By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
The Dallas Cowboys have wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and would gain little by beating the Washington Redskins in the regular season finale Sunday at FedEx Field. It stands to reason that their player-friendly coach, Wade Phillips, probably will rest quarterback Tony Romo and a handful of other key starters to reduce the chances of the team being further depleted entering the postseason, with wide receiver Terrell Owens's status for the playoffs already in doubt because of the high ankle sprain he suffered Saturday.
But it's not official yet that the Redskins, who need a victory Sunday to secure a wild-card playoff spot, will get to face a diminished Cowboys lineup. Phillips said yesterday that he hadn't decided whether Romo and others would play.
"We haven't finalized everything as far as who's playing," Phillips said at a news conference at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters in Irving, Tex. "We have to see who's healthy, see who's ready to go. And then we're gonna approach it like we're gonna try to win the game. That's what you play for."
The Cowboys will be without Owens on Sunday, and Phillips said he probably will withhold other players with nagging injuries. That group could include some starters like center Andre Gurode, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff and cornerback Terence Newman. But Phillips said he wasn't putting Romo into that category because the Pro Bowl quarterback threw the ball effectively in a 20-13 victory Saturday night over Carolina, six days after bruising his right thumb in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
"Anybody that's banged up some, I certainly would be careful with," Phillips said. "But most of our guys will play, I believe. . . . I think [Romo is] all right. I think he's fine. I think he threw the ball well. He's one of those guys that you say, 'Well, these guys are 100 percent,' and then you decide what to do with them."
Veteran backup Brad Johnson would start against the Redskins, one of his former teams, if Phillips sits Romo. Johnson has yet to throw a pass this season after being brought in during the offseason to replace Drew Bledsoe. Johnson, while with the Minnesota Vikings, beat the Redskins in the opening game of last season at FedEx Field.
The Cowboys improved to 13-2 with their win in Carolina. They left Charlotte late Saturday night figuring they'd need to beat the Redskins to assure themselves of the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Instead, they got a nice little Christmas present by clinching when the Green Bay Packers lost Sunday to the Chicago Bears.
Now Phillips faces the sometimes-tricky decision faced nearly every NFL season by coaches whose teams wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with regular season games remaining: Is it more prudent to sit key players and make sure to avoid injuries, or keep them on the field and maintain continuity and momentum entering the postseason?
Different coaches have had different answers. New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick isn't the letting-up sort, and he left quarterback Tom Brady and others in the lineup for Sunday's win over the Miami Dolphins a week after his club clinched home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs. Belichick, whose team is trying to complete the NFL's first undefeated regular season since 1972, seems likely to maintain the same hard-charging approach for Saturday night's regular season finale on the road against the New York Giants. Teams with first-round playoff byes, like the Cowboys and Patriots, have two weeks between the regular season finale and the postseason opener -- long enough for most injured players to heal, and also for rust to potentially develop if starters are rested.
But the Cowboys aren't playing for history, and Phillips isn't Belichick. He pointed out yesterday that the last three NFC teams to reach the Super Bowl -- the Bears last season, the Seattle Seahawks in the 2005 season and the Eagles in the 2004 season -- lost their regular season finales.
Phillips said he won't seek the input of his players before making his choice. The Cowboys are 7-0 on the road this season and could have the first 14-win regular season in franchise history if they beat the Redskins.
"We feel like we can win with whoever we have to play when we have injuries," Phillips said. "There's a lot of considerations, and we'll consider them all. But we're still approaching the game to win the game. . . . We want to win 14 games. Thirteen is the most ever for this franchise, and it's a historic franchise. That would be quite an accomplishment. Somebody may play for that. I'll be coaching for that, I'll tell you that."
No matter what Phillips decides, the Redskins won't have to worry about Owens, who had four touchdown catches when the Cowboys beat the Redskins last month at Texas Stadium. Phillips said the Cowboys do hope to get some playing time Sunday for veteran wideout Terry Glenn, who hasn't played all season after undergoing two arthroscopic knee surgeries.
"It seems like perfect timing for Terry to come back," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said after the Panthers game. "The quickness he has and the ability he has should help. He has been practicing a little bit with us and I don't know what the doctors and trainers say, but I'm hopeful he can get back out there. Even Terry Glenn at 75 percent is better than a lot of guys at 100 percent."
Glenn would join Patrick Crayton and youngsters Sam Hurd and Miles Austin in the Cowboys' wide receiver corps.
"Our receivers stepped up and made some big plays, and we will count on them to continue to make plays if T.O. is not on the field," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said late Saturday night in Charlotte. "Of course, we would love to have T.O. back next week. But Miles, Crayton and Hurd did a great job [Saturday]."
Phillips said yesterday he was perturbed to hear it said that the Cowboys have nothing to play for this weekend.
"We have something to play for, just like last week," Phillips said. "We're playing to beat the team we're playing. We play for pride. We play for our fans. We play for our family, for coaches, whatever. That's the way I'm approaching these games. Like I say, home-field advantage was kind of out there as far as what you play for [but] what you really play for are those things I mentioned, and some other things. The integrity of the game -- I'm gonna go out there and play the best I can play and do the best I can and try to win every game. That's how we're gonna approach it."