For fans of the Dallas Cowboys, the injury bug has seemed brutal this year. As OCC has written, the team is now down to five healthy starters on defense. But is the disappointing 5-6 record really due to players going down?
I took a look at the current injury list for all teams in the league, focusing on the injured reserve list (this does not reflect any possible new additions resulting from the most recent week, such as the possibility that Bruce Carter may wind up on IR shortly). And Dallas is not at all unusual. They actually are middle of the road, just looking at the numbers. Going into week 12 of the season, Dallas had eight names on IR, tied with five other teams. Fifteen teams had fewer, and eleven had more. And that list for the Cowboys includes names like Caleb McSurdy and Donovan Kemp, who were not going to have much impact on the season, and Chris Jones, who was replaced quite capably by Brian Moorman.
There are teams that have suffered as much or more than the Cowboys, including the Washington Redskins, tied for the league's highest number with eleven. They have names like S Brandon Merriweather, LB Brian Orakpo, DE Adam Carriker, and CB Chase Minnifield on IR, yet they shut the Cowboys offense down for a half. And the Baltimore Ravens, another team with eleven names listed (the Jacksonville Jaguars are the third team with that number) are not just surviving, but are firmly in charge of their division at 9-2, giving them a three game lead over the struggling Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.
What the Cowboys are suffering through would seem to be more of a lack of depth, up and down the roster. They are a thin team. Certainly they had some good talent on the starting roster at the beginning of the season, but once you got through that, the drop off in talent was too much to maintain an effective level of performance. This is part of the problem the team has been trying to overcome since the beginning of Jason Garrett's tenure, and the injuries that have accumulated are just going to make things worse.
This is a hard problem to address. The talent pool of athletes able to compete at the NFL is really not deep enough to fill the 53-man rosters of all 32 teams, which is why players who could not make it with Dallas like Alan Ball and Terence Newman are still drawing paychecks in the league. It is why the Cowboys are playing street free agents like Ernie Sims and Charlie Peprah. But it is the reality of football, a violent and truly dangerous sport.
Well thought-out and scouted drafting is part of the solution, but with only seven rounds, no team will be able to make up a great deal of ground just that way. And until a team does get in good shape, it can find itself in the situation Dallas is in, where every step forward seems to be followed by two back. The Cowboys have very few positions where they have what can be called adequate depth, such as the defensive line and wide receiver, and with some of the recent injuries, even those are looking shaky now. Others, such as safety, offensive line, and running back are showing the weakness that the team started the 2012 season with. And even a position that looks very good early, like inside linebacker, can suddenly become a concern when the starters both go down.
While the injuries for the Cowboys have played a role in how things have gone, they are not the root cause. This goes back several years, when the team did a poor job of evaluating and acquiring talent. (If the number 2009 does not make that perfectly clear to you, then you likely have not been following the Cowboys for long.)
The remainder of this season is going to have to played largely with the players on hand. The depth issue is a long term project. Dallas did make some real effort to address this in the past couple of years, but this is one of those places where the injuries have interfered. And the total list of Cowboys players that are out, doubtful and questionable is one of the longer ones in the league. Which again brings the depth problem to the fore.
I don't want to write off this season yet, but given the odds, it does lead me to look forward. The hope is that most of the injured players will get healthy and be able to contribute next year, along with whatever talent the team can add during the offseason. But this is going to be a struggle, and looking for a quick solution is likely to lead to disappointment. The list of needs for the team is long. Some of those needs will be answered from within, but it is obvious you can never have too many good players in the NFL. Dallas certainly does not have to worry about that concern any time soon.