In the NFL, three or four seasons seem like an age. That is all it takes to establish a reputation, memories are short. If a team experiences something over the course of just a few years, then it becomes part of the identity of the team, at least until it can remake that identity by changing.
The Dallas Cowboys came into the 2014 season with a several facets to their identity that they are working very hard to change. Being a .500 team is perhaps the biggest, and they are well on their way to fixing that. They are not there, but at 7-3, the chances look very good. Not being a tough team, mentally or physically, may have already been expunged. The establishment of a running game has shown DeMarco Murray's toughness, and also showcased that of the offensive line. A gritty, do what needs to be done attitude has been displayed clearly on defense, spearheaded by Rolando McClain.
But the most important thing to change for the Cowboys may be this: After a run of several years where Dallas seemed to suffer an overwhelming number of injuries, they are going into the last six games of the regular season as one of the healthiest rosters in the NFL.
Just a quick glance through the league-wide injury list at NFL.com shows that the Cowboys have one of the shorter lists of names. More importantly, only one player, Tyler Patmon, is officially out, and all the other names are listed as probable (and all participated fully in practice this week, taking the now-standard Tony Romo Wednesday off into consideration). I could not find any other team that did not show at least a couple of players with limited participation in practice, and most had multiple names listed as out, doubtful, or questionable. I realize that the injury list in from many teams is not always the most forthcoming announcement made, but those "outs" are pretty definitive, and Dallas is doing well with just one.
How different that is from where the team was at the equivalent point the past few years. Although there are some other things involved, it does seem much more plausible that the injuries, especially the past two years, were the crucial factor in the struggles the Cowboys had. In those years, the injuries were also very clustered, by the end taking out the center of the defense, front to back, in 2012 and then almost the entire defensive line plus Sean Lee in 2013. In both years, the Cowboys were vulnerable to basically everything the other teams threw at them, and the offense was just not able to outscore enough teams to get over that 8-8 hump.
Now, the team goes into the final six games with all but one player on the roster ready to go. Obviously, the team has not had any injuries of note.
Well, except Sean Lee. And DeVonte Holloman. And Morris Claiborne and Justin Durant. All players now on IR (except Holloman, who unfortunately was forced to leave the game by his injury.) Three of them are linebackers, and Rolando McClain and Bruce Carter have both missed games as well, although they look good for this week.
Still, the injured reserve list for the Cowboys is also one of the shortest in the league. And unlike in past years, the Cowboys had the depth, primarily one Anthony Hitchens, to be able to survive the players who have been injured.
At this time of year, the season is becoming an endurance contest, and Dallas has an advantage over the majority of other teams. Oddly, the biggest worry now is injuries on offense. Where the defense has, so far, had the depth it needs to work around the injuries it has seen, the offense has not. When Doug Free and Ronald Leary were both out, the offensive line struggled. Both DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant would be seriously missed, although Joseph Randle does provide some measure of insurance for Murray. The one injury that has to be avoided is to Romo. When he missed one game, Brandon Weeden came in and was not effective. It may have just been a bad performance in his first start of the year, which after all happened to Romo as well. But the fear obviously is that his play was just Weeden being Weeden.
But there is no question that at the moment, the Cowboys are healthy. Given the way players like Anthony Spencer, Henry Melton, DeMarcus Lawrence and now Josh Brent have been getting back in shape and/or joining the roster, they may actually be healthier right now than they have at any point previously. More than anything else, that may be what they need to carry them through the last six games and into the playoffs.
It is a radical change from the past couple of years. There is no magic, not real solution that was put into place, because for the most part, injuries are chance occurrences. This season, chance has favored Dallas. It may be the most important thing to happen to them.