Commentary

Cowboys' youth eager for playing time

Much to the chagrin of Dallas' up-and-coming talent, the team is still playing to win

Updated: December 22, 2010, 4:59 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- There's this perception the Dallas Cowboys don't want to use their young players as the season crashes into oblivion.

But over the past few weeks, the Cowboys have elevated the youngsters' snap counts to get a better evaluation of their future in the league.

Fourteen players have touched the field in the past two weeks who have fewer than two years of NFL experience.

"We're not going to force any young player into action," interim coach Jason Garrett said. "But as you guys have seen over the last few weeks, a lot of young players have gotten a lot of game time."

[+] EnlargeStephen McGee
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireBackup QB Stephen McGee isn't likely to recieve any playing time unless Jon Kitna suffers an injury.

On offense, wide receiver Manuel Johnson played in his first NFL game against the Redskins because of Roy Williams' injury. Johnson was moved from the practice squad to the active roster and participated in 26 offensive plays, according to Pro Football Focus.

In October, the Cowboys promoted wide receiver Jesse Holley from the practice squad to the active roster to play special teams. In 10 games, Holley is third on the team with 13 special teams tackles.

The defense also has seen more players move off the bench and into action because of injuries. Last week against Washington, strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh suffered a concussion, giving undrafted rookie Barry Church significant playing time. He played a career-high 49 snaps.

Church struggled in coverage and was credited with two tackles. Despite his issues, the Cowboys were able to get a look at the athletic safety who still needs work on his technique.

"I think I played pretty good," Church said. "I missed a couple of tackles and I pride myself on tackles, so that was kind of upsetting to me. Other than that I felt like I was in the right position at the right time and I didn't get beat over the top, so I did pretty good."

Early on in the season, second-round pick Sean Lee was biding his time, playing behind Bradie James and Keith Brooking. The two veteran inside linebackers were playing better, and Lee continued to learn by watching and waiting. When Brooking's painful foot sprain limited him against the Colts, Lee was inserted and picked off two Peyton Manning passes.

It was a game which let the organization know it can possibly rely on Lee in the future should it choose to get rid of one of its trusted veteran linebackers sooner rather than later.

For two young players the Cowboys have never used in the regular season, the NFL continues to be a waiting game.

Stephen McGee, the backup quarterback, is unlikely to see the field unless Jon Kitna is injured. Garrett believes Kitna gives the Cowboys the best chance to win and he feels the organization knows what it has in McGee from his work in the preseason.

Garrett, however, also has said it is difficult to know whether a young player can produce until you get him on the field in the regular season.

"I want to play," said McGee, in his second season out of Texas A&M. "That's a given. That's something that I don't worry about. That's not my choice. I just go out there and get better every day at practice and worry about things I can control and stay [the] course."

Rookie Sam Young, a seventh-round pick, was active for one game this year. The natural tackle, who has practiced at both tackle and right guard, is trying to be patient.

"You're a competitor and you want to play but you got to also recognize you're at the highest level," Young said. "So you just got to approach it and learn as much as I can from the other guys and compete with myself day in and day out. When you do that, whether it's going against the defense or whatever it may be, everyone gets better from that."

The future of many of these young players is in doubt, but all they can do is prove themselves in practice in the hope that the circumstances give them a chance to play.

"You have to earn your opportunities to play," Garrett said. "It's a competitive league."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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