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Still alive? Here’s how Troy Aikman believes the 2-7 Cowboys should view NFC East race
SportsPulse: At 2-7 most teams would be playing out the string. For the Cowboys they’re in the thick of a division race. Jori Epstein connected with Troy Aikman to gets his perspective on how the Cowboys should view the rest of their season.
FRISCO, Texas — Sixteen days after landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Andy Dalton’s sense of taste and smell still elude him.
“You can tell things are sweet,” the Cowboys quarterback said Thursday from the Star. “You can tell things are salty. You just don’t get the flavor with it.”
After a whirlwind month battling a concussion and then the novel coronavirus, Dalton will settle for that.
The Cowboys signed Dalton in May as insurance for four-year starter Dak Prescott. When Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury Oct. 11, Dalton replaced him to complete Dallas’ 34-31 win over the Giants. But two games later, a vicious head-to-head hit from Washington linebacker Jon Bostic left a helmetless Dalton sprawled on the grass of FedEx Field. He relies on others to tell him what happened next.
“I remember deciding to slide and then there’s a little bit there that I don’t remember,” said Dalton, who had avoided a concussion diagnosis through his first 140 career games. “In the moment, you don’t realize it. But then the aftermath of it all, kind of going back, you realize you’re missing some of your memory of stuff that’s happened.
“I mean, that’s definitely something you don’t want to have happen.”
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Dalton was cleared to fly back from Washington with the team. He went through NFL concussion protocol the final week of October, unable to practice but allowed to participate in some meetings that week as rookie seventh-rounder Ben DiNucci prepared to start at Philadelphia. Dalton was at the facility and in the Cowboys’ quarterbacks meeting Oct. 31 just before the team left town without him. His headaches and concussion symptoms had alleviated as the week elapsed. Dalton was hopeful he could be cleared to play the undefeated Steelers the following week.
Then, Dalton’s headaches returned. They felt different from his earlier-week concussion aftermath. Dalton tested positive for COVID-19, landing on the Cowboys’ reserve list Nov. 3. His wife and younger son tested positive a “couple of days after” while their daughter and older son did not appear to contract it.
Quarantining at the Dalton home ensued. Dalton could lift weights and text Garrett Gilbert as the journeyman prepared to be the Cowboys’ fourth quarterback in five weeks. But Dalton needed to delay any visit to the Star for workouts or meetings, as well as to clear himself from the concussion protocol.
“It hit me hard the first day I had it,” Dalton said of the virus. “I eventually lost smell and taste. Early on that’s not what I had. But by the end of it, I did lose my smell and taste and am still trying to get that back.”
By last Thursday, Dalton returned to the Star to throw and ensure his timing was sharp during Dallas’ bye week. He was able to fully participate in the Cowboys’ walkthrough on Monday, officially shaking the concussion and COVID-19 protocol restrictions by Wednesday. Head coach Mike McCarthy declined to publicly name Dalton the starter for this weekend’s visit to Minnesota but has lauded the veteran’s performance in his return.
“I thought he was decisive, and he threw the ball very well,” McCarthy said Thursday morning. “That’s the biggest thing, as long as the ball is coming out on time and so forth. I thought he was in rhythm. Andy has excellent command of the whole operation. I thought Andy had a good practice yesterday. It’s great to have him back.”
Gilbert, who kept Dallas competitive in a 24-19 loss to Pittsburgh, is expected to be Dalton’s backup. But McCarthy and Cowboys management have consistently touted a healthy Dalton as their best option right now, Dalton’s experience in nine seasons with Cincinnati giving him defensive read capabilities superior to teammates with one or zero starts. Dalton also has the best repertoire to maximize offensive chemistry, coaches believe. Dalton took reps behind Prescott beginning in training camp while Gilbert signed with the team in October. DiNucci’s developmental year was intended not to feature much more than scout-team contributions.
“Ben and Garrett didn’t have the opportunity to have that bank account of reps,” McCarthy said. “It’s definitely a larger menu to pick from.”
With Dalton at the helm and defensive improvement their last two games, the 2-7 Cowboys approach the 4-5 Vikings with more confidence than they’d publicly shown in recent weeks. They’re last in the division, yet no team boasts a better record than Philadelphia’s 3-5-1. The Cowboys await the easiest upcoming schedule, their remaining opponents combining to be 24-39-2. Yes, it’s “crazy,” players admit, but the Cowboys smell a route to an unlikely postseason berth.
Dalton, meanwhile, is appreciating “a little bit of a blessing” that he went three weeks without taking hits after his first concussion, “if you want to find the positive in.” And one other sweet note?
“I can eat really healthy right now,” Dalton laughed, “and it doesn’t matter, ’cause I can’t taste it.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.