The Redskins' game against the Cowboys won't have implications for the postseason, but it should provide ample opportunities for some backups.
The Redskins are in unfamiliar territory thanks to clinching their division with a week left in the season. In what might ordinarily be a game laced with implications this Sunday in Dallas has now been rendered by many meaningless, after the Redskins dismantled the Eagles last Saturday and secured the No. 4 seed in the playoffs.
Which makes the final regular season game against the Cowboys both a question mark and an opportunity. Head coach Jay Gruden hasn't yet determined how long his starters will play, but there is reason to believe — primarily for health reasons — that the team's backups should receive more snaps than their usual load.
But it's more than just an opportunity to get additional reps and log more minutes on film. Well aware that playoffs begin the following week, players are preparing as though this is the last preseason game of the year, their final opportunity to make an impression with coaches before the postseason.
"This is kind of what you hope for," linebacker Houston Bates said. "Coaches will kind of see what we've got now that we have the opportunity to show them. But we're excited to embrace the reps that we get and take full advantage of it."
"With the opportunity that's presented for me, you know, this might be an opportunity I might be starting, might be playing a whole lot of time," offensive lineman Ty Nsekhe said. "So I'm [going to] take advantage of it."
"Honestly, it's bigger to me," wide receiver Rashad Ross said. "If I go out there and ball I can show 'em like, 'Oh, OK. He just did this. He's hot. We need him next week,' you know what I'm saying? And I can probably get more snaps the next week."
Check out these photos of the Redskins' defense and special teams preparing for their Week 17 match up against the Dallas Cowboys Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Va.
Ross is one of many players with this mindset, wary of keeping their regular routine this week, but also managing their excitement, and nerves, as they approach a game that could have personal implications not just for the following week but for next season.
The situation is unique for Ross, who has been intermittently inserted into the offense and returned kicks for the length of the season. He talks a lot with cornerback Dashaun Phillips and especially with wide receiver Ryan Grant, who will likely have a similar role on Sunday.
"I talk to Ryan all the time about balling out this game, like it's our time," Ross said. "I feel like I was made for this. I'm ready. But we ain't gonna be too high, too low…We gonna go and play."
For some, the challenge will be greater considering many backups, or as defensive coordinator Joe Barry consistently corrects, "starters in waiting," have only taken snaps on special teams this season. Playing Sunday would also likely mean returning to their natural position.
"I'm hoping because this would be my first time getting on the field as a linebacker," Carlos Fields said. "But I'm hoping I get some plays. Hopefully it'll be exciting for me."
Unlike Ross, used to these kinds of environments and position, Fields represents several players that have had to make their mark on special teams – at first to get called up, then to stay up – studying their true position during the week in practice.
For example, cornerback Dashaun Phillips, celebrating his birthday Sunday, will play some snaps at the nickel position, which he smiled will be a nice gift as he makes his homecoming against his former team.
One challenge, which has seemed to be dismissed, is the lack of rapport between teammates, specifically on the defense, as they work with a patchwork of players not used to synchronizing together.
"We're all a tight-knit group," said Bates, who will get to see 10 members of his family Sunday. "I've been going to war with these guys the last 10 to 12 weeks on the practice squad, and during practice we're doing everything we can to get better and working on the little stuff with technique. So we're going to take everything we do in practice and transition it to a game and hope for the best."
"We're pretty much on a good pedestal as far as communicating with each other," Fields said. "So communication is big because you have to talk when you're out there because I know it's loud and we can't really hear. Sometimes you can't think because it's so loud out there. But yeah, for the most part there won't be a drop-off."
This game isn't entirely meaningless though. The Redskins would like to carry momentum into the playoffs, would like to end their campaign above .500 and prevent getting swept by Dallas. These are all minor concerns in the bigger picture — the team will simplify the playbook, too — but achieving them with players not used to seeing the field would certainly help boost confidence in all facets.
For Ross, it's just about about fulfilling what he knows he's capable of.
"It's not the end-of-the-world situation, because at the end of the day all I can do is prove them wrong, you know what I'm saying?" Ross said. "People probably look at me as, 'He's a backup. He probably doesn't know as much. He's got potential, but he's probably not ready yet.' So if I go out there and do average, nobody's gonna care. All I can do is prove them wrong."