NFC East: Dallas Cowboys

Rapid Reaction: Dallas Cowboys

December, 21, 2014
Dec 21
7:16
PM ET
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ARLINGTON, Texas - A few thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 42-7 win against the Indianapolis Colts at AT&T Stadium:

What it means: There is not a soul who saw this coming. Not even those inside the Cowboys' locker room.

With their 35-point win, the Cowboys (11-4) not only clinched their first playoff berth and NFC East championship for the first time since 2009, but they also served notice to the conference that they just might be for real.

The Cowboys have a slim chance for a first-round bye. That will require the Arizona Cardinals to lose their final two games and the Seattle Seahawks to lose in Week 17 against the St. Louis Rams.

That the Cowboys are in the playoffs at all is a major accomplishment for a team that had low expectations entering the season and had lost de facto NFC East title games in each of the past three seasons.

Jason Garrett's mantra all year has been to fight. The Cowboys finished the fight Sunday.

A gritty effort: DeMarco Murray missed 11 games in his first three seasons with ankle, foot and knee injuries, which left many to question his durability. Just six days after undergoing surgery to stabilize a fractured fourth metacarpal in his left hand, Murray showed a toughness that should take away the durability question. He was held to a season-low 58 yards on 20 carries, but he was able to score a touchdown in his fourth straight game. He needs 29 yards to surpass Emmitt Smith's team record for yards in a season, but he won't get that chance if the Cowboys rest some of their regulars in Week 17.

Game ball: On a day a Hall of Famer's record was broken, it's hard to give this to anybody but Tony Romo. With a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten in the third quarter, Romo surpassed Troy Aikman as the franchise's leader in passing yards. Aikman had 32,942 yards from 1989-2000. Romo now has 32,971 yards, and he has started 122 games in his career. He completed 18 of 20 passes for 218 yards with four touchdown passes and no interceptions. It was the fifth time in the past six games Romo has had at least three touchdown passes. His completion percentage (90 percent) is also a team record.

Stock watch: Facing the NFL's top quarterback in Andrew Luck, the Cowboys' defense offered up their best performance of the season. It was aided by how well the offense played, but it opened the game by not allowing a first down until the second quarter. They flustered Luck -- who was without his best receiver, T.Y. Hilton, because of a hamstring injury -- into two interceptions before he was sent to the sideline, and they forced three turnovers overall. The Cowboys lost their chance at their first shutout since Week 17 of the 2009 season with 5:24 to play after a borderline pass interference penalty on Brandon Carr.

What's next: The Cowboys conclude the regular season at FedEx Field to take on the Washington Redskins. In 2012, they finished the season there by losing a winner-take-all game on three Romo interceptions. They don't have to worry about a playoff spot now. The question is whether the Cowboys play their regulars a lot with little on the line.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- While the Dallas Cowboys will have the services of running back DeMarco Murray today against the Indianapolis Colts, they will not have right tackle Doug Free.

Free
Free is inactive because of a bone spur affecting his left ankle. He also has a stress fracture, but the bone spur is more problematic. Jermey Parnell will start in Free’s place. He replaced Free earlier in the year for three games when he had a broken right foot. Rookie Zack Martin will start at right guard after he did not practice during the week. He had been listed as questionable.

Veteran Tony Hills will serve as the backup offensive tackle.

Also inactive for the Cowboys are: QB Dustin Vaughan, OT Donald Hawkins, DE Kenneth Boatright, LB Dekoda Watson, S Jakar Hamilton and DT Josh Brent.

Brent has missed the last two games with a calf injury but he was running sprints on the field before the game.

The Colts will be without leading receiver T.Y. Hilton, who has a hamstring injury. Also inactive for the Colts are CB Jalil Brown, CB Sheldon Price, G Hugh Thornton, OL Joe Reitz, OT Gosder Cherilus and DL Montori Hughes.

Welcome to AT&T Stadium

December, 21, 2014
Dec 21
2:30
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Welcome to AT&T Stadium where the Dallas Cowboys can win the NFC East and clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2009 with a win against the Indianapolis Colts.

The Cowboys need a win not only to make the playoffs but also to avoid a second losing record at home since moving to Arlington in 2009. They finished 2-6 at home in 2010 on their way to a 6-10 finish.

The Cowboys are expected to have the NFL’s leading rusher in DeMarco Murray despite a broken left hand, but how effective will he be? The Cowboys have used the running game to get to this point in the season and can’t allow a hampered Murray to change their formula for success.

Do what they do: While Murray is expected to play today there will be questions about just how much he plays because of his surgically-repaired left hand.

Murray has 63 carries in the last two games. His backups, Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar have 60 carries combined on the season.

But the Cowboys have built their success this season on the running game. It has made Tony Romo better. It has made the defense a lot better. And it has to continue whether Murray gets his full workload or not.

The Cowboys don’t want to put more on Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten or the rest of the passing game.

“I think everyone’s job is to go out and do their job regardless of circumstance,” Romo said. “That’s weather, home, away -- whether I was playing or not. I think that’s the approach everyone has to take. I suspect that DeMarco is going to get himself in position to try and play. We’ll see what happens but we just got to go out and do our jobs.”

Don’t get started: Colts quarterback Andrew Luck leads the NFL with 38 touchdown passes and 4,492 yards. He has more than capable targets in T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Coby Fleener, Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks, although Hilton is questionable with a hamstring injury.

While the Cowboys have to be ready for Luck to beat them with his arm, they also need to be prepared for his legs. Even at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Luck has an ability to escape trouble. He has 268 yards rushing on 63 carries.

His counterpart today, Romo, has 22 carries for 33 yards.

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said the Cowboys demonstrated “a little bit of a professional pass rush last week,” against the Philadelphia Eagles with four sacks and that has to continue this week. But Luck’s ability to move can make that more difficult.

“He’s a good athlete,” Marinelli said. “This guy is a terrifying athlete, man. Boy, he can run now, especially he’ll hit up and inside and he takes off. He can break both ways. And he’s strong. Really strong and fast. And very decisive when he goes. It’s not like he sees it and goes.”

The ref: Bill Leavy will be the referee for today’s game against the Colts. It is the second Cowboys game his crew has called this season. They worked the win at the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6. Here is a breakdown of what Leavy’s crew did last week in the Green Bay Packers-Buffalo Bills game.
IRVING, Texas – Christmas came early for the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday.

With the Washington Redskins beating the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cowboys can clinch the NFC East and a playoff berth with a win Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts at AT&T Stadium.

The Cowboys have chances at having homefield advantage or a first-round bye in the playoffs if they win their final two games. They close the season Dec. 28 at the Redskins.

For a team that has lost three straight Week 17, winner-take-all, NFC East championship games, the chance to cement their first playoff appearance since 2009 with a win in Week 16 – or any week – was something few expected at the beginning of the season.

But now comes the hard part.

The Cowboys are just 3-4 at AT&T Stadium this season. The Colts have the NFL’s passing leader in Andrew Luck and a high-scoring offense (30.3 yards), although they could be without their leading receiver T.Y. Hilton because of a hamstring injury.

The Cowboys expect DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher, to play despite breaking his left hand last week and having surgery on Monday. He is officially listed as questionable.
IRVING, Texas – Earlier in the week ESPN.com assembled reporters from NFL Nation and NFL Insiders to discuss the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award.

The focus was on Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt and, yes, Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray.

Packers NFL Nation reporter Rob Demovsky gave this assessment of Murray’s chances:
He absolutely should be on the list, and around the midseason point he probably was considered one of the front runners. That has waned a little since then. Running backs are underappreciated in the league today, but he's truly special regardless of whether he's playing now or whether he played when MVP runners such as Thurman Thomas, Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis were in the game.

Murray is fighting history a bit and the fact that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league.

Romo
Tony Romo’s name did not come up in the discussion. They were focused on these five candidates, but I’ve mentioned before how Romo should be in the discussion for MVP.

Even with Murray expected to play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts less than a week after undergoing hand surgery, he just can’t be the same runner, can he? Will the Cowboys give him the ball 30 times? I can’t see it happening.

So, to me, that puts more on Romo and will help his MVP case if the Cowboys beat the Colts. If Romo delivers wins and big performances in the final two games, he has to insert himself into the conversation. The preseason expectations for the Cowboys were as low as they have been since the early 2000s when they were putting up three straight 5-11 records. Romo's numbers are terrific, but it is not just the stats. It's how he is doing it and when he is doing it.

On Thursday, owner and general manager Jerry Jones was asked if this has been Romo’s best season. He didn’t want to go there. Yet.

“I don’t want to say that, because we’re not through,” Jones said. “But it has the potential to be his best season. I guess the factor that would impact the most in my mind would be if we do have the kind of season that we’re all dreaming about here, then it would be his best. Of course, he’s played well at the position. He’s played well as a quarterback, all of his percentages are certainly qualified to be one of his best. The way he’s doing it is really getting, and should get, a lot of weight as to comparing his seasons. But we’d all say let’s see how many wins we’ve got, and let’s see what the wins get for us.”
IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is on the practice field for the third straight day, but the right side of the offensive line -- tackle Doug Free and guard Zack Martin -- isn’t.

Speaking on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas on Friday, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he is “pretty positive,” Murray and Martin will play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. The Cowboys are not as sure about Free.

Murray is attempting to play with a broken hand that was surgically repaired on Monday. Free and Martin have ankle injuries. Coach Jason Garrett said there are no hard and fast rules as to whether Martin, a rookie, has to practice in order to play.

As for Murray, Garrett said the running back “looked good,” in Thursday’s practice in which he took limited team snaps but he wasn’t ready to commit to Murray playing against the Colts.

“He hasn’t done much with the ball in his left hand,” Coach Garrett said, “He’s just trying to work his way back. He had surgery a couple of days ago. I think his mind is right, but he has a long way to go. We’ll take it day by day and see how he is come game time.”

Defensive tackle Josh Brent (calf) and linebacker Dekoda Watson (hamstring) are not practicing and will likely miss Sunday’s game. Backup quarterback Brandon Weeden is missing practice for personal reasons.
IRVING, Texas – DeMarco Murray has looked at the play in which he broke his left hand last week against the Philadelphia Eagles and he is still not sure how it happened.

“It kind of stung for a minute, then went away,” the Dallas Cowboys running back said. “I kind of went over to the sideline and felt a little clicking and asked [head athletic trainer Jim Maurer] about it and he kind of knew right away what happened.”

That clicking Murray felt was a broken fourth metacarpal, the long bone that runs across the top of his hand. On Monday night Murray had surgery on his hand that included a plate and eight screws. On Sunday he expects to play against the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Mitchell Leff/Getty ImagesDeMarco Murray had surgery to repair a broken bone in his hand and plans to play less than a week later.
In the regular world, that is not normal. Not even close to normal. Yet in the football world, it is met with a shrug as if it is no big deal. Even Murray downplayed what he is doing.

“People deal with injuries all the time, so you’ve got to be able to fight through the pain,” Murray said.

Tony Romo played with two transverse process fractures in his back and has required pain-killing injections or pills to work through that and torn rib cartilage. Jason Witten played the 2012 season opener with a partially torn spleen. Dez Bryant passed on season-ending surgery for a broken finger late in 2012. Two games later, he caught nine passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. Orlando Scandrick played with a finger so shattered that reconstructive surgery did not fix it.

“It’s stuck,” Scandrick said. “It never got back. I mean it was just something [that] over time I learned how to deal with it.”

Other Cowboys have played through injuries not even known or talked about. They will wait until after the season to have surgeries on shoulders or knees that are cranky but not so bad – in their minds, anyway – to knock them out of a game.

Why do they do what they do? What is the pull of the game? What is it about that rush from that opening kick that keeps them doing what they do?

“I mean, your focus is so on the short term and now the adrenaline that goes along with it,” Witten said. “I’m the player rep, so I've got to be careful with what I say, but, yeah, this is awesome man, to be in this opportunity and a lot of us waited a long time to get here. 'Whatever it takes' is a good mindset to have. It’s just you put all this work to get to this moment in December to be in the hunt and here you are. I think you want to give yourself every chance to play.”

Romo missed just one game with his back fractures. Standing at a podium after practice in London last month, he talked about why he wanted to play so badly.

“I’m a football player; this is what I do for my life's work,” Romo said then. “It's important to me. I care about playing and competing and helping this football team win … You're only afforded so many opportunities at that, so you want to take advantage of that when you have that opportunity. If you love the game, you'll always try and get on the field.”

There is a healthy selfishness to why they play through injury. Their careers are short. There is something about being there for your teammates even when you are not at your best that brings a loyalty not seen in other walks of life. When players retire, the first thing they mention they miss most is the camaraderie -- not the game and not necessarily even the money.

Before the word ‘regret’ can be finished, Scandrick says no.

“My job is on the line every day,” Scandrick said. “The job of the scouts and people around here is to find someone better than me, that’s cheaper than me.”

Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte said earlier this week he would rather experience the NFL even if it cuts short his life span. He later clarified that his comments were not related to concussions.

“Just the associated risk with football and accepting the fact that life expectancy of someone who has played in the NFL is shorter than the average person," he told ESPNChicago.com. "And I'm fine with trading that risk for the opportunity to play football since it's something I have always wanted to do and a dream come true.”

There is a line players won’t cross: head injuries.

“I’m not messing with my head,” Scandrick said. “I got kids.”

But they’ll risk just about anything else. The pain might not last forever, thanks to modern medicine, but the memories will.

The Cowboys are 10-4 and in first place in the NFC East. If they win two more games, they guarantee themselves a playoff spot for the first time since 2009. There are only so many times a player has to achieve Super Bowl glory.

That’s why Murray wants to play less than a week having surgery and why the others play through pain.

“I love playing,” Witten said. “And I love playing with the guys you’re in the locker room with. Just an awesome deal that we have this opportunity. There’s a sign out there that says it’s a privilege, not a right, to play and coach for the Dallas Cowboys. I think that’s the way kinda this team has gone about it since April, when nobody thought we could do anything.”
IRVING, Texas – If Brandon Carr had to do it all over again, the Dallas Cowboys' cornerback might go for the pass breakup on Mark Sanchez's throw to Jeremy Maclin that led to a 72-yard completion for the Philadelphia Eagles again.

“It’s one of those in the heat-of-the-moment type things,” Carr said. “My mentality, my personality I have is to kind of go after the ball. I just didn’t come up with it. But at the same time I’m not going to turn off my aggression and turn off how I play. I’m going to keep playing the same way for the last two games the way I play.”

[+] EnlargeBeckham
Adam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Carr has been on the wrong end of some big plays, but the Dallas Cowboys' brass still has a lot of confidence in the cornerback.
Carr will be in the spotlight Sunday with the Indianapolis Colts visiting AT&T Stadium. The Colts have the NFL’s top-ranked passing offense with Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Donte Moncrief and tight end Coby Fleener serving as prolific targets.

In the win two weeks ago against the Chicago Bears, Carr gave up a 27-yard touchdown to Alshon Jeffery, although the Bears’ receiver clearly tugged on Carr’s jersey. Those are the sorts of things that happen to a cornerback that is in a slump.

Carr is still looking for his first interception of the season. Jason Garrett prefers to look at Carr’s overall games and not the big plays allowed. While he can’t dismiss the bad plays, Garrett believes Carr is doing more than many realize.

So does defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and owner and general manager Jerry Jones.

The Cowboys signed Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal as a free agent three years ago. The investment has not paid off the way the Cowboys and Jones envisioned, but Jones isn’t displeased either.

“Oh I think that one of the things that create a challenge for him is it’s like the same one that a No. 1 draft pick has,” Jones said. “The expectation of what he’s supposed to bring to the table is one that is really very difficult to meet. Now has he played at a Pro Bowl level? No, he has not. And therein lies the issue. The expectation is that he would play at a Pro Bowl level. He obviously started off behind the eight-ball this year with the loss of his mother, time lost, but he’s come back in and I’m not as hard on him as possibly it looks like we should be or others are because I know that he does give us a skill level and a size component back there that is very important to us right now.

“I’m glad we got him. I’m glad I‘m paying him. Like everybody you’d like to have your deal squared up more to the value of where it is but that’s just part of this. And he’s very capable. He plays the ball well. One of his skills is how well he plays the ball, and let’s hope that he makes that interception at [a] time that [will] down in history for the Dallas Cowboys.”

Colts vs. Cowboys preview

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
AM ET
video When: 4:25 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas TV: CBS

The Dallas Cowboys will host the Indianapolis Colts for the first time at AT&T Stadium on Sunday. While both teams are 10-4, their postseason plans are completely different.

The Colts have already clinched a playoff spot by winning the AFC South. The Cowboys lead the NFC East, but any slipup in the final two games could not only cost them the division but a playoff spot altogether.

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer offer up this week's preview:

Todd Archer: This is the first time the Cowboys will see Andrew Luck in person. His numbers are impressive, but it seems a little disconcerting to see him with 14 interceptions, up there with Jay Cutler, Blake Bortles and Andy Dalton. Is there any explanation for the high number of picks, besides the fact that they throw the ball a lot?

Mike Wells: I'll add on to Luck's turnover problems. He has also lost six fumbles, tied for first in the league in that category along with the now-benched Cutler. One of Luck's strongest attributes -- his competitiveness -- is also one of his biggest downfalls. He doesn't believe in giving up on a play. Rather than take a sack or throw the ball away, he believes he can extend a play with his legs or fit a tight throw in. Crazy part is, Luck should have more than 14 interceptions this season. There have been several throws on which the defensive player just dropped the pass. Luck knows he can't continue to make the "bonehead," as he calls them, mistakes.

DeMarco Murray's status for Sunday appears to be uncertain. Let's assume he doesn't play. How much would Dallas' offensive scheme change without him in the lineup?

Archer: I don't think it would change that much. The Cowboys' identity has been the running game and the offensive line. I do believe they have faith in backups Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar. To me, Randle would get the bulk of the carries if Murray can't go. Even if Murray does play, I think the Cowboys would monitor his snaps anyway, considering he had surgery on Monday. The Cowboys just can't abandon the run. It has made Tony Romo a better quarterback. He has been able to take advantage of coverages teams play because the defense has to commit to stopping the run. Romo has thrown more than 30 passes in a game this season just four times. It would surprise me if he is over that number this week if the game is not out of whack with the Colts leading big.

I mentioned how the Colts throw a ton, but how has the running game changed with Daniel Herron becoming more of a fixture than Trent Richardson?

Wells: The Colts don't have a running game. If they rush for more than 100 yards as a team, Luck usually has contributed a significant portion of those yards. Things drastically changed for the Colts once Ahmad Bradshaw was lost for the season with a fractured fibula on Nov. 16. They lack consistency in the backfield. Herron is a better runner than Richardson -- outrushing Richardson in three of the four games he's played -- but Richardson is a better pass-blocker, and that's what the Colts need more because the offensive line continues to be inconsistent. If the Colts are going to make a run in the playoffs, they will have to do it with Luck's arm.

Sticking with the running game, how much credit for Murray's success goes to the offensive line? The O-line is the group on most teams that rarely gets praised but is quick to get criticized when it can't open holes or protect the quarterback.

Archer: I think a lot of the credit goes to the line and line coaches Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack. It’s helped by the fact that the Cowboys have three first-rounders among the group in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, but Ronald Leary and Doug Free have also played well. They have a good blend of power and smarts. They help each other out. They're smart. They have had really just one bad game as a group. But this week will be a test because of injuries. Free is in question because of an ankle injury. If he can't play, Jermey Parnell would start. He did OK when Free missed three games earlier in the season. Martin is also dealing with an ankle sprain, but he was able to gut it out to finish the Philadelphia game. I talked earlier about the Cowboys' willingness to run the ball this year. Well, now they have to step up even more if Murray can’t play (or is limited).

The Colts are 10-4 and have clinched a playoff spot. They have a great quarterback, top receiver and a decent enough passing game, but I'm skeptical about just how good they are in part because they play in a terrible division. So, I guess, how good are these Colts? Can they beat New England or Denver in the AFC and get to the Super Bowl?

Wells: Don't worry about it. I'm just as skeptical of the Colts. They are 11-0 in the AFC South the past two seasons, with another win expected at Tennessee to close out the year. But everybody knows the AFC South is possibly the worst division in the league. The Colts are 2-3 against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today. Their three losses were to Denver, New England and Pittsburgh. The Patriots ran for more than 200 yards against them, and the Steelers had more than 600 yards of total offense. The Colts have had this game against the Cowboys circled on the calendar since the Patriots embarrassed them last month. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said Dallas is the most balanced offensive team they will face this season. The Colts need this victory, from a mental standpoint, to prove they can beat a team that is capable of putting up a lot of points.

I recall talking to you earlier this season, and it didn't seem like you were a firm believer in the Cowboys. Have you changed your thought? If so, do you believe they are capable of making a run in the NFC?

Archer: I guess it depends on how you want to define "making a run." They haven't qualified for the playoffs yet, and a loss Sunday would be a huge blow to those chances. But I'll go with the premise that they make it for this answer. I think they can make a run because of their style of play. Plus, they are 7-0 on the road this season. It might be better to be the wild card, but the odds of making it as a wild card are steep because it would require Seattle or Detroit to lose in the final two weeks. I have been skeptical this season. I don't know how anybody could have expected this from the Cowboys at the beginning of the year. Heck, Jerry Jones even said it would be an uphill battle. The coaches and players deserve a ton of credit for getting to this position. Now that they are this close, they can't blow it. They have to make the playoffs. I look around at the rest of the NFC, and there is a "why not the Cowboys?" feeling. They already beat the Seahawks in Seattle. The Packers just lost to Buffalo. I don't see a dominant team in the conference, so, yeah, they could make a run. But first, they have to get in the playoffs.

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IRVING, Texas -- In his past four games, defensive tackle Henry Melton has played 108 snaps. He has one tackle and two pass deflections.

Melton
 In three of those games, there's no statistical evidence he even played. The Cowboys expected more from the 2012 Pro Bowl player.

The lack of production has not gone unnoticed by the coaching staff. Melton’s playing time has decreased in each of the past three games from 31 plays to 25 plays to 21 plays.

“We need more from everybody; that's what we try to do as coaches every day -- and that’s get the most out of our players,” Jason Garrett said. “Henry has done some good things. He knocked a ball down against Chicago and almost intercepted a screen pass coming out of the end zone.

“He’s done some good things, but we’re always trying to grind our players to get the most out of them in practice so they can carry that to the games.”

The Cowboys signed Melton, hoping he could find the form that made him one of the game’s dominant defensive linemen a couple of years ago. He missed the past 13 games of last season with a torn ACL.

Perhaps, Melton, who's also been hampered by a groin injury this season, is still recovering from the knee injury.

Whatever the reason, there have been few times this season when Melton was a difference-maker. There’s no bigger indication than when Tyrone Crawford moved from defensive end to the three-technique defensive tackle, which is one of the key spots on this defense.

That player is supposed to be a disruptive play-maker. Crawford has solidified himself as the starter.

In his past four games, he has nine tackles, three tackles for loss, three sacks, a forced fumble and four quarterback hits in 191 snaps.

The Cowboys figured that’s the kind of production Melton would provide.

Aside from a brief burst about six weeks ago, when he had a total of 3.5 sacks in losses to Washington and Arizona, Melton has been a non-factor. The lack of production is going to cost him quite a bit of money.

If Melton is on the roster the first day of the 2015 league year, he gets a three-year $24M extension with $9 million in guaranteed money.

No way, based on what we’ve seen thus far, will the Cowboys pick up that option.
IRVING, Texas – ESPN Insider Todd McShay offered up his first mock draft for 2015 on Wednesday and he has the Dallas Cowboys leaning defensively.

Smart move.

With the 25th pick in the first round, McShay had the Cowboys taking Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson. You have to be an Insider to read the full mock, but here is McShay's breakdown:
The Dallas defense held up better this season with the help of a dominant running game and ball-control offense, but corner is still a position of need for the Cowboys. Former first-round pick Morris Claiborne was benched this season prior to his season-ending injury, and the Cowboys could use an infusion of youth and talent at the position. Johnson doesn't have elite physical traits, but he's fast and fluid enough as an athlete to keep up with most receivers and is physical and aggressive as a press corner despite his lean frame and shorter arms. His instincts and awareness are excellent.

When McShay says “doesn’t have elite physical traits,” it makes me want to turn the page a little bit. I’m not going to pretend I know a thing about Johnson at this time. I have a hard enough time keeping up with the players currently on the Cowboys’ roster, let alone players who might never put on the star, in the middle of December.

Carr
Cornerback will be a huge need. McShay mentioned Claiborne, who will be entering the final year of his deal and will be coming back from major knee surgery. Brandon Carr’s future is also up in the air because of a $12.717 million salary-cap figure in 2015. The Cowboys won’t keep him at that price and will likely ask him to take a major paycut.

If Carr refuses, then they’ll likely let him go, which adds more to the need of getting a cornerback or three in the offseason.

I wondered earlier in the week whether the Cowboys’ 2015 draft would solely be about the defense. The Cowboys have obvious defensive line needs. George Selvie, Anthony Spencer and Nick Hayden are set to be free agents. As of now, the Cowboys will decline the option on Henry Melton’s contract that would guarantee him another $9 million.

To me, I think defensive line is more of a need. By a smidge. You can have the best cornerbacks in the world, but if the quarterback is not affected, then it won’t much matter. Pressure makes a secondary. A secondary doesn’t make pressure.
IRVING, Texas -- There he was, as usual, the most enigmatic player on the Dallas Cowboys' roster making yet another big play.

Linebacker Bruce Carter has every physical trait you’d want in a linebacker, but too many times during his career the production hasn’t come close to matching the potential.

Carter
Carter
This season, honestly, isn’t that much different in a lot of ways.

Understand, Carter is in the final year of his contract. This is when you get the best a player has to offer because he knows free agency looms.

Carter has played fewer than 30 snaps in three of the last five games. He’s been benched at various times this season, leaving Carter and the coaching staff frustrated.

Still, he has provided some of the Cowboys’ biggest game-changing plays this season. There’s a good chance Dallas is not 10-4 and in complete control of its playoff fate without Carter.

Carter’s interception return for a touchdown against St. Louis in Week 3 gave the Cowboys a 34-24 lead after trailing 21-0. He made a diving deflection leading to an interception in the first half against New Orleans in Week 4, leading to a touchdown and a 17-0 second-quarter lead in a blowout win over New Orleans.

In a scoreless tie against Chicago in Week 14, he partially blocked a punt to set up the Cowboys' first touchdown in a 41-28 victory. And he made a leaping interception with 1:57 left to end any hope of a Philadelphia comeback on Sunday.

For now, Kyle Wilber, who played seven snaps against Philadelphia, starts at strongside linebacker in the base defense, which the Cowboys don’t use all that much. Carter rotates in the nickel defense with Rolando McClain and Anthony Hitchens.

Against Philadelphia, Carter finished with a team-high six tackles, impressive considering his limited playing time.

“We’re constantly trying to put them in an environment to coach them and teach them to be more consistent players, but he’s made a lot of big plays," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "I think he’s improving as a player. I think he’s becoming a more consistent player.”
IRVING, Texas – We know about what Tom Landry, Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt meant in turning the Dallas Cowboys into America’s Team.

But do you know about the impact of A. Salam Qureishi?

FiveThirtyEight and ESPN Films’ digital shorts series Signals has put together a fascinating look at Qureishi and how the Cowboys employed his computer expertise to help map their draft strategies.

Qureishi knew nothing about football. The Cowboys knew little to nothing about computer analysis. Schramm put the two together and the Cowboys eventually made it to five Super Bowls and had 20 straight winning seasons.

The Cowboys were far ahead of their time in using computer programming in scouting players and Brandt remembers many times in which teams would mock their use of it. When the Cowboys held up the 1964 draft while waiting for medical reports on Mel Renfro, Brandt once said a team joked them, “What, is your computer broken?”

Click here to view the digital short and be prepared to be amazed at how much work went into the process.
IRVING, Texas -- Brett Favre played for the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings after building a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers. Peyton Manning is in his third season with the Denver Broncos after building his Hall of Fame career with the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargeTroy Aikman
Mitchell Reibel/Getty ImagesAndy Reid, then the head coach at Philadelphia, inquired with Troy Aikman to join the Eagles in 2002.
What would you have thought if Troy Aikman, winner of three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, played for the Philadelphia Eagles?

According to Aikman, it could have happened in 2002. Aikman had last played in the NFL during the 2000 season, logging 11 games for the Cowboys.

Then, Eagles coach Andy Reid called up Aikman to see if he would be interested in playing again after Donovan McNabb broke an ankle. Aikman was actually at halftime of a game he was calling at Qualcomm Stadium for Fox when a producer told him to make a phone call.

He said, 'Hey, did you hear what happened?' I said, 'Yeah, we did a game break.' He said, 'Well I want to talk to you about coming to Philadelphia,'" Aikman told The Afternoon Show with Tim Cowlishaw and Matt Mosley on ESPN Radio 103.3 FM in Dallas on Monday. "I said, 'Andy, we're in the middle of a broadcast. It's halftime right now.' He said, 'I know, I'm watching the game.' So I said, 'OK, I'll call you after the game.'"

After the game Aikman talked to his Fox producer and made a phone call to Norv Turner, his former offensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys and confidante. It didn't help Reid's cause that Aikman was at the home he had in Santa Barbara, California, as he pondered a return to the game.

"This was around November or whenever it was, and I woke up and I'm thinking, I can either enjoy the next couple of days in Santa Barbara, California, it's about 65, 70 degrees, or I'm going to be on a plane flying to Philadelphia and probably going to be playing on Monday night against the 49ers,'" Aikman said. "I called Andy and I said, 'Hey, I'm honored that you've called me, but I'm going to stay put.'"

For the Eagles, it worked out OK. A.J. Feeley went 4-1 as McNabb's replacement. McNabb was able to return for the playoffs and Philadelphia made it to the NFC Championship Game that year.
IRVING, Texas -- DeMarco Murray has a cast protecting his surgically repaired left hand. The right side of the offensive line is hurt. Tackle Doug Free has painful bone spurs affecting his left ankle. Guard Zack Martin has a sprained ankle that required a heavy tape job for him to continue playing Sunday.

Murray
But the game will go on for the Dallas Cowboys. On Sunday the Indianapolis Colts will be at AT&T Stadium for a 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff, and the Cowboys' playoff hopes are on the line.

Most likely, they won't know for sure until game day if those three starters will be able to play in what will be the biggest game of the season.

"The mentality is, if you're on the football team, you have a responsibility to be ready to play and you have to prepare as such," coach Jason Garrett said. "And that's your job. You're a pro football player and everyone's counting on you. So the accountability thing is huge to your teammates and to your football team. So it starts with the preparation."

Free
If Murray, Free and Martin can't play, then the Cowboys will call on the next man. Every team in the NFL operates on a "next man up" philosophy. The Cowboys have had to do it throughout the season because of injuries.

Rookie Anthony Hitchens has had to start games at all three linebacker spots because of injuries to Justin Durant, Bruce Carter and Rolando McClain. Sterling Moore has had to step in for Morris Claiborne at cornerback. Jack Crawford had to play defensive tackle because of injuries, and when he was lost for the season due to thumb surgery, others had to replace him.

Martin
Safeties Jeff Heath and C.J. Spillman have been pressed into action. Jermey Parnell replaced Free after halftime of the win against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Parnell started three games earlier this season after Free suffered a broken foot. Mackenzy Bernadeau, who would replace Martin vs. the Colts, had to start at left guard for one game when Ronald Leary was hurt.

If Murray, the NFL's leading rusher, can't play, Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar would split the running back duties. They have 328 rushing yards this season. Murray needed less than three games to reach that total this season.

But at least they have played. And Parnell and Bernadeau have starting experience. With so much on the line Sunday, it's better that their teammates have already seen them excel; they are not unknown commodities.

"All those guys have experience and we have all the faith in the world," Leary said. "From [Parnell] to Randle to Dunbar, they all bring their own thing to the team. Them coming in, stepping up, it's going to help in a big way."

Garrett made his career as a backup quarterback. When he made his famous 1994 start against the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving, nothing gave him more confidence than receiver Michael Irvin telling Garrett what was going to happen the next time the Cowboys ran the same play later in the game after Garrett threw an interception.

"Certainly, what happens in those situations is the confidence in other people who have been playing and instilling the confidence in the guy who is coming in to play," Garrett said. "I always benefited from that. I think the best teams have that in them. They say, ‘OK, here we go. We believe in this guy. He wouldn't be out here if he didn't belong.' I think that's the mentality you have to have."

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