IRVING, Texas (AP) Dallas quarterback Matt Cassel has been a backup twice this year and a starter twice - three times if you count taking the first snap of the season for Buffalo before he was traded for the second time in five months.
Got all that? Cassel does. He thinks.
''It's about as crazy as you could possibly get,'' Cassel said, noting that the move to the Cowboys after Tony Romo's first collarbone injury in September came with his wife just weeks from giving birth to their fourth child.
''At the same time, I think that this lifestyle, you have to embrace the craziness of it.''
The Cowboys (3-8) haven't embraced it so well, losing all seven games that Romo missed the first time and now facing the rest of season without him after he broke his left collarbone for the second time in a 33-14 Thanksgiving loss to Carolina.
Cassel started four of those losses without Romo after Brandon Weeden lost the first three. The 33-year-old Cassel replaced Romo after the third-quarter injury against the Panthers and threw a touchdown pass with the game out of reach.
Now instead of starting while everyone waited for Romo to get back, Cassel's in the same spot he was eight years ago in New England - replacing a franchise quarterback the rest of the season.
''I understand what you are saying you are just holding down the fort,'' Cassel said. ''I try not to think of it that way when you are playing because you've got show these guys that you are going to be assertive, you are going to be a leader out on the field.''
The only reason Dallas can still talk postseason is because no team in the NFC East is above .500 and the Cowboys play co-leader Washington (5-6) twice, with the first matchup on the road Monday night.
''I would be lying if I said I wasn't surprised,'' Cassel said. ''There are a lot seasons you go 3-8 and you have no shot at all.''
Buffalo acquired Cassel from Minnesota in the offseason before he lost out to Tyrod Taylor in training camp. With Taylor lined up at receiver on the Bills' first play in the opener, Cassel took the snap.
Less than two weeks later, he was in Dallas after Romo's first injury at Philadelphia. He spent two weeks on the inactive list before backing up Weeden in a 30-6 loss to the Patriots that was Dallas' first game without a touchdown in four years.
A week later, Cassel was the starter - and now he's had more time to absorb the Cowboys' system after completing 62 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and five interceptions in four starts.
''There's so many nuances and details of playing that position and understanding the system, understanding the guys you're playing with, the communication beyond what's written on the page,'' coach Jason Garrett said. ''He got better and better because he was more experienced in this environment.''
Cassel says watching Romo helped, but so has simply being in Dallas going on two months instead of one.
''It definitely makes a difference,'' he said. ''There no doubt about it, especially being around the guys, being in and out of the huddle, calling plays and also going out there and running some of these concepts that maybe I hadn't run as much before.''
One thing's for sure: Cassel knows his role for the rest of the regular season.
NOTES: Kellen Moore will be the backup to Cassel after being activated from the practice squad. ... WR Dez Bryant was a full participant in practice. He's been battling knee and ankle injuries along with the broken right foot that sidelined him earlier in the season. ... CB Morris Claiborne expects to play after missing two games with hamstring and ankle issues. ... Rookie T Chaz Green has been activated for the first time this season after offseason hip surgery. ... Rookie DE Ryan Russell (abdominal injury) was placed on season-ending injured reserve. ... RB Ben Malena, CB Terrance Mitchell and DE Efe Obada were added to the practice squad, and S Tim Scott was released from it.
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