FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys needed a break.
Playing their third game in 12 days last Thursday, they were emotionally spent after the 27-17 win against the New Orleans Saints. They were a team without its head coach because of COVID-19. Five other coaches, including offensive line coach Joe Philbin and assistant offensive line coach Jeff Blasko, and two players (Terence Steele and Nahshon Wright) also missed the game. They had lost the first two games of the stretch and faced questions as to their legitimacy in the NFC after a hot 6-1 start.
The win against the Saints might not have fully answered all of the questions but over the next five weeks the Cowboys (8-4) have a chance to write their own ending to the 2021 season.
But first they get to rest.
“I definitely look at it as a mini-bye to get ourselves rested,” quarterback Dak Prescott said of the 10 days before playing the Washington Football Team (6-6) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox). “Yeah, we need to get some players back fully healthy and just get the reps and practice they need before the next game. It’s great to have a win rolling into this and being able to just propel and hit this last stretch of games the right way.”
The Cowboys play four NFC East games over the final five weeks. The other matchup is against the NFC-leading Arizona Cardinals (10-2) at AT&T Stadium. If they can manage a win against Washington on Sunday, then they would have almost locked down a division title with a 9-4 record and an undefeated mark (3-0) in the East.
There are bigger goals.
“The Super Bowl, the playoffs. We only have five games left. There’s more stuff to be done in those five games,” rookie linebacker Micah Parsons said. “It’s not time for me to sit on my couch smiling and eating Cheetos just yet. We’re trying to do something way bigger than what everybody else thought we could do this year, so, that’s what I’m focused on.”
The Cowboys are getting close to full strength, too.
The break will allow Ezekiel Elliott some time to rest his ailing right knee. Many other players are dealing with some kind of injury, so the time off will serve them well.
Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence played in 37 snaps against the Saints in his first game since the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because of a broken foot. Wide receiver Amari Cooper was back after a two-game absence because of COVID-19.
Defensive end Randy Gregory (calf) and defensive tackle Neville Gallimore (elbow) are expected back for Washington after missing four and 12 games, respectively. Terence Steele, who started 10 of 12 games at tackle, should be back from a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
“We all see that, boy, you’ve got to go out there and get a lot of reps. When they get back, you still got to have the reps because it’s a coordinated game,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “We’re all coordinated with each other. We did see we had a couple of the help-on-the-way guys out there [vs. New Orleans]. We’ll get Gregory next week. We’ll get Gallimore next week. But that alone won’t get it done. They’ve got to get out there and work and work together. That’s why teams work toward getting good enough to be in the playoffs and have a run at it. We’re going to have that. We’ve got the games ahead of us for these guys that’s important to us.”
Receivers Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup have played just three games together this season. The Cowboys’ first scoring drive against New Orleans showed just how important their collective presence is. Cooper picked up 41 yards on a third-and-7 pass from Prescott. A play later, Lamb gained 33 yards, which was followed by a 1-yard TD pass to Gallup.
“I’ve got to do a better job of getting them involved,” Prescott said. “When those three get involved in the same drive like that, that’s what happens.”
Time on task isn’t something all three have had. They have started and finished the same game just twice this season with Gallup suffering a calf strain in the opener. Cooper missed two games because of COVID-19, and Lamb missed a game and a half during the same spell because of a concussion.
It’s kind of a theme throughout the roster and coaching staff.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn served as head coach against New Orleans with McCarthy out. Tight ends coach Lunda Wells worked with the offensive line with Philbin and Blasko out. Offensive assistant Chase Haslett worked with the tight ends. Consultant Ben McAdoo and vice president of player personnel Will McClay took on-field roles against the Saints.
McCarthy expects to be back in his office early this week.
The offensive line has been mixing and matching due to COVID-19 (Steele), suspension (La’el Collins), injury (Tyron Smith) and penalties (Connor Williams). That has played a part in the downturn in the run game over the past six weeks, as has Elliott’s knee injury.
The defensive line has had to mix and match as well because of injuries (Lawrence, Gregory) and suspension (Trysten Hill).
“I'm really focused on the transition of getting these guys back and getting it all connected and because there's certain parts of our game right now that we're not in sync the way we'd like to be,” McCarthy said. “And that could be a good thing because it shows you the amount of growth you still have in front of us. So that's great to get all these guys back. It's going to take everybody -- it always does. We’ve been preaching that since April.”
It’s now December. Five games are left. The Cowboys have their rest. Now it gets real.
“December football is always what it comes down [to] because obviously that’s the launching pad I think you have to come off of to be a playoff team and to excel in the playoffs,” McCarthy said. “I love all the adversity moments. ... Not only does it tell you a lot about your team, it gives you the experiences that you can’t really create in practice and training environments. So it happens every year. It’s not like you can avoid it. So the fact that you embrace it and ride through it is exactly what our team did and has done. I think it definitely gives us an opportunity to be stronger and more experienced as we go into this stretch down here in December.”