It's a curious decision that's now been made, but it's been a curious season for the Dallas Cowboys -- to say the least. On the heels of seeing fourth-string quarterback Garrett Gilbert be one throw away from shocking the world and upsetting the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9, the Cowboys front office remains completely committed to Andy Dalton as their starter. They wasted no time double stamping Dalton as QB1 coming out of their Week 10 bye, with both owner Jerry Jones and VP of Player Personnel Stephen Jones taking to the airwaves to rub Dalton's back, after the veteran missed two consecutive weeks with injury.
The first absence came in Week 8 after he suffered a concussion during an illegal blow to the head by Washington linebacker Jon Bostic, and then in Week 9 -- the latter clearing the way for Gilbert to land his first NFL start. Gilbert made one fatal mistake against the Steelers, namely a red zone interception to safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, but wildly outplayed expectations as well as future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger en route to staking his claim to the QB1 seat.
Sources tell CBS Sports to not rule out the possibility of Gilbert as starter in Week 11 against the Minnesota Vikings for a variety of reasons, despite team comments to the contrary, and that's where this all could get quite interesting; but we'll get to why in a moment.
First, when asked who'll be starter when the Cowboys take on the Minnesota Vikings, the elder Jones pounded the proverbial table.
"Andy is," he told 105.3FM the Fan on Tuesday. "When we signed Andy, I really thought we had arguably the best backup quarterback that I've ever been associated with, and we've had some good ones with Jason Garrett and I don't want to go over guys like that -- Bernie Kosar -- which are names that are from the past. But still, to have Andy Dalton as your backup quarterback when in fact Andy is, in my mind, a very legitimate starter.
"What does Andy bring? Andy brings the things that we were talking about with Gilbert -- his calmness, his ability to get you checked into the right way to approach how that defense is lining up, then to execute it with some quick reads. What you saw in Gilbert, that's what Andy Dalton is and has been for many years and has made the Pro Bowl doing it. He's the guy.
"Again, it's unbelievable we haven't been able to get him out there for a little part of the first time that he came in for Dak. We haven't had him for the last three ballgames and it's made a big difference."
But this is where the science derails perception, even if the Cowboys refuse to acknowledge the reality of football climate change.
Gilbert wasn't simply (and arguably more) poised than Dalton was as starter in Week 7 and Week 8, but the escapability of Gilbert is something Dalton lacks in a big way, and it's one reason the latter has been sacked seven times since attempting to take over for an injured Dak Prescott. Adding rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci to this argument to drive home the point, both Dalton and DiNucci were sacked a total of 14 times over the course of three combined starts. Against a visceral Steelers front that faced the same porous o-line from weeks prior, and one that was expected to rack up sacks in Week 9, Gilbert was sacked only twice -- escaping what would've been at least two others to make big plays.
At the half, he led both teams in rushing yards, but also had a higher passer rating than Roethlisberger, and his aforementioned interception was his only giveaway. For comparison, Dalton has three interceptions and two fumbles but, to be fair, let's quantify this mathematically, considering Dalton has more than double the number of dropbacks as does Gilbert.
Dalton, who has 84 total dropbacks in the post-Prescott era, is averaging one interception or fumble every 17 pass attempts. Gilbert is averaging one every 38 pass attempts and, in a vacuum, that paces out to 2.2 INTs/fumbles if awarded the same 84 dropbacks as Dalton. Gilbert has also already matched Dalton's touchdown tally for the season (1) in less than half the attempts (38), and while one of the QBs was reduced to skewering the o-line on national television -- albeit justifiably so -- the other simply made lemons out of lemonade with the same group.
The science is staring the Cowboys right in the face, and with sunglasses on, so what's the real issue here?
Quiet as it's kept, a large reason for the Cowboys vehemence regarding Dalton is not simply the fact he has a longer resume -- negated by the "hot hand" theory now attached to Gilbert -- but also because the team signed Dalton this offseason to a one-year deal that included a $2 million signing bonus and $3 million in total guarantees. He has the ability to more than double that payout to $7 million if he makes a playoff run and then wins the Super Bowl, and considering both are unlikely to happen in 2020 for the Cowboys, that's still a $3 million check already cut to Dalton that they can't take back. Gilbert hits the cap this year for only $529,412, making an easier financial pill for the hyper-frugal Cowboys to swallow when justifying who sits.
It also needs to be said that if Dalton can somehow show he's worth a deal elsewhere in 2021, the Cowboys would potentially land a compensatory pick in 2022. That's some admirable chess, but it's not worth rocking the table to make the pieces move into place, knowing they very well and likely will not.
Spin it however they like, but this is a reality when trying to discern the Cowboys passion on an unimpressive Dalton. The front office simply doesn't want to have him healthy and on the bench with a pocket full of unearned millions, if they can help it. That, of course, won't be the PR framing, but instead an insistence on Dalton's ability, even in the face of the the opposite being true this season.
So while they readily admit Gilbert looked great, their stance is Dalton has looked similarly great before he got to Dallas.
"The good things that you saw Gilbert do, you say, 'Is there a lot more of that with Andy?' " said Jerry Jones. "And there is. There just is. You take that last drive, Andy Dalton has taken that last drive before and taken it and gotten you a score."
Jones is, of course, alluding to Dalton spelling Prescott, post-injury, against the New York Giants and making two key passes downfield to Michael Gallup to set up kicker Greg Zuerlein for the game-winning field goal. Although, as Jones then admits, there's no guarantee the required touchdown to beat the Steelers would've happened with Dalton under center or that -- given Dalton's giveaway ratio and lack of escapability -- that the Cowboys would have even been in the position for the game to matter with four seconds remaining in regulation.
"That's not anything against Gilbert, and Andy could have been in the same spot and not scored," Jones furthered. "We all know that. But the bottom line is that it is clear, and just look at your experience, look at your numbers, and look at everything else. It's clear that you get more of it. But what you saw was good, sound, getting you in the right spot, making a good decision after the ball was snapped, basically made a few plays with his legs -- all of those kinds of things [in] Andy Dalton, but at a much higher level."
The higher level Jones is referring to has not yet shown up in Dallas, and the reality is it might never. That isn't stopping Stephen Jones from echoing his father's sentiment though, and predictably so, given what I noted regarding the contract situation. This is where the crack in the armor finally shows itself, however, because the fact is Dalton isn't healthy yet, and that very clearly leaves the door wide open for Gilbert to still potentially start in Week 11.
Dalton has cleared neither concussion nor COVID-19 protocol just yet, and must do both in order to take the field in two weeks.
"Once he is cleared, we fully expect him to step back in as our starter," said S. Jones to 105.3FM the Fan on Monday, before cracking the proverbial window. "But we don't know that at this point."
So, what does Mike McCarthy think of the bye week proclamation on Dalton? I'm glad you asked.
The Joneses put McCarthy in a precarious position this week, jumping out to crown Dalton with lots of time left for McCarthy -- the ... ahem ... head coach -- to make the decision. With that, they've basically painted him into the corner of toeing the party line, even if he secretly doesn't entirely agree just yet. And so it was, when McCarthy spoke on Monday, he mirrored the the overall stance on Dalton, but again pointed at his health as an escape hatch.
Asked if Dalton would return to starter, and stay there, if healthy and if the Cowboys remain in the division race, McCarthy answered with plenty of drafts seeping through the uncaulked patio door.
"I think that's a fair and accurate statement," he said, toeing said line. "I don't want to take anything away from Garrett [Gilbert] and what he accomplished yesterday. I thought he played a fine game. He did some really good things, particularly in the command of the offense.
"There were a number of adjustments that were made throughout the game, and I thought he picked them up seamlessly, frankly. I feel really good about what he's accomplished for only being here three weeks."
"But you know, Andy has been here with us from Day One," McCarthy continued. "I hope to get him back next week sometime and hopefully he can pick up where he left off."
And there you have it: the Cowboys are still leaning toward Dalton publicly because he's been with the team longer, despite having played much more poorly than anticipated, because maybe he'll snap out of it -- or so they'd like to believe. Quietly, and additionally, the decision is fueled by the money already put into Dalton's bank account, whether they admit it or not (they won't).
In the meantime, there's still time for things to change -- i.e., Dalton failing to clear one or both protocols -- to allow Gilbert to remain starter, as he's at least earned for now. If Dalton does return in Week 11, and is fully healthy, the Cowboys better hope he actually does not pick up where he left off, because where he left off was 0-2 with four giveaways, a passer rating of 64.4 and a furious frustration with the same o-line Gilbert made look serviceable. The bottom line is, with so many variables at play, Gilbert is most certainly nudging McCarthy to continue evaluating him in 2020 for the chance to be QB2 behind Prescott in 2021.
So take everything the team says about the situation right now for what it is, but also, for what it isn't, because there's much more here than what meets the eye. And time will tell if the Cowboys transform their stance in the next two weeks or so.