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Mac Engel

There is one clear winner in the Dallas Cowboys’ first preseason game against Jacksonville

In the Dallas Cowboys’ first fake game of the 2023 season, their best player was the guy who wasn’t even there.

All-Pro guard, and current contract holdout, Zack Martin was not in attendance at AT&T Stadium on Saturday afternoon for the Cowboys game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

If you were brave enough to watch this mess, you would see that Mr. Martin should not move from his couch until the team gives him the new contract he desires.

Officially, in Martin’s place at right guard was Josh Ball, a third-year player from Marshall who has not played the position since he was in high school.

At the other guard spot was Matt Farniok, a seventh-round draft pick from the school formerly known as the University of Nebraska.

Even if Martin was not holding out, he would have joined his other veteran teammates on Saturday who did not play in the 28-23 loss.

As is so often the case with these increasingly worthless preseason games, the Cowboys’ “controlled scrimmage” with the Jaguars featured plenty of “Don’t look at it! Shut your eyes!” moments.

Those included the kicker, who missed an extra point. Those also include backup-backup quarterback Will Grier.

Watching Josh Ball fill in for Martin offered so many of those moments that coaches may “accidentally” burn the film rather than continue watching. The same for Farniok, who right now will be a swing guard/tackle.

It’s only one throwaway game, but nothing they did suggests the Cowboys will do anything other than flinch until their face falls off and give Martin the raise that he seeks before the regular season starts.

Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Josh Ball (75) started in place of holdout Zack Martin on Saturday in the team’s preseason opener against Jacksonville.
Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Josh Ball (75) started in place of holdout Zack Martin on Saturday in the team’s preseason opener against Jacksonville. Chris Torres

It’s not Ball’s fault. He’s a 6-foot-8 tackle who was pushed into this spot. He said this was the first time he played guard since he was in high school.

“I definitely have things to work on,” he said after the game. “It wasn’t too bad. I have to stay a little bit lower. I need to move my feet more. This is a chance to play, and wherever they want me I’ll play.”

Martin has not been with the team since training camp began last month; under the rules of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association, missing one day of camp under a holdout equals a $50,000 fine.

Don’t worry about the fine; Martin’s new contract will magically cover his losses.

He makes $14 million a year, and when he signed his six-year, $84 million contract extension in 2018 he was the NFL’s highest paid guard. Now he’s the eighth highest-paid guard in the NFL, and yet he remains arguably its best.

NFL teams routinely dishonor contracts, so when a player does the same thing it’s only fair in the unfair game that is contract negotiations with an NFL franchise.

We have been reminded this week of Martin’s value to this team, and how close they came to passing on selecting him.

This week, the new Netflix documentary, “Untold: Johnny Football,” the story of former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel’s football career, created much buzz all over football land.

A crucial scene from the film is the 2014 NFL Draft. Manziel was on the board when the Cowboys picked 16th, and Jerry Jones applied pressure on his “team” to pick Johnny Football even though they had Tony Romo.

Team vice president Stephen Jones, and others, convinced Jerry the better pick was some boring guard from Notre Dame.

As we learned in the documentary, Manziel was crushed when the Cowboys passed on him. He went seven picks later to Cleveland, and played 14 NFL games.

Martin immediately became one of the best at his position, and should one day make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He’s 32 and looks like he could play another three to four seasons. If he stays healthy. If he wants to.

As of right now, Jerry is making the sorts of calm, threatening noises that he’s known to offer in these situations. He said he’s learned to “move on” in these types of scenarios.

That applied to Dez Bryant. The same for Terrell Owens. So many others. Terence Newman. Marion Barber (RIP). DeMarcus Ware. Emmitt Smith.

Those once big-contract players were all released in the middle of their respective deals because they were no longer worth it.

Martin has more in common with Zeke and Greg Ellis than any of those aforementioned Cowboys.

In 2006, Ellis was openly sweating a move from defensive end to linebacker in a scheme change under coach Bill Parcells; Ellis made it zero secret he wanted a restructured deal.

Took him a while, and a face-to-face with Jerry Jones, but he got it.

Then there is the Zeke holdout.

In September of 2019, Zeke held out during training camp, during which Jerry famously asked, “Zeke who?”

The Cowboys caved because they wanted to win, and the alternatives behind Zeke weren’t good. He didn’t miss a game because of his holdout.

The Cowboys are in the same position now with Zack Martin.

They want to win.

As evidenced by Saturday’s preseason game, what the Cowboys have behind Martin will get Dak Prescott, Tony Pollard and anyone else hurt.

Zack has no need to move from his couch until the Cowboys give him his new deal.

This story was originally published August 12, 2023, 7:17 PM.

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