FRISCO, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is in a tough spot.
Play Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, Sean Lee and whoever else you want to call indispensable on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. If they don't get injured, then it's a non-story. But if something does happen, watch out.
"It's always a balancing act. It’s always has been about how much you play guys to get them ready for the season versus putting them in a situation where they expose themselves to injury," Garrett said. "We believe it's important to play guys at some point in the preseason to get them ready for regular-season action. We feel like they're more compromised in the regular season if they don't play at all in the preseason."
When the Cowboys learned of the Guillain-Barre syndrome diagnosis of Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick on Wednesday, they knew he was not going to play Sunday. They know Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin will not play because of a bruised knee suffered in last week's preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Without those two, why risk playing Elliott and Prescott?
Elliott did not play in either of the first two preseason games. The Cowboys have followed the same plan they used in the running back's first two seasons, when he played only a handful of snaps in the third preseason game and shut it down until the regular season. LaDainian Tomlinson would not play in the preseason. As Emmitt Smith's career went along, he did not play before the regular season, either.
"We'll certainly take that into account when Jason decides who should be out there in terms of the risk/reward of what we get there," executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "And as we've said, this is a long season and every player is looked at differently in terms of where he is health-wise.
"If a guy has got a strain, a groin strain or a hamstring or something like that, then we're going to err on the side of being conservative. We got to get everybody, as much as we can, ready for that first game."
Prescott has played 39 preseason snaps so far. He has completed 13 of 18 passes for 125 yards and two touchdown passes. Heading into the 2017 season, he played 49 snaps.
"It's been good work for him. He seems comfortable and confident out here," Garrett said. "He moved the ball in those four drives with the ones. We scored two touchdowns and kicked a field goal. He has been productive."
In 2010, the Cowboys had Tony Romo play 10 snaps in the second preseason game with Robert Brewster as his right tackle. Brewster, a third-round pick in 2009, did not play his rookie year because of an injury and never played an offensive snap in a regular-season game before his release.
In 2011, Romo played a Week 3 preseason game with seventh-round pick Bill Nagy at left guard and undrafted rookie Kevin Kowalski at center. The Cowboys were in the process of releasing veteran center Andre Gurode, and his replacement, Phil Costa, was hurt. Before the game, Romo wanted to get some snaps with Kowalski since they had not worked together in camp. He kept calling Kowalski by the wrong first name. Romo played the entire first half.
If Garrett does not play Elliott, Prescott, Smith, Lawrence and Lee, where does he stop? Who else is indispensable? Looney has played the most snaps of any offensive player in two preseason games, but if he were to go down, the Cowboys would not have a center on the roster with game experience.
Lee played 10 snaps against the Bengals. He was held out of team drills at the start of camp as the Cowboys took a patient approach with their veteran linebacker. Are 10 snaps enough?
"I don't think there's an exact number," Lee said. “I think it’s more of a feeling. Every time, you practice extremely hard but when you get to the [regular season] you still feel like you haven't done enough until you get into true game shape. I don't know the number, but playing in a game helps you for the season."
For Lee, 10 snaps might be it. For Prescott, it could be 39. For Elliott, it could be zero.
"You take each of the cases independently and certain positions need to play more in the preseason, certain positions need to play more together in the preseason, certain positions probably need to play less," Garrett said. "It changes from year to year; it changes from guy to guy and position to position. We certainly don't want to put anybody out there to expose them to injury."