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How Injuries Have Strengthened The Dallas Cowboys In 2016

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Consider the dramatic difference between the 2015 and 2016 seasons. In both years, the Cowboys suffered team-altering injuries. In 2015, it spelled disaster, but this year it has actually helped the team become stronger. Amazing.

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Chicago Bears v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Normally, no team in the NFL wants to suffer injuries. That’s just as true for the Dallas Cowboys as any other team. Yet, while injuries devastated the Cowboys in 2015, this year not only has the team overcome them, but they’ve actually learned a lot more about their backups than they otherwise would have, and by continuing to win without key players, have gained tremendous confidence as a result. Let’s go down the list of injuries and take a look.

Kellen Moore’s and Tony Romo’s Injuries Led to Dak Prescott

No matter where you stand on the Dak Prescott v. Tony Romo debate, most people would agree that the ability to find out what Dallas has in Dak Prescott as a rookie has been transformative for the team.

How did this come about? First, Kellen Moore, the last backup quarterback from 2015, went down with a broken ankle on August 3rd, at the start of training camp. This put Dallas in the position of either relying on Dak Prescott or Jameill Showers to be the backup quarterback to Tony Romo, or for Dallas to go on the open market to sign or trade for someone. Nick Foles was considered, but he signed with the Chiefs. Josh McCown with Cleveland was considered a trade possibility, but Cleveland wanted too much. Fortunately, Dallas held off and decided to at least try Prescott and Showers to see what they had. From that point on, Dak Prescott began to take control of at least the backup position, even though many thought, right up to Dak’s first preseason game, that Jameill Showers might have been the best choice.

After Dak Prescott wowed the country in the nationally televised first preseason game in Los Angeles, the backup QB question was settled. Dallas no longer showed any interest in signing or trading for a backup.

Then, in the dress rehearsal preseason game in Seattle, Tony Romo went down with a back injury on his third play from scrimmage.

Everyone thought, “Oh no, here we go again.” It was not quite the same as 2015, because Dak Prescott to that point looked poised and in command and far better than the Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassell, Kellen Moore trio Dallas had used last year. But still, Dallas subs for Romo had a very dismal record since Jon Kitna filled in for Romo for most of 2010.

No team wants to lose their starting quarterback, but Romo’s injuries were not season-ending, and as a result the Dallas Cowboys have had the opportunity to find out much sooner than expected whether Dak Prescott can be their quarterback of the future, all while continuing to win in the present. This event, like the Drew Bledsoe injury 15 years ago, may have completely changed the trajectory of the Dallas Cowboys, and that’s true no matter where you come out on the Romo-Dak debate.

But this has not been the only injury to make a difference.

Dez Bryant’s Injury Has Allowed Dallas To Realize It Can Win Without Him

No Cowboys fan wants Dez Bryant to be injured. Aside from Tony Romo, most commentators felt that Dez’s injury issues in 2015 were the reason the Cowboys offense went dead in the water.

Fast forward to 2016. In the third game, Dez lands awkwardly on his leg, sits out a bit, but finishes the game. He then missed his MRI appointment and team meetings because he feared that the injury might be bad. Fortunately, it was only a hairline fracture, but Dez has still missed three games as a result.

What was Dak Prescott’s reaction? He was unfazed. Todd Archer got this quote from Dak.

"I don't really pay attention to who I'm throwing to," said Prescott, who has connected with Bryant 11 times for 150 yards and 1 touchdown this season. "I just go through my reads. Whoever's open gets the ball. So, I mean, hope [he] gets well, is well really, really soon, but it doesn't really affect this offense."

Dez Bryant “doesn’t really affect this offense”? You have to hand it to Dak for backing those words up, because neither the Cowboys offense nor Dak’s quarterback stats have shown any signs of faltering without Dez over these last three games, all Cowboys wins.

Instead, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Jason Witten, and Brice Butler have stepped up big time, which is something they couldn’t do with Dallas’s backup quarterbacks last year.

Now the story is how much of a nightmare the Cowboys’ offense can be with Dez, instead of, if Dez goes down, the team is in trouble. What a difference a year makes!

Tyron Smith’s Injury Allowed Dallas To Learn That Chaz Green Is A Solid Tackle

Let’s see - Tony Romo, Dez Bryant ... - who else might be super important to the Cowboys? It’s Tyron Smith, of course, who many would rate as the best Cowboys player, and one writer named the best tackle in the game before the season.

Yet he can’t suit up for either the Bears or 49ers game because of back issues. Smith had missed one game in his second season, but until this year, had played in 79 out of 80 possible games.

In comes Chaz Green, and the Cowboys don’t miss a beat. This was vital information for Dallas to have, since the team was unable to get a bead on Green’s ability as a rookie as he missed the entire year with a hip injury. Another big shot in the arm to Dallas’s confidence.

Orlando Scandrick’s And Mo Claiborne’s Injuries Have Allowed Anthony Brown To Emerge As A Stud

When Orlando Scandrick was lost for the season in 2015, the Dallas Cowboys secondary suffered a huge blow. Though the defense fought gamely, Scandrick’s absence was felt to have a huge impact on the team’s 4-12 record.

Cue 2016. Suffering from hamstring problems in the preseason, Scandrick nevertheless toughed it out to play against the Giants and Washington this year. But Odell Beckham burned him for a big play in the opener, and after the Washington game, Scandrick has sat out.

Enter Anthony Brown. He went from zero defensive snaps in the Washington game to 86% of the defensive snaps against the Bears, 90% against the Niners, 83% against the Bengals, and 87% against the Packers. Rod Marinelli has compared him to Rhonde Barber, who played 18 seasons for Tampa Bay.

Until the Packers game, Brown was used in the slot. But when Mo Claiborne went down at the end of the first half with a concussion, Brown stepped seamlessly into an outside cornerback role. As a sixth-round draft pick, this kid has been an absolute steal for the Cowboys.

La’el Collins’ Injury Has Restored Ron Leary To His Rightful Spot At Left Guard

The La’el Collins acquisition after the 2015 draft was rightfully considered a coup for the Cowboys. He replaced Ron Leary after Leary suffered groin injuries, and ended up staying in the lineup after Leary returned to health.

This year, however, La’el Collins got off to a rough start. He was graded by Pro Football Focus as it’s worst offensive lineman in week one against the Giants. In the third game, he injured his big toe and ended up playing only 59% of the snaps. Ron Leary took the rest.

Ron Leary isn’t the highest-ranked guard by Pro Football Focus (Zack Martin is second), but he’s rated 41 spots above La’el Collins, who was worse than just being inconsistent this year. And Leary’s entrance into the starting lineup has coincided with Ezekiel Elliott’s torching of the NFL.

This is the line - Smith, Leary, Frederick, Martin, and Free - that paved the way in 2014 for DeMarco Murray’s record-setting season. It appears to be the Cowboys’ best combination again.

James Hanna’s Injury Has Given Geoff Swaim Much More Playing Time

In 2015, Geoff Swaim had 24 snaps on offense, or just over two percent. This year, he has 138 snaps, or 33% of the offensive plays. He also has three receptions for 50 yards.

Swaim’s elevation to the number two tight end came because James Hanna was injured in pre-season. He’s done a very good job. He also blew by Gavin Escobar in the process. While he could certainly improve, he’s not been a problematic player for Dallas. He blocked Carlos Dunlap on this play, helping spring Zeke for a 60-yard TD run against Cincinnati.

Darren McFadden’s Injury Has Allowed The Cowboys To Keep Darius Jackson

This may not seem important, because Darius Jackson has yet to play in 2016. But the Darren McFadden elbow injury took a fair amount of pressure off the Cowboys in cutting down to the 53-man roster. They could keep their promising draft pick, instead of exposing him to waiver claims. This hasn’t paid off yet, but it could very well over the next few years.

Not All Injuries Have Had A Silver Lining For The Cowboys

Despite these positive results, there have been some injuries that have not had a silver lining.

  • David Irving showed his immense potential in the Packers game, winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week, with three forced fumbles and an important blocked pass. But he has missed time with a concussion and other ailments to the detriment of the team.
  • Charles Tapper also went down when the Cowboys discovered he had a fractured vertebra for a long time. He’s been placed on IR, but as the highest profile player on that list, might return in 2016. Given how well the other Cowboys draft picks have done this season, and the thin crop of defensive ends, Tapper might have made a difference.
  • Lance Dunbar has had recurring knee problems and missed a few games. The Cowboys have compensated for his loss, but he still brings explosive abilities that no one else has in quite the same way.
  • Mark Nzeocha, who redshirted his first season, looked promising in preseason with an interception and run back, but his defensive debut has been postpone by injuries as well. He’s made it back for a few special teams snaps over the last couple of games, but no defensive snaps. This has had no team benefits.
  • Andrew Gachkar has also missed time.

Pretty amazing how Dallas’s “next man up” philosophy has actually paid off in a big way this season.

What’s your take?