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Are Cowboys Facing A Regression To The Mean In Injuries?

After several years where injuries were a serious limitation for them, Dallas was relatively healthy in 2014. Will the team have more problems this year, and how prepared are they to handle them?

The search for depth is underway.
The search for depth is underway.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One thing that was a very welcome relief for Cowboys fans last season was that the team was able to weather injuries well, and depending on how you look at it, the team was actually one of the least impacted by injury among all NFL franchises. A site called Football Perspective evaluated all rosters based on the number of games started by the top 11 players on both offense and defense, and according to their system of analysis, the Cowboys had the highest average number of starts of any team with 14.5. Injuries are something that is largely a matter of random chance (or luck if you prefer). Dallas was particularly fortunate on offense with Doug Free the only starter that saw significant time missed during the season. This was why Jermey Parnell was so valuable to the team last year. He parlayed that into a nice new contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The need to replace him was why Dallas invested two draft picks in offensive tackles Chaz Green and Laurence Gibson. With Green undergoing hip surgery to address problems from his college days, the improved performance of Darrion Weems also looms rather large for the team. Similarly, La'el Collins is extremely valuable to the team even if he cannot supplant Ronald Leary as the left guard, since he would fill a similar backup role, and promises to be quite good.

This is why depth is such a crucial thing for NFL teams, and for Dallas in 2014, the good health of the starters masked a lack of quality depth at some positions. Having J.J. Wilcox, Barry Church, Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick all on the field for the entire season (except the two games Scandrick was suspended to start the year) was a crucial part of the improvement on defense, which was the preseason consensus pick to be the worst in the history of professional football or very close to it. And the surprising contributions of Anthony Hitchens, who started games at all three linebacker spots, was the Cowboys' own version of a thin blue line in the middle of the defense.

Based on the principle of regression to the mean, the Cowboys are statistically much more likely to be closer to the league average injury wise. No matter how good a strength and conditioning program is, the odds are just heavily stacked against them in this area. The offseason saw a lot of emphasis on building depth where the team was weak. In addition to the offensive line, the team brought in a group of veteran linebackers and drafted Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha. They used a 2016 draft pick to get tight end Geoff Swaim. They bolstered the secondary with Byron Jones and Corey White, both of whom have shown some ability to handle both cornerback and safety duties during the OTAs. With memories of Miles Austin and Cole Beasley, they are evaluating a bevy of UDFA wideouts. The defensive line has seen top level talent added in Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory, plus has several other players coming back from injury that should increase the depth. And despite not drafting a running back, they added Darren McFadden, who has been a pleasant surprise running, albeit without contact. The only place that the Cowboys have not taken any steps to significantly upgrade depth is at quarterback. And when you have a legitimate franchise quarterback, that is always an issue. The extensive investment in the offensive line is the best step the team could have taken to try and keep Tony Romo healthy. It is also probably far more effective than trying to sign another well-traveled veteran or taking a chance on a late-round quarterback.

At the beginning of the article, you may have noticed the caveat "depending on how you look at it". One thing that I noticed in the article was that it did not consider the fact that the slot receiver and the nickel cornerback are really extra starters in some ways, which makes the loss of Morris Claiborne early in the season something that would have made the numbers look worse than they did. More importantly, it did not include the loss of Sean Lee well before the season started. It also did not consider the injury in preseason to DeMarcus Lawrence, who would likely have been a starter very early, if not from day one, had he been healthy. Bob Sturm also saw this in his look at the Football Perspective piece. If you take them into account, the picture is not so rosy for the Cowboys. But as he points out, good health for the players who where the starters was crucial no matter how you slice it. He takes the same approach and looks back further.

For all of the flaws in logic, we see that in the last 10 seasons, the Cowboys have made the playoffs 4 times and those are #1, #2, #3, and Tied for #4 seasons in health of the Top 22.

One way or another, the Cowboys are going to need good health as well as reliable depth if they are to have another successful season. And in the past, teams with a lot of injuries have also gone on to do quite well, with the 2010 Green Bay Packers one of the best examples. That is where depth and keeping you quarterback upright are so vital. Dallas has made a lot of good moves to prepare for whatever comes this year. We will all be hoping for the best and that they will overcome whatever hardships come their way.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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