Training camps mark the true beginning of the NFL season, but with all the good things they bring they also lead to inevitable injuries. Even under the most controlled practice situations, every team has players who get hurt. Most are fortunately minor, but some are season-ending. The Dallas Cowboys had gotten through camp and the first preseason game in good shape, but now news comes that James Hanna, who entered camp on PUP due to a lingering problem with his knee, has opted for surgery after it failed to improve.
The injury has been described as a "bone bruise", and that is a worrisome term to have crop up, because that has happened before. For those that remember, this was the same description used for the injury that effectively ended the career of Anthony Spencer. The term was used then as a euphemism for potential microfracture injuries, and those almost never resolve well. It raises at least a concern that this could be a similar situation. Until we get an actual medical diagnosis, the worry is there. Even if it does not turn out to be the worst case scenario, the surgery means that Hanna will almost certainly be on PUP to begin the season, which would mean he would not be available until after the first six weeks have passed. That is the immediate concern. Meanwhile, Hanna and the team both have to wonder if this does carry a risk of being more severe, and possibly career-ending. But the best case scenario is still that Hanna is unavailable for at least six weeks.
(Another injury that was reported on Monday was to wide receiver Chris Brown, who may have a broken bone in his foot, but while that is terrible for him, it is not likely to have significant impact for the team with the depth at WR and the number of players in camp.)
Hanna was re-signed to a three year deal this year, reflecting his importance to the team. Although he was sparingly used as a receiver, he was perhaps the most effective blocker among the tight end group. Dallas is structuring its offense to be run-heavy with rookie Ezekiel Elliott as the lead back, and Hanna’s skills as a blocker were valuable for that. Now the team has to look to Gavin Escobar and Geoff Swaim to take the load. That is not a simple thing. Both have good receiving skills (although Swaim showed some problems in the preseason game, which is another concern), but blocking is becoming something of a lost art for today’s tight ends. Increasingly the position is functionally becoming a very large slot wide receiver. The Cowboys are one of a handful bucking that trend, and Hanna was a real asset for that. His loss may be enough to force some adjustments by Scott Linehan in game-planning and play-calling. Fortunately, the preseason opener showed that he may be able to do so effectively as he utilized rookie Dak Prescott to an extent that caught the attention of the entire league, without Hanna playing. Since long-time starter Jason Witten almost never leaves the field. the role that is degraded is the second tight end in the 12 personnel packages, but the Cowboys have used that a lot in the run game in recent years.
Prior to Hanna’s election to have surgery, the most significant injury issues were the broken lower leg suffered by Kellen Moore and the nerve problem of Jaylon Smith. Smith’s situation was expected and the team was fully prepared to not have him available this year. Moore’s injury opened the door for Prescott and Jameill Showers to prove they could take over the backup quarterback job, and that went amazing well in the first half of the game against the Los Angeles Rams. The Cowboys may have been forced into something they should have done all along.
There does not appear to be any such silver lining to Hanna’s injury. Not only does it mean a downgrade in blocking for the TE2 position, it forces the Cowboys to figure out what to do if they feel they need to carry four tight ends this year. Rico Gathers is highly unlikely to be ready for the NFL this season, and Austin Traylor is something of a long shot to make the team. They may have to look to free agency or a trade, neither of which looks that promising at the moment.
Hanna’s value to the team is underappreciated by many. Now the Cowboys have to figure out how to deal with his absence for at least the first part of the season, and possibly much longer. It is the first real injury challenge of 2016.