Woe and doom have descended on the fanbase of the Dallas Cowboys. Once again, the dreaded injury bug has ravaged the team, and a once promising season is all but over before the pre-season is done.
Or so you think when you read some of the reports that came out of Oxnard before the Cowboys broke camp to head back to Dallas via Arizona. But if you take a step back and get a look at the bigger picture, this may be more a matter of being too close to the subject. Things really are not as dire as some believe.
Why do I say that? Well, first, I really like using words like "dire" for some reason. But mostly it is a matter of taking a deep breath and gathering some more comprehensive data, the kind we sometimes fail to consider here at our admittedly Cowboys-centric site.
What really brought a sense of calm to my troubled soul was an article from Football Outsiders. While the main focus is on things like concussions, the impact of the new kickoff rules on injuries, and why new reporting rules have skewed the statistics on serious injuries, the start of the article makes a major point that we need to keep in mind.
The Tom Brady injury scare took the NFL news feed by storm on Wednesday. Fortunately for New England, it was nothing serious. Not as fortunate were the dozens of players who already suffered a significant injury, including Jeremy Maclin, Bryan Bulaga, Dennis Pitta, Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Danario Alexander, Dan Koppen, Victor Butler, Jared Veldheer and Plaxico Burress. At least 55 players have had a season-ending injury already. (Actually, that number has likely increased by the time you read this.)
Did I mention we only just kicked off the second full week of preseason games?
Dallas has actually gotten off pretty lightly. Tyrone Crawford is the only example of a season-ending injury to a major contributor. There have been some other players, like Rob Callaway, who were released with injury given as the reason, but you can hardly count players that never really had a role on the team and were just trying to earn a spot. Crawford was an important part of the plan for the team this year, and his loss does hurt. But he was not a projected starter, just a backup who was expected to get significant snaps in relief of the starters. So far, the Cowboys have not lost any of the returning starters for good.
What they have done is exercise an abundance of caution with the players who are recovering from injury. Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff are not expected to play at all in the pre-season. They are still your projected starters for the first regular season game, but the team has decided that they know their jobs well enough that they don't have to have a lot of work. Both have been doing individual rehab and seem to be putting a lot of mental work in to make sure they know their assignments in the new defensive scheme. They have just not gone out on the field and banged themselves around. The team is making sure they are as fully healed as possible before they see action.
The downside of this is that the team is only seeing half of the starting defensive line in action. So far, however, this really does not seem like a big issue at all. First, the backups have been looking very good. We still need to see how they handle live action against NFL starters in the remaining pre-season games, but the results so far are encouraging. And every snap a Spencer or a Ratliff does not take is a rep for someone else. Players like Ben Bass, Nick Hayden, and George Selvie seem to be taking advantage of the opportunity.
Meanwhile, the caution in bringing players back will hopefully lead to a healthier team to start the season. One thing that has changed for the better, at least to this point, is the relative infrequency with which the word "hamstring" has been used this year. The team has been proactive, including some high tech monitoring of the wide receivers and some other players, and it may be paying off.
What has caused the most angst for Cowboys fans is the injury situation with the offensive line. There are two main reasons for this. First, the team has been fighting the issue of getting an effective O line for multiple seasons, and a perceived lack of progress creates gastric distress of truly epic proportions for many. Second, the injuries have once again landed disproportionately on those playing in the interior of the line, which has become the Cowboys equivalent of beaming down to an unexplored planet in a red shirt. However, as OCC pointed out in his camp summary, the problem is more one of timing than anything else.
The ongoing game of musical chairs at offensive guard has got to make even the most optimistic Cowboys fan a little nervous. The timing of these injuries is indeed a little unfortunate and eerily reminiscent of last year's situation. But while today we're discussing which guard is healthy enough to play, and with the signing of Brian Waters possibly imminent, in two weeks we might be discussing which guards to release. Nate Livings, Kevin Kowalski and Ray Dominguez should all be ready to practice again next week, and even Ryan Cook could be back soon. Until then, David Arkin, Mackenzy Bernadeau and recently signed Dennis Godfrey will hold down the fort.
Remember, the injuries being discussed on the offensive line are, so far, all the two to six weeks variety, and it does look like the Cowboys should be in a much better position here by the start of the regular season than they are at this moment. What is probably far more important is that the interior line, which has already been shuffled around a bit, has not performed badly. Ronald Leary was, by all reports, on his way to earning a starting spot before he had to have his knee scoped, and is on track to be back for the opening game against the New York Giants. Arkin has shown clear improvement. And Bernadeau looks to be clearly in the mix for a starting job. Dallas really only has to come up with six healthy interior linemen to have a full complement to start the season. As OCC said, if they get well the team is not going to be able to keep all the ones in camp now. The crisis on the offensive line is probably transient and should look better in a couple of weeks. The key thing is that the other three positions, the tackles and center, have been solid and have been able to maintain a good level of proper teamwork even as the first team guards have changed.
The team is certainly not out of the woods yet, just seeing the underbrush thinning out. The big concern is what will happen next. But one good thing about having the players in a healing mode is that they are not going to get injured again while they are off the field. Yeah, that is a bit of a strange way to look at it, but think about it: When is it more important for a player to be healthy, the first day of training camp or the last day of pre-season? It would be nice to have the starters work together from day one of camp, but sometimes you just don't get what you want.
There is so much talk about how thin the Cowboys are at various positions, with offensive line, defensive line and safety being the usual suspects. But this is reality in the NFL. No team has starter-quality talent at all 53 positions, and many are just hoping the ones starting are really good enough. This is a hard thing to be sure of before the regular season, because for the most part you are limited by how good the opposition in practice is. That is why the pre-season games are important, because it lets you go against (hopefully) the kind of talent you face in the regular season. It is the only really accurate gauge of how the team can perform. Beyond the starters, most NFL teams do not have exceptional depth, no matter what some may say. The best case scenario is to have young but largely untried players who have a hope of stepping up if they are called upon. Which, if you haven't noticed, is the blueprint Dallas is building to.
But when you are dealing with some injuries in the pre-season, it becomes more a matter of surviving until the injured players are back. The big issue for Dallas, of course, is that the backups need to keep the quarterbacks, particularly Tony Romo and Kyle Orton, from getting beaten up. This is not just on the linemen. The coaches, particularly Bill Callahan as the play caller, and the quarterbacks themselves need to be acutely aware and make adjustments as needed. The name of the game is live to fight another day, specifically September 8th.
Meanwhile, don't panic, especially if the offense seems a little inept against the Arizona Cardinals. That may be just due to having to use at least one second stringer on the O-line, and it may also just reflect a little caution. Things are not as bad as some say. They may not be completely rosy, but there is an excellent chance that it will be better soon.