Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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ASK THE LEAGUE: Should the Cowboys rest their stars or not?
The Dallas Cowboys have secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which guarantees a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. With a pair of rookies leading the way at quarterback and running back, there has been some discussion as to whether the team should play or rest the youngsters in a "meaningless" game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
With the "rest vs. rust" debate being waged in media circles, I thought I'd reach out to some of my NFL connections to see how they would handle this issue if they were in charge of the Cowboys. Here's what I asked them, followed by their responses:
AFC vice president of player of personnel: "I think you have to give the players the impression that we aren't going to take our foot off the gas pedal. You want them to prepare exactly the same as if they are going to play the whole game without telling them that they may only play in the first half or just a few series. Any player can get hurt in any NFL game, but my feeling is that you don't let Dak and Zeke take a mental break and fall into the trap of thinking that they won't play. If not, it becomes almost three weeks of inactivity when you add Week 17 to a bye week before finally the Divisional Round.
"On the flip side, there is nothing that really matters this time of year except optimum health going into playoffs. I could see letting those guys get a good lather in Week 17, then [pulling] them out of the game when you feel like you have maintained your rhythm as a team."
AFC pro personnel assistant: "That's a tough one, because they would have two weeks off without play. You worry about the offensive rhythm that they've built to this point. I would try to work them about 20 or so plays during the game. As far as the quarterback situation, I would prep Sanchez to play. I think it would be disrespectful for Romo to get thrown into that situation. Romo really has nothing to gain, while Sanchez would be auditioning for a job next year."
AFC assistant coach: "I would rest the young guys and play Sanchez."
AFC senior personnel executive: "I would sit Dak and Zeke, but entertain the possibility of keeping Zeke in the game if he is close to the [rookie] rushing record. I would play Sanchez and Romo, since neither has had many reps this season."
Despite sitting in the catbird seat as the No. 1 seed in the NFC, Jason Garrett has to make some difficult decisions to help his team make it Super Bowl LI. The Cowboys' ultra-cool leader must determine whether maintaining the team's momentum and rhythm is more important than ensuring a healthy lineup when the team takes the field in the Divisional Round. Although there are no guarantees in football, the Cowboys have looked like an unstoppable force when they've had all their weapons on the field this season. On offense, in particular, the nucleus of Prescott, Elliott, Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Jason Witten and the best O-line in football has keyed a remarkable run to the league's best record.
With that in mind, I believe Garrett has a bit of a dilemma when deciding how to approach the Cowboys' Week 17 matchup against the Eagles. While you want to make sure that the offense is clicking on all cylinders heading into the playoffs, you would hate to lose one of your key contributors to injury in a game that won't alter your seeding in the tournament. We've seen the playoff fortunes of the Oakland Raiders fall by the wayside with the loss of Derek Carr to a broken leg in Week 16, so I would proceed with extreme caution in the regular-season finale. I would treat the game like a preseason contest, with my top guys (Dak, Zeke, Dez and Witten) getting about a quarter of action. The 46-man roster prevents the team from making wholesale substitutions, but I would definitely rest my core players to prevent an injury from altering our playoff chances.
As far as the quarterback situation, I would play Sanchez extensively in this game because I wouldn't want to create any potential controversy by playing Romo. I know the trolls are waiting for Romo to play well to put a bigger scope on Dak's play heading into the tournament. While I'm not afraid of press conference debate or banter, I would rather not deal with that while prepping a young team for a playoff run. According to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, the loose plan is to give Prescott and Romo a drive or two each before handing the ball over to Sanchez. That goes against what I would do.
From a business standpoint, I wouldn't trot Romo onto the field because I would hate to see a poor performance affect his trade value in the offseason. The veteran still carries some cachet as a short-term solution, and I'd want to get maximum value in any deal. If Romo delivers a dud or suffers a minor injury in Week 17, it makes it harder to command top dollar for the fragile veteran.