The 2020 season is barreling out of control for the Dallas Cowboys, which has inevitably led to questions surrounding their willingness to tank the remainder of their games with the goal of securing the highest possible draft pick. While that may end up happening organically for them, currently sitting at 2-6, ravaged by injury and readying to pit their fourth quarterback of the season against the visceral Pittsburgh Steelers defense, some outside of the organization would like to see them forcefully torpedo the final eight games. That's not something owner Jerry Jones is willing to see happen, although he readily admits they're not in the best shape to make a run at Super Bowl LV.
In a long and winding answer to the possibility of the Cowboys tanking in 2020, Jones walked the line between assessing young talent that could inevitably make it more difficult to win games and the fact he demands said young talent do all they can to win games.
"Tanking has nothing to do with the performance of a player, the performance of a coach, the performance of getting better, the performance of the things you do to try to win the ballgame in my mind," Jones told 105.3FM the Fan on Tuesday. "Could you make a decision to play a younger player more or a player that you're going to be pretty firm that you're going to be going forward with in contract wise than a different situation? And the answer is -- I can see that, yeah. I can see that you make sure that you get these guys those reps.
"The only way to have and get better in the NFL is for reps, and game reps are precious, hard to come by. And you don't get them by just that issue if you're sitting there competing for the championship."
Loosely translated, Jones is saying if the Cowboys were in contention for the Super Bowl, they wouldn't have the opportunity to throw a crop of young talent all over the field at multiple positions, but he also isn't writing the season off, currently in third place in the lowly NFC East and having only one win fewer than the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles -- whom the Cowboys just lost to in Week 8. The fact the team opted to trade defensive end Everson Griffen to the Detroit Lions in exchange for a conditional 2021 sixth-round pick and then hints at a continued squirreling away of salary cap space, yes, but also clears a path for young players on the roster to see the light of day.
These were both reasonsahead of the trade deadline.
"I think it makes you see more young players -- maybe should be doing it anyway -- candidly in regard to that definition of tanking," Jones said. "You maybe should be playing football, you may should be playing those players out there anyway. I'm saying it really works better that way."
That's quite the optimistic spin on a season that's seen the Cowboys obliterated by both injury -- headlined by the season-ending broken ankle on Dak Prescott -- poor coaching on several fronts and a historically poor performing defense. With Prescott down for the remainder of the year, the team turned to Andy Dalton before he was concussed on an illegal blow to the head at the hands of linebacker Jon Bostic in Week 7, only to now have added the veteran quarterback to the COVID-19 list, sidelining him for the second consecutive week.
In his absence against the Eagles, rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci was sacked four times and harassed into a poor showing in his first NFL start, a myriad of variables creating a buzzsaw Jones now admits was "more than [DiNucci] handle," which now puts either as the suddenly dead offense speeds toward a brick wall in Pittsburgh.
Life is coming at the Cowboys so fast that Jones himself -- who noted last week Dalton's proclamation he'd be ready to play against the Steelers -- spoke highly of Dalton returning only hours before he was moved to the COVID-19 list. Jones pointed to Dalton as the supposed steady hand that could help them climb out of the 2-6 hole, doubling down on comments from shortly after the loss of Prescott wherein he believed things would be OK with Dalton under center.
"I think we can both [evaluate our future and compete for the division], and Dalton is a key," said Jones.
So much for that.
And even if Dalton was available prior to Week 11 against the Minnesota Vikings -- assuming he is then -- his presence on the field has been of no consequence. Thanks in large part to abhorrent protection up front, Dalton has been sacked seven times in his two starts, and has just one touchdowns to three interceptions along with two fumbles. As mentioned before, DiNucci was sacked four times by the Eagles and has now been sacked seven times himself in the last five quarters of play, so there can't suddenly be a lot of hope the Cowboys o-line -- Zack Martin notwithstanding -- will suddenly become an impenetrable wall against one of the most dominant defenses in the entire league.
It's a defense that left reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson stunned and discombobulated, so it's safe to say whether it's DiNucci, Gilbert or Rush, things could get very, very ugly on Sunday afternoon. That said, Jones isn't relinquishing hope, particularly after seeing his usually carcass-like defense show signs of life against the Eagles by way of four sacks, six quarterback hits, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions by rookie second-round pick Trevon Diggs.
"I think some of the things that we did the other day there defensively, we got better," said Jones. "I think we've got additional reps from help on the way. We had [Randy] Gregory out there. We get [Chidobe] Awuzie back out there. We get [Leighton] Vander Esch back out more acclimated.
"I think those things are there."
True enough, but Jones' assessment of his offensive line remains off-base, which is a key reason why the Cowboys are refusing to move Martin to tackle for the remainder of the year, continuing their assessment of consistently impoverished play at right tackle -- i.e., undrafted rookie Terence Steele --
"I think the offensive line particularly played better," Jones noted. "And, so, those playing together plays better. And, so, those kinds of things, hey, let's go out and get better. We've got the full half the season.
"I'm going to refer back to when I played in college. We got 10 games, 80 percent of a college season left to play. Let's go. And things aren't so out of kilter other than our actual play, which, by the way, is almost trite to say almost. But we can play better."
That is of course saying the least, seeing as Dalton's lone touchdown is the only one scored by the team in the 13 quarters following Prescott's injury and the team dropped from averaging 32.6 points per game with Prescott to only 7.33 points per game without the two-time Pro Bowler. But while the Cowboys continue to swirl around the porcelain bowl that is 2020, they're not laying down arms, instead trying to win games while figuring out who deserves to stay in the armory when 2021 rolls around. And, in the process, they may not have to tank on purpose.
It might continue to happen because of Football Darwinism.