FRISCO – It was determined at the start of the week that Dallas Cowboys tight end Geoff Swaim needed surgery to repair a broken bone in his wrist. The team was and is uncertain about his timetable to return — Dr. Jerry Jones’ “three-to-four week” prognosis notwithstanding — the starter will obviously miss at least Thursday’s Week 12 visit to AT&T Stadium of the Washington Redskins, a game that sets up as a battle for the NFC East division lead.
So with Swaim out … who is in?
We’ve seen this happen a couple of times this week, maybe the result of the interest in and scrutiny of “America’s Team.” But somehow, an innocuous whisper or an errant report has once again become “major news.” As with the “forcing out” of Sean Lee (which is absolutely not Dallas’ plan at linebacker, no matter what a FOX sideline reporter think she heard and no matter what anyone who heard her decided to wrongly interpret for themselves), the “definitive replacement as a starter for Swaim” has become a botched story as well.
Replacing Swaim isn’t about “numbers” in terms of stats; so far, he has caught 26 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown in his nine games. That’s 2.88 catches per game, and yes, any one of his substitutes could manage that. No, the “numbers” here are about the variety of players who are on this roster in the wake of the offseason departure of future Hall of Famer and team captain Jason Witten. The Cowboys employ Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz and Rico Gathers, each of them with their own set of skills, their own level of promise and their own flaws.
And despite breathless reports that is it Schultz, the rookie chosen from Stanford in the fourth round of last April’s NFL Draft, who has been tabbed as the aforementioned “definitive starter,” Dallas’ work in practice in this short week reflects that only to some degree.
In the Monday and Tuesday workouts here inside The Star, Schultz is indeed the first guy in the rotation, largely because what we wrote immediately after the Swaim injury remains true: Schultz is the player Dallas thinks can be a future standout at the position, especially as he’s the most suited for traditional in-line Y blocking. But the club sees (unfulfilled) promise in Jarwin, too. And of course, the former Baylor basketball standout Gathers is the most ballyhooed of the bunch as he continues to try to make the transition to a sport that before a few years ago, he hadn’t played since eighth grade.
And now that we’ve spoken to players and coaches, another truth remains true: This will be “tight end by committee,” a situation that demands some non-linear thinking. If the Cowboys begin with one tight end? It’ll likely be Schultz. If they begin the game in a two-tight end set including Schultz and Gathers (which is the way they’ve practiced this week), does that mean Gathers is “the starter”? If Schultz plays the very first snap but by four quarters later he’s totaled fewer snaps than Jarwin due to the situational usage of the trio, doesn’t that mean Jarwin — who I believe will be the “pass-catching tight end” — is really the most important guy? What if Gathers’ usage is limited to red-zone stuff, but he catches a TD pass? Won’t he be the guy we all want to hear from after the game?
Oh, and one more: I’ve already addressed what might happen in 12 Personnel (Schultz and Gathers). How about an 11 Personnel wild-card featuring big-bodied wide receiver Noah Brown?
The errors regarding this story have been driven by media sloppiness, linear thinking and, maybe, a Fantasy Football-driven desire to “designate a starter.” But the way coach Jason Garrett and coordinator Scott Linehan are lining these guys up this week in front of QB Dak Prescott tells the only real story: The Dallas offense now need to find a way to get some level of production from the youngsters Schultz (who gets first crack), Gathers (who gets 12 Personnel chances) and Jarwin (who gets passing-down chances). And while it’s important on some level who starts, it’s far more important on every level how they collectively finish.