Football is one of the most physically demanding professional sports, and despite its relatively short 16-game regular season, it takes a heavy toll on players' bodies.
Ligaments, muscles, and bones are subject to enormous strain in the NFL, and injuries are ubiquitous. In 2013 for example, NFL players suffered more than 1,300 injuries, according to an article by Max Knoblauch for Mashable, an article that also featured this nifty infographic.
Considering that there are 1,696 players on the 53-man rosters of the 32 NFL teams, that's a pretty high number. And given that large sample size, you'd expect a fairly even distribution of those injuries across the 32 teams. But that's not always the case.
The Cowboys are no strangers to an uneven distribution of injures. In 2012/13 they suffered a rash of hamstring and soft tissue injuries that ultimately led them to fundamentally change the way they practiced. The Dallas Hamstring Club is all but a distant memory now, but a new form of injuries seems to be clustering Dallas, the dreaded back injury.
Tony Romo - multiple back issues
The grand maester of back issues in Dallas is Tony Romo. Early in 2013, Romo underwent a procedure on his back, ostensibly to remove a "cyst", though there was early speculation that the surgery was disc-related. Late in 2013, Romo underwent a discectomy to repair a ruptured disc. In 2014, he suffered two transverse process fractures. In 2016, he suffered a compression fracture of his vertebra, and very possibly another (unreported) disk injury.
Dez Bryant - ongoing back issues
Bryant has had back issues going all the way back to 2012/2013, received epidurals before games and was even hospitalized at one point. The back issues were so severe that they gave Dallas pause in regards to re-signing him in 2015.
DeMarcus Lawrence - multiple herniated discs
Lawrence's back issues may be the most serious of any player on the team. Lawrence initially complained of back issues at the end of the 2015 season and underwent surgery early in 2016 to fix the issue. Following that surgery, Stephen Jones explained that during surgery, the issue turned out to be much more serious than the team had expected, and that the team was 'somewhat surprised' by the significance of Lawrence's injury.
Early in 2017, Lawrence underwent surgery on his back again. The team never made any public statement about what exactly the surgeries were for either time, but it's not too hard to speculate on what the issues might have been.
It's reasonable to believe that the surgery early in 2016 was originally going to be something like a simple excision of a cyst (like what Romo reportedly had at the outset of the 2013 season), which turned into an unexpected discectomy, hence the Cowboys' surprise at the extent of the injury.
After Lawrence's back issues re-emerged towards the end of the 2016, Mike Fisher talked about seeing Lawrence in the locker room and described his posture on the radio (105.3 The Fan) as crooked, a strong indication that Lawrence suffered another disc herniation.
In medical terms, what Fisher observed was likely a lateral shift. It is when the shoulders are not aligned over the hips and are either shifted to the right or left. Lateral shifts primarily are present in the lumbar spine due to lateral disc herniations. From the symptoms described by Lawrence via Fischer (see below), DeMarcus had a lateral disc herniation that was not improving with the training/therapy techniques the Cowboys were using.
Lawrence plays a physically very demanding position, where the 265-pound defensive end is required to push 300 pound offensive tackles around while tackling 230 pound running backs along with the occasional quarterback. None of that is going to happen with a bad back. If Lawrence's issues persist, his future in the NFL may be in doubt.
That's a pretty grim outlook for a player who just a few months ago was probably being told that his issues were likely chiropractic in nature and not neurological.
Tank Lawrence tells me he's hopeful back issue is chiropractic, not neurological, and plans to play this wk for #Cowboys - will will monitor— mike fisher ✭ (@fishsports) December 20, 2016
What a scary misdiagnosis, if true.
Chaz Green - herniated disc
Green suffered a sprained foot early in the season against San Francisco last year. Oddly, he developed a back issue while working on his rehab, a back issue that turned out to be a herniated disc requiring season-ending surgery.
As with DeMarcus Lawrence, his position requires engaging players that are around 300 pounds (a little less in most cases), but that are racing full speed trying to get around him. He will need to twist in order to latch on to them, which exposes his back to a reoccurrence of disc herniation(s). Considering that his hip limited him in 2015, the combination of limitations this 300+ pound man currently is dealing with has got to make you wonder about his ability to make it through 2017, let alone making it to a second contract with the team.
Dan Bailey - herniated disc
Bailey reportedly had been dealing with minor back pain since 2014, but the pain increased the week of the Cowboys' win against the 49ers in early October 2016. A subsequent exam revealed a herniated disc, and Bailey played through the injury for the remainder of the season.
There is some hope that a conservative treatment will allow Bailey to avoid surgery this offseason, but even with a strict regimen of core-strengthening exercises, there's no guarantee the issue won't flare up again in 2017 and sideline Bailey.
Tyron Smith - bulging disc
Smith missed two games (Wk 3 vs Bears, Wk 4 @ 49ers) for the first time in his career last year with what was initially described as "muscle spasms."
Smith showed up on the injury report Friday with a back problem, but it came as a bit of a shock to see him listed as one of seven inactives for the game against the Bears.
"We thought he would play Sunday, and that was a little surprise for us," Jones said. "It was more back spasm than structural, is my understanding. At this juncture, I’m going on the basis that he’ll play."
Two weeks later, it was revealed that Smith was actually suffering from a bulging disc.
"Tyron has something that probably a huge percent of this league has," Jones said. "It is not something that we would directly list on our report, and so it’s very common. It’s very common. It’s very common. And it’s more now like a muscle spasm. I would couch it as a muscle spasm. Treatment is more like that than it is anything to do with what I would consider traditional looks at bulging discs and things like that."
If a back spasm equals a bulging disc in the Cowboys' medical terminology, does that mean Dez Bryant is also suffering from a bulging disc?
In any case, Smith did not undergo offseason surgery, and like Bailey opted for a conservative treatment approach, but what if his bulging disc graduates to a herniated disc in 2017?
Carles Tapper - Pars defect
Many reports about Tapper's condition claimed that his pars defect is congenital, but that is probably based on outdated information.
For many years, it was assumed that pars defects were congenital anomalies, or birth defects. Today, we understand that most pars defects are really stress fractures that usually occur in the spines of young people. The presumed cause is repeated hyperextension, or backward bending, of the lumbar spine. Pars defects often affect athletes whose spines are frequently stressed in this manner, such as gymnasts, divers and football linemen.
I'm no sure where the reports of the defect being congenital originated from; I just hope it was not from the team. Tapper apparently woke up one morning in camp and was unable to move his leg. The injury was then identified, and indications are that he has fully healed after spending the season on injured reserve.
Tapper could become a productive player, but it's not clear his back condition will allow him to make it to a second contract.
Tyrone Crawford - undisclosed back injury
Early in training camp last year, Crawford sat out a couple of practices with what the team described as a "sore back." That sounds innocuous enough, but Crawford's back was sore enough that the Cowboys sent him to get an MRI on his back.
What if he suffers another "sore back" this year, an injury that in the Cowboys' convoluted circumlocutory could mean anything from back spasms to bulging discs through herniated discs? He's already hampered by shoulders that required surgery in two consecutive offseasons; add a bad back and how will he be able to push through 330-pound guards?
The Mashable article quoted at the top of this post suggests there were 49 back injuries in the NFL in 2013, an average of 1.5 per team. The Cowboys were clearly over that quota last year, with Tony Romo, Tyron Smith, Chaz Green, DeMarus Lawrence, Charles Tapper, and Dan Bailey all missing games with back injuries. Add Tyrone Crawford and Dez Bryant with suspected back issues and you've got to wonder if there is something the Cowboys are doing systematically wrong that leads to all these back injuries.
The Cowboys got their hamstring injuries under control when they made significant changes to the way they approached their practices. Perhaps it's time to take a similar approach to get a grip on back injuries?
Because if the back injuries catch up with the Cowboys in 2017, they'll have serious issues on the offensive and defensive lines as well as in the kicking game. And nobody wants that.