It's been said that 2012 would have been a great season for the Cowboys, 'if healthy.' They weren't healthy, and it wasn't a great season. Big surprise, right?
Well, I was surprised, and I wasn't alone, with how competitive the team was late in the season, but the end result - mediocrity - was about what we would expect given the long list of injuries that we had to deal with. The real problem, then, is that we had no faith in our depth.
Almost every team has at least one health-related qualifier when predicting a season. Generally, it's about the franchise quarterback. "If Romo's healthy, the Cowboys will be..." is about how that works. The Colts and Luck, Patriots and Brady, Saints and Brees, Broncos and Manning...the list goes on. Every one of those teams, and many more, are more or less sunk without their franchise quarterback.
The Cowboys, last year, were well beyond that. "If Romo's healthy," sure, but what if Ware's out? "If Romo, and Ware, are healthy..." Spencer? Carr? Church? Dez? Murray? Lee? Carter? It goes on and on. Last year, I wouldn't have been confident in our team knowing that any one of those players was a scratch. If your team needs every starter healthy in order to contend, it's not a very good team. That was the Dallas Cowboys, 2012 edition.
At the end of 2011, many fans were ready to bid farewell to Phil Costa. After the Baltimore tilt in 2012, the phrase turned to 'if only Costa were healthy...' In 2013? We're looking at Costa as our second-best center. That guy that may have helped to salvage our season last year is now our second line of defense against the injury bug. The times, they are a-changin'.
Barry Church was another big piece lost last season to injury. This year, Matt Johnson, J.J. Wilcox, and Will Allen have some people hoping Church is, like Costa, forced into a backup role.
Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Justin Durant have all shown that they belong on the field as linebackers in this defense. And yet names like Albright, Sims, Holloman, Magee and even Reed have been popping up so frequently in OTA recaps that I'm not nearly as concerned as I would be if the 'next man up' was still Dan Connor or Brady Poppinga or (gasp!) Brooking and James.
The rushmen are in the same situation. So many young guys are showing up on tape that it doesn't seem as dire should Ratliff once again be unavailable. Josh Brent, once one of the saviors of our defense, seems to be less missed with every sveldt 290-pounder to get his hands on Kyle Orton's jersey.
I won't even bother going through the whole offense, but rest assured that the same process is taking place on both sides of the ball. It's a change in mentality.
You know, we've realized once before that depth was a problem on this team. Just after the end of the 2008 season, it became evident that the Cowboys needed better players occupying the positions behind the veteran starters. Thus, the 2009 draft. 12 mid-to-late-round picks that belong in the second-place slots on any roster, right? Failed miserably, of course. The problem was that guys that were projected as backups disappointed ever-so-slightly, shifting their trajectories from 'career backup' to 'no second contract.'
The Cowboys seemingly recoiled rather harshly from that draft. They understood that the draft was not the place to target future backups. The result was what seemed to be a better drafting philosophy overall, but one that also seemed to be swinging for the fences - home run or strike out with every pick. Injured players, small school prospects and the like seemed to be our new MO: high-risk, high-reward.
It wasn't until this past year, and somewhat in 2012, that they seem to have adjusted back down a bit. Rather than aiming for Pro-Bowlers with every pick (which, in the later rounds, generally means injured or troubled players who plummeted, or raw athletes), we moderated the risk in the picks somewhat. We weren't going for backups, but rather solid starters. Maybe not everyone in this draft class projects to Honolulu, but they sure do seem like they could find a starting job somewhere in the league by the time free agency comes their way.
And that's who the Cowboys need for depth. Not the guys who are never going to be good enough to start - the busted draft picks or worn-out vets from other teams we signed quite often - but the young guys that, even if the guy ahead of them doesn't get hurt, may just earn their ways onto the field anyway. They're the guys that make the starters compete for their jobs every day in practice.
We no longer are a team that dreads the concept of injury (beyond the human compassion that many of us are prone to), but rather a team that may find a new starter or two when one of the incumbents inevitably winds up on the training table.
I'll say it now: The 2013 season will be a very good season for the Cowboys. No 'if healthy' necessary. Last time I checked, 53 players, not 22, earn their stars at the end of training camp. When someone goes down, it's "next man up." Or, as tanstaafl might put it: "Next. Man up."