In January this year, long before the Cowboys made the decision to part ways with DeMarcus Ware, Jason Garrett made a point about players needing to practice in order to be able to perform, even a player of Ware's caliber:
"He's missed a lot of practice time over the last couple of years because of all these injuries and that's something that can impact a player, even a player of his caliber," Garrett said. "You need to practice. You need to make sure you have the skills necessary to play your best come Sunday and he's done an amazing job from a mental and physical toughness standpoint of playing in these games. We've got to get him to the point where he's healthy and he can practice and get himself ready to play the way he's capable of playing."
Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas did the statistical legwork at the time and pointed out that DeMarcus Ware missed or was limited in half of all regular practices over his last two years in Dallas:
Of the 96 practices the last two seasons in which a daily injury report was filed with the league, Ware was limited or out 43 times. That is a staggering percentage.
Garrett has repeatedly pointed out that the Cowboys believe in the importance of practice, and was also clear on how a player's skills will erode if he doesn't practice enough.
"He simply hasn’t been able to practice very much, and what happens is -- I don’t care how great a player you are at any position – your skills start to erode, if you will, over the course of the week," Garrett said of Ware. "You need to do the things necessary to get yourself ready to play in the game. Again, hats off to him for playing through the number of injuries that he did to get himself ready to play on Sunday. But you’ve got to get him healthy enough to practice to play as well as he can play."
Obviously Garrett said all of this about practices during the regular NFL season, but I think we can assume the same logic applies to preseason and training camp: If a player doesn't participate in enough practices, his skills may erode, or he won't be able to develop the skills he needs in the first place.
And considering the amount of practice time several Cowboys players have missed in camp so far, that's could be a concern as the Cowboys head into the 2014 season.
Below is a table detailing which players missed how many practices in camp. The table is split into defense and offense, with the defensive players at the top of the table. Note that the first two practices and the last practice were all conducted in shirts and shorts only, which leaves the Cowboys with 13 padded practices out of a total of 16 practices in Oxnard.
|Cowboys training camp practice participation, Oxnard, 2014|
|Legend:||x||missed entire practice||l||left practice early|
Some comments and observations:
The snakebit defense: If we add up all the missed practices and the practices left early, the defense leads the offense by a staggering 153 - 42. For every practice missed by an offensive player, 3.6 defensive players missed practice. This is one of the few metrics from camp this year where the defense shows up ahead of the offense.
The case of the missing hamstring: Matt Johnson seamlessly took over from Miles Austin as the president of the Dallas Hamstring Club, but he's having trouble recruiting new members. Take a good look at the injuries above: There are only two hamstring injuries listed above, and Ronald Leary sustained his before the start of camp. Based on past camps, having just two hamstring injuries after 16 practices must be considered a phenomenal success. Of course, there are also five groin injuries on the list, so the soft tissue injuries remain an issue, but so far the extra focus on hamstring health seems to be paying off.
How much of this is the Cowboys being cautious? There is no way of telling how serious most of the listed injuries are. With the emphasis the Cowboys have placed on injury prevention this year, there's a good chance that the Cowboys are erring on the side of caution when holding some players out of practice. Keep this in mind before you start hyperventilating about the overall numbers.
No Sean Lee? Lee suffered what is probably the most devastating injury for the Cowboys. He's not included because his injury occurred before camp. Similarly, DT Chris Whaley is not included even though he's on IR already. Also not included are players who missed practice time, but are not with the Cowboys anymore (CB Dashaun Phillips, DT Ben Bass, RB Ben Malena).
Not all injuries are created equal: Looking at the top of the list, Anthony Spencer and Amobi Okoye missed every single practice as both continue to recover from their respective injuries. But in fairness, nobody really expected them to be ready for camp in the first place, so crying "Woe is me" based in part on those two missing practice is clearly over-reacting to something that simply isn't there. Similarly, players like Ben Gardner, Matt Johnson, Will Smith, Darrion Weems and others contribute significantly to the overall numbers, but are backups at best. Their injuries may be personal tragedies, but have little relevance for the Cowboys' 2014 campaign.
Defensive starters missing time: Where it does get concerning is where potential starters miss time due to injuries. Morris Claiborne was a full participant in only six of 13 padded practices and will miss his 11th consecutive preseason game. Terrell McClain, who by all accounts showed a stellar performance in OTAs, has had one padded practice with the Cowboys. DeMarcus Lawrence is obviously the most significant injury on this list, and with the amount of time he'll have missed by the time he's recovered, his rookie season will be almost over. Brandon Carr, despite rejoining the team at the end of last week, hasn't been a full participant in any padded practice so far. Henry Melton, George Selvie and Sterling Moore (potential starter in Sandrick's absence) are all struggling with groin injuries, and those have a a way of lingering. That's seven potential starters on defense missing time with injuries, and that's not good. Not good at all.
There were injuries on offense? Tony Romo is on some kind of recovery schedule that had the Cowboys limit his participation in camp so far. Romo's health remains a concern of course, but his limited participation was planned, not the result of a new injury. In addition to Romo, Ronald Leary looks like he only relevant name on the offensive side, and he's healthy and back at practice for a while now.
Overall, after carefully reviewing the data, I understand that the injuries to Sean Lee and DeMarcus Lawrence will inevitably color any injury assessment of the Dallas Cowboys. And I also remain concerned by the amount of practice time some of the defensive starters have missed so far, even though none of these injuries appear serious right now. As for the injuries further down the depth chart: tough, but ultimately irrelevant.
The key question remains as suggested by Garrett's quotes above: At the start of the season, will the key players have participated in enough practices to develop the skills, the scheme understanding, and the physical stamina to successfully compete in 2014?