In 2008, after the Cowboys were unceremoniously thrown off the playoff party wagon thanks to a crushing loss at Philadelphia, the post-season analysis eventually came around to excuse making. One of the most popular of these excuses was that the Cowboys had sustained a slew of injuries and that, had they not been so decimated, would have been a playoff team. Certainly, there were difficult injuries to overcome that year: Tony Romo missed a forgettable three game stretch; Kyle Kosier was absent for essentially the entire season; Felix Jones flashed early and then was lost for the duration; Matt McBriar finished his year on IR.
Dallas' starters lost 36 games due to injury. Its next to impossible to argue about the negative impact of such losses: when Romo was out, the Cowboys offense almost instantly returned to the Chad Hutchinson era, Kosier's replacement, Cory Procter, struggled mightily, and a McBriar-less Dallas lost field position battles in several close games at the end of the season. That said, I would dispute any claims that injuries are what kept the Cowboys out of the 2008 playoffs.
For evidence, allow me to turn to our own O.C.C. Last March, he offered a post on the Cowboys recent injury history. Cool turned to two sources, the fine gentlemen at Football Outsiders and Dallas' own pigskin guru, Rick Gosselin, for injury data. After summarizing their findings, O.C.C. concludes that the Cowboys have consistently been one of the league's healthiest teams over the past half decade. In 2006, Dallas suffered a minuscule 8 games lost by starters; the comparatively high 2008 total still placed the Cowboys solidly in the middle of the league-wide injury pack; in 2009, they were the NFL's third healthiest team.
This begs the question: is there a direct and irrevocable correlation between injuries to starters and won-loss record? While the worst teams do tend to top the injury charts (in 2009, of the nine teams who finished 6-10 or worse, six of them were ranked 1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 in games lost to injury), this correlation is not absolute. In his post, O.C.C. points out that almost half of the last decade's Super Bowl winners have suffered significant injuries en route to a championship. The most notable examples are New England in 2003 (when they led the league in games lost to injuries) and last years championship Saints squad, who were 28th ranked in terms of being injury-free. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that injuries negatively impact a club's performance--but that the best organizations are built to overcome injuries, even when they are at a level that should be crippling.
To further reinforce that point, let's look at two organizations that are generally if not universally held to be well-run: Pittsburgh and Baltimore. In 2008, they lost 53 and 64 games to injury, respectively--almost twice the totals suffered by Dallas. The Cowboys played both teams late in the season, when injuries are most likely to have been at a peak, but after Romo had returned to the lineup and the offense had supposedly righted itself. Both teams played the Cowboys tough and, with several backups in the lineup, dominated the fourth quarters of their respective games en route to victories.
The moral to be drawn from this tiny sample size is this: Pittsburgh and Baltimore are notoriously "tough" teams. One mark of their toughness is their ability to rally together when someone goes down. Witness Pitt this year, when Ben Roethlisberger missed the first four games of the season: an impressive 3-1 start, which featured superb special teams play and brutal defense. I watched this and thought to myself: these men banded together and swore to shut down the opposing offense, to make plays, because that's what it would take to win. They refused to be denied. While the players certainly should get the lion's share of credit for this effort, such repeated commitment happens at an organizational level. Want further proof? When the Steelers captured the '08 Lombardi, they were the eighth most oft-injured team.
On the other end of this spectrum sit the Dallas Cowboys. In two seasons in which Romo has missed games due to injuries, we have seen a team collapse. These collapses have not occurred slowly, as the team has struggled to overcome the drop-off in talent at such a key position. No, these collapses have been instantaneous. The 2008 debacle against the lowly (and I mean lowwwwly) Rams--the first action after Romo had been injured on the last offensive play of the previous contest--runs neck-and-neck with the second half against the Giants two weeks ago in terms of how rapidly and how completely the entire team--not just the offense--disintegrated. A pretty consistent pattern has emerged: two injuries to Romo in the past three years; two el foldos.
What this suggests to me is that this team (nay, this entire organization) has an awfully fragile psyche--and has had one for a while now. In retrospect, its a good thing this team has been so miraculously injury free in recent years. Given their propensity to fall apart when hit with a key injury or two, things could have been much worse of late. But there's a larger issue at play here: football is essentially about adversity and willing oneself to overcome that adversity. The positive spin on Romo's injury was that it would catalyze an underachieving team, serving as an invitation to rally around the backup QB, as the Steelers had done earlier in the season. Thus far, however, the Cowboys haven't exhibited the necessary heart (or depth) to make such a rally. Instead, players who appear to be playing at less than full effort, seemingly marking the days (perhaps trying to remain injury-free themselves) until the end of the season.
When I'm tallying up the changes I'd like to see implemented by the new regime, the acquisition of shiny new talent will be down the list a bit. What is more likely to top my list is the ability to circle the wagons regardless of the situation, opponent or stakes. A bunch of dumpy schlubs who fight like hell? I can root for those guys, win or lose.