receiver with no guarantee that he produces, I'd rather keep the guy who's intimately familiar with the organization and won't further complicate the salary cap.
*5. *Then, there's the rookie route. You could obviously turn toward the NFL draft to replace a seminal talent like Dez. There's no shortage of rookie receivers who have hit the ground running in recent seasons.
My problem with that is, if you opt to release Dez, you're putting a ton of strain on this draft to be a hit. Without an established veteran, there's very little margin for error – this rookie receiver must be a playmaker, from the get.
Not only is it a gamble that said player will pan out, but it's also not a guarantee that he'll be ready to carry the receiver corps from Day 1. If you could promise me the Cowboys were about to find their Odell Beckham Jr. in the middle of the first round, this strategy would make a ton of sense.
The more realistic scenario involves the Cowboys finding a Nelson Agholor, a Josh Doctson or a Will Fuller – that is to say, a talented player who isn't necessarily ready to take over the league from the beginning.
It makes a ton of sense to add to the talent at wide receiver, and I'd be surprised if the Cowboys don't ultimately draft one. But you're making life harder on yourself if you're trying to do that without Dez Bryant as a bit of a safety net.
*6. *The obvious answer is to get Dez to take a pay cut. He's making far more than his production suggests he should, and it could clear up a lot of issues if he simply settled for less.
But that's not how this business works. Dez alluded to that on Wednesday when he said he had no intention of agreeing to a reduced salary. And honestly, he shouldn't – not in a league where players aren't given much in the way of guarantees, and any snap can be your last.
Anything is possible, and maybe there's a compromise here that can satisfy all parties. But if not, I think Dez has the better leverage here. For all of his faults, I think the Cowboys are a better team with Dez Bryant on the roster. I also think trying to remove him from the roster puts an undue strain on their offseason, whether that's because of salary cap money or draft resources.
I think the smart play is to grin and bear it, prepare for the future and see what happens. If 2019 brings about the same questions, you can answer them then.
The kneejerk reaction often doesn't work out for the best.