There might be some interesting variations to come for the Dallas Cowboys offensive line. Just over two weeks after having his ankle rolled up on in the victory over the New England Patriots and one week after he and the team declared his health to be pristine, All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith exited the eventual win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 8 after reaggravating his ankle injury. He'd go on to finish with only 31 snaps (42%) on Sunday night, and his availability against the Denver Broncos in Week 9 is now up in the air -- the Cowboys now providing a more definitive picture of what he's dealing with.
Smith is nursing a bone spur in his ankle, owner Jerry Jones told 105.3FM the Fan on Tuesday, and while it doesn't promise a trip to injured reserve or anything near that extreme right now, it does force the Cowboys to consider all of their options at left tackle over the next few days.
"We'll have to see how Tyron practices," said Jones. "Say it's a spur. We'll take a look at that as it moves through. We should and will practice with alternatives to him being out there. But it will really depend on how he does, again, respond to a spur that's giving him some pain."
The Cowboys were able to escape U.S. Bank Stadium with a healthy Cooper Rush despite the wildly uneven play of Ty Nsekhe, a veteran swing tackle signed to a one-year deal this offseason to offset the loss of Cameron Erving in free agency. It was the team's hope that Nsekhe would be an needed upgrade, but between a poor camp and bout(s) with injury, he's been anything but -- still struggling to be a solid piece in the rotation.
His absence due to injury opened the door for Terence Steele to take the reins at right tackle during the five-game suspension of La'el Collins, and Steele never looked back, leaving Nsekhe's only opportunity for regular season snaps in Sunday's exit of Smith, and things didn't go swimmingly for the former. Nsekhe lacked the necessary anchor to prevent being bullied into the backfield, and all while Collins -- who returned during the bye week -- was forced to stand on the sideline and watch. That decision further fuels speculation that the Cowboys are punishing Collins, though they openly dispute this notion, despite the glaringly obvious.
So what are the options here for the Cowboys?
There are a few, and it just depends on who they're willing to move where.
The most logical option is to move Steele to left tackle, seeing as he's a swing tackle, and to allow Collins to retake his position as starting right tackle. This provides the least amount of disruption across the offensive line, all things considered, and Steele has more recent experience playing on the left side than does Collins -- who hasn't done it since his days at LSU. Another option would be to keep Steele on the right side, where he's already playing well, and to ask Collins to channel his inner Tiger on the opposite edge; a move that is less of a guaranteed success, but one Jones clearly has in mind prior to practice firing up this week.
"You don't ever want to move two guys if you don't have to," said Jones. "And, so, he'll serve that role, but he's played all the positions except center. And we'll use him and this could be the time we use him the most."
Collins played in only four snaps in his first game back from suspension, and mostly as an added fullback with Connor McGovern in what's been dubbed the "Hulk" offensive package. He'll undoubtedly have no problem with taking the wheel from Nsekhe at left tackle, if that's the Cowboys decision and if Smith misses Week 9, hungry to get back on the field and into the good graces of a team that still believes in his abilities.
"Obviously [Collins is] an outstanding offensive lineman, specifically, but I don't want that to sound trite," Jones added. "He's the enforcer. That's a big statement. He really has a lot of the aura that you want for an offensive line to be.
"They need to be that for a team in my mind, and that is we're just going to run it down their throat. He's the leader of that group. So, I think my hat's off to him the way he's handled his off-the-field stuff during this past, if you will, year and a half. And he did not have a good training camp because of limitations on coming back with his surgery.
"So, he wasn't able to really improve and really have the preparation that you would like to see him have. But he's getting there and he will get there, and this may spur it on because he really does have some outstanding position flex. Most offensive linemen do."
There is another option for the Cowboys as well, one I'll list here for the sake of exploration, but it's far less likely. There's Connor Williams, who played tackle at Texas before being moved to left guard by the Cowboys only to now (in a contract year, no less), see the team testing Collins at guard in practice. McCarthy liked what he saw in the limited work Collins received at guard ahead of the battle with the Vikings, and maybe that sparks a curiosity to potentially try Williams at LT with Collins at LG while Steele stays put at RT.
The Cowboys have long been seemingly loathe to move Williams to the left edge, instead trying him unsuccessfully at center in the preseason, hinting at this option virtually being not one at all.
"That will all get worked out," said Jones. "It will get worked out here pretty early this week as they work through, look at what we're up against with Denver and then look at what we may be dealing with and we'll see it there at practice Wednesday and go from there. But coaches have a good idea of where they want to go with this thing.
"We'll see how it works on the field at practice."
And per McCarthy, expect a decision to be made fairly quickly.
"I think it's the exact conversation we've had today, and we're really going to let the gameplan process answer it," he said of the thought process this week in Dallas. "Do you want to make two moves because of one injury, or do you want to go one-for-one? We also talked about all the reps each guy repped throughout training camp, too. We keep track of all of that.
So, at the end of the day, it's footwork familiarity. Once you get into the gameplan, you can talk about matchups. So, we'll let the gameplan process answer those questions here in the next 24 hours."