After an impressive 13-3 season in 2016, the Dallas Cowboys fell off to a 9-7 record last year. There are a lot of different reasons for the drop off, but most people will point to the absence of three key players that proved to be too much to overcome. At full strength, the team played well, but with certain All-Pro’s missing, the team struggled. At different points in the season the Cowboys were without Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, and Ezekiel Elliott whether it was from injury or suspension. Here is how the team’s point differential looked throughout the year with those players out:
The Cowboys were banged up and losing star players proved hard to overcome, but that’s the nature of the NFL. We all know how the Philadelphia Eagles were able to overcome injuries to Carson Wentz, Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, and Darren Sproles last season and still win a Super Bowl. While the narrative might’ve been that the team dug deep and had the heart of a lion to pull off such a feat, the reality of it is that the Eagles were a deep club filled with good players. They had the right pieces in place to overcome adversity and as much as it pains us to admit - the Cowboys did not.
But the team is singing a different tune this year. The Cowboys are dealing with all sorts of injuries this season, but the 2018 group is more prepared to handle it. Let’s take a look at all the players they have missed and who has stepped up in their absence.
Travis Frederick, game missed = all of them
Next man up: Joe Looney
The Cowboys were hit with bad news before the season even started as they learned that their All-Pro center, Travis Frederick, had been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that attacks the body’s nervous system. Right out of the gate, the offensive line was served a major blow. But as great as Frederick is, the play of backup Joe Looney has been a pleasant surprise this season. We all love his colorful personality, but up until this season - he’s just been a likable guy we hoped didn’t have to see the field. We see him differently now.
Looney has always been a big-bodied blocker that is ideal for short yardage situations. In fact, the team would sometimes add him to beef up the offensive line in “Jumbo Joe” packages. But little did we know he has nimble feet to get downfield and block. You might remember that big Ezekiel Elliott screen where Looney scampered 50 yards down the field to make a block near the goal line. That was impressive. And he’s been doing that type of stuff a lot this year.
The loss of Frederick will go down as the biggest loss in terms of games missed, but the effect of his absence isn’t hurting the team in a major way. Looney has been playing really well this season. While it’s uncertain what Frederick’s future holds, the Cowboys will have Looney around for a couple years. This offseason, he signed a two-year, $2.1 million deal so the team will have him back again next season. That’s good news.
David Irving, games missed = 10
Next man up: Antwaun Woods
If you are pleased by the play of Looney, then you have to be overjoyed with the contribution of free agent Antwaun Woods. Both these guys have been trench warriors this season.
Woods was signed to a two-year, $1 million deal this offseason (so he’ll be around for super cheap next season) as a depth signing. It didn’t take long for buzz to start generating and next thing we knew - no. 99 was getting first team reps in preseason. With David Irving set to miss the first four games due to a suspension, this opened the door for Maliek Collins to play the 3-tech spot. That worked out nicely for Woods, who could then man the 1-tech spot. Woods has been a reliable nose tackle for the Cowboys logging the third-most snaps of any defensive lineman this year.
The Cowboys defense allows the second-fewest yards per rushing attempt and Woods play in the middle is a big part of that.
Dorance Armstrong (was held) and Antwaun Woods destroying this run play pic.twitter.com/xqINXgY5Rt— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 18, 2018
Sean Lee, games missed = 7
Next man up: Leighton Vander Esch
Pleasant surprises appear to be the theme here and there might not be a more rewarding feeling than the realization that the Cowboys hit another first-round draft pick out of the park when they selected Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. The rookie has been nothing short of spectacular this season. After spending the first half of the season talking about how he stacked up to other rookies, we are now talking about how he stacks up against the very best linebackers in the league. What a great thing that is.
Bobby Wagner is the NFL's top linebacker through 13 weeks. pic.twitter.com/jeoJ4c4K2o— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 5, 2018
Last year we saw all the graphics of how bad the Cowboys were without Sean Lee. That is no longer the case as the Cowboys are 6-1 this season without Lee. Thanks to the addition of a super-freak athlete in Vander Esch combined with a stronger, more experienced Jaylon Smith, the linebackers are playing like rock stars.
Connor Williams, games missed = 4
Next man up: Xavier Su’a-Filo
Vander Esch was a great first-round pick, but grabbing Connor Williams in the second seemed like a bonus. The rookie won the starting left guard position, but struggled at different times this season. When an injury caused him to miss the Eagles game, the team had reserves Xavier Su’a-Filo and Adam Redmond battle it out to fill Williams role. It was Su’a-Filo that won the job and he’s been playing well. In fact, the rookie is back to full strength, but the team is still going with Su’a-Filo as their starter. Who knows how long will this last, but right now it has to feel good to know that Su’a-Filo has been reliable for them.
Tyron Smith, games missed = 2
Next man up: Cameron Fleming
Not only were the Cowboys able to withstand a Sean Lee injury due to great drafting, they also dodged a big bullet by signing a solid swing tackle in free agency. Fans were on edge when they saw Tyron Smith on the sidelines during the Thanksgiving matchup against the Redskins. The team was finally collecting on their $2.5 million insurance policy, Cam Fleming, and surprisingly he looked pretty good. Smith missed the Saints game as well and while the stat sheet will show you that Dak Prescott was sacked seven times, it’s not what you think. This wasn’t the Chaz Green Atlanta debacle, part II. Fleming did his job just fine. In fact, he did it better than any left tackle the Saints have went up against so far this year.
That’s three starting offensive linemen and two of the team’s stronger defensive players that have missed time. That’s a pretty good hit. But it doesn’t end there. They’ve also lost offensive spark Tavon Austin for six games. The team made a trade in the offseason to get him and he sure looked like he was going to be a critical piece early on.
That 65-yard play by Austin was the team’s longest play of the season until Amari Cooper showed up and changed that.
The team also lost their starting tight end, Geoff Swaim for three games. That may not seem like a big loss, but Swaim is having a very solid season in his first year as the team’s #1 TE. Known more for his blocking, Swaim has turned in to a reliable target for his young quarterback. Prescott has looked his way often and Swaim has produced. He has the highest catch percentage of anyone on the team.
Fortunately the team uses a committee approach for the tight end position so they have plenty of other names to choose from. Blake Jarwin had a nice third-down conversion against the Saints that got the offense out of trouble deep in their own territory and Dalton Schultz is blocking a lot better than he was a month ago. It’s not fancy, but it’s effective.
Another player worthy of mention is Tyrone Crawford. While he’s not a bench guy, his utility-knife flexibility has allowed him to fill in along the defensive line. When Randy Gregory missed games earlier in the year, Crawford lined up at defensive end. When Maliek Collins missed three games this season, Crawford played inside. The Cowboys actually have a pretty stout defensive line rotation and Crawford is a big part of it. Antwaun Woods can play inside on early downs, but then on passing downs the team can go with DeMarcus Lawrence and Gregory on the edges with Collins and Crawford attacking from inside. This group gave the Saints fits last week and could be something to be excited about moving forward. And all of this is happening without Irving.
Here are the Cowboys starters/key rotational players who have missed at least two games and the team’s record without them:
We must applaud the front office for doing such a wonderful job strengthening the depth of this team. Whether its the draft, free agency, or trades, this organization has made some huge decisions to help improve the team. Good health isn’t always in your control and every team faces these obstacles over the course of a bruising 16-game season. The Cowboys were not equipped to handle big injuries last season, but they aren’t missing a beat this season. They are getting younger, stronger, and faster and the team’s approach in how they are building the team is paying off.
In order to make a run at a championship, teams need to get hot at the right time and being healthy certainly helps. The Cowboys are heating up and many of these players are set to return soon so this could be just what they need to finish strong.