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For the Dallas Cowboys, availability is key to strong finish

The team may be getting healthy at the right time. Now to stay that way.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Dallas Cowboys
Tyron Smith and La’el Collins are two that need to stay on the field.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The last four games of the season are shaping up to be a real stretch run for the Dallas Cowboys. They still cling to a hope of making the playoffs, and for those to stay alive, they need to win out. Taking the next four (to make a five-game winning streak) is a tall order, but one thing is currently working in their advantage. They are getting healthy.

In the NFL, there is a saying that the greatest ability for a player to have is availability. So far this season, the Cowboys have seen Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, Chidobe Awuzie, and Ezekiel Elliott miss some key contests. And you can also look at the confidence of Dak Prescott as something that has gone missing in action during the recent, crucial losing streak. Other players have also been hampered at times, including the other rookie defensive backs. Their progress was certainly slowed by the time they spent getting healthy.

Now, the roster is very close to returning to full strength for the coming game against the discombobulated New York Giants. They still have to wait a couple of more games for Elliott to get back, but most of the injured players should be ready to go. Even Prescott’s psyche seemed to get a bit of a boost in the win over Washington as he began making some key connections after an admittedly dismal first quarter - especially to Dez Bryant.

Injuries are a fact of life in the NFL, but Dallas seems to be bucking a trend in having none of its top players out, with the possible exception of Orlando Scandrick, who suffered a back injury last Thursday. His availability for this week is in question. But given the play of the younger defensive backs, particularly Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, and a somewhat surprising Kavon Frazier, the team may be fine if Scandrick does have to miss some time. Other players, like La’el Collins and Tyron Smith, are fighting through their own issues, but that is hardly uncommon this deep into the year. What is very remarkable is that the Cowboys have not lost any major talent for the rest of the season. Look at this list of serious injuries so far this season, and realize it is almost a month old and has just gotten longer.

In a year when so many other teams have suffered some really significant losses, that may become a true advantage for Dallas as it tries to salvage a season that just a week or so ago looked beyond saving.

Next to Elliott, the biggest return to the field for the Cowboys is probably Lee, the acknowledged field general for the defense as well as the best player overall on that side of the ball. If he can avoid another injury, he will make a huge difference for the team. That is despite the ability they showed to put together four good quarters without him last game. His presence is just that significant. He is one of those players that elevates the game of his teammates.

Smith returning at left tackle is almost as big. The resurgence of the offensive line last week cannot be undervalued. If they can continue to play that way while the team waits out the last two weeks of Elliott’s suspension, the chances of Dallas winning the next two games go way up. And once Elliott is back (assuming he is still in shape), then those final two contests also look to be more winnable, especially if the Philadelphia Eagles are locked into a playoff seed at that time and elect to sit or limit some of their starters for the season finale.

It can all change in a moment, of course. Injuries are the least predictable thing about NFL games, despite what some may think about certain “fragile” players, or a few “iron men” who just seem to keep going no matter what. We can give some credit to Dallas’ strength and conditioning staff. But mostly, keeping the bulk of a roster healthy has so much to do with players managing to avoid bad situations. That is largely up to chance. A misstep, or getting in the wrong body position at the wrong time, or just a somewhat freakish collision can end any player’s season, or career, at any time.

Right now, the Cowboys are in much better position health-wise than most teams. If they can remain there (and if Prescott does actually get out of his odd funk), they have a real chance to finish the season strongly.

Cross your fingers, knock on wood, and wear all that lucky game day gear.

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