Dallas’ Fate Tied to Matt Cassel

After getting his first win as Dallas' starter last week, Matt Cassel will try to keep the Cowboys' playoff hopes alive on Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers.

The fate of the Dallas Cowboys is in the hands of a quarterback who wasn’t on the roster at the start of the season.

The Cowboys, who at 4-8 remain in the thick of the car wreck that is the NFC East championship chase, will face the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field with Matt Cassel at quarterback.

The 33-year-old Cassel, who opened the season as Buffalo’s backup, was acquired in a trade by Dallas after Pro Bowler Tony Romo sustained a broken collarbone against Philadelphia in Week 3. After Brandon Weeden flopped, Cassel started the Cowboys’ sixth through ninth games, with Dallas going 0-4 and failing to score more than 20 points in three of those games. Romo returned for a victory over Miami on Nov. 22 but re-injured the collarbone against Carolina on Thanksgiving.

On Monday night at Washington, Cassel helped the Cowboys beat the Redskins 19-16. It was Dallas’ first win of the season without Romo.

“It's such a critical position,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said during a conference call on Wednesday morning. “Your starting quarterback, when you lose him, having a capable backup that you can go to, it's hard to expect him to play at the same level as your starter, but the ability to function and help you win ball games is critical. And the other piece to it is everybody else rallying around that player. It's a challenging position, so you want to reduce his burden as much as you can by offensively running the ball better and guys making plays around him, and then doing what you can do on defense and in the kicking game to alleviate the burden from the offense and from the quarterback. I think those are all the things you strive for and sometimes you do them better than others.”

The Cowboys are leaning on their defense, which delivered a big-time performance against Washington. Dallas limited the Redskins to just 266 total yards. While Cassel and Co. struggled in the first half, Dallas forced Washington to punt on each of its first five possessions.

The Packers, of course, know all about the perils of losing a star quarterback for a sustained period. Just as the Packers were hitting their stride in 2013, Aaron Rodgers sustained a broken collarbone during the first series of the Week 9 game against Chicago. The Packers lost that game and went 2-5-1 before Rodgers returned for Week 17 and the playoffs.

“When you lose your quarterback on offense, it's the biggest challenge,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “The quarterback position, obviously, is the most important position on the football field. So, it does make you adjust, change, and go in some different directions. It’s a big challenge when you lose your starter.”

For the season, Cassel has completed 61.7 percent of his passes with five touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 79.0. He’s going to have to play better than that if the Cowboys are going to beat the Packers and earn an unlikely playoff bid. Part of that will be increased familiarity with the Dallas scheme. He’ll never have Romo’s grasp of the offense but each day adds to his comfort level – and the players’ comfort level with him.

“Tony’s been in our system and he’s our franchise,” Dallas tight end Jason Witten said during his conference call. “He’s the leader of our team and has been for a long time. You’re comfortable with that. You know what he’s trying to do. He’s able to communicate that with the blocking scheme, with what we’re trying to get to, to the checks, to just running our system. Any time there’s a change in there, there’s an adjustment. Matt’s done a good job of coming in here, learning our system, getting comfortable with it. He’s a great leader. He communicates well with us. It’s always an adjustment, especially when you have a guy like Tony, but I think Matt’s handled it well. Every week he gets more and more comfortable.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.

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