Injuries occur in everyday life, and the sports world is no exception. Of all the sports played in the U.S., no sport comes anywhere close to the NFL in the sheer number of injuries as well as the degree of severity of the injuries. Quite simply, the NFL is a very violent sport and the question is “not if an injury will take place”, but rather “what players will be injured, and how severe will they be”? It is a rare occurrence to get out of a NFL game injury free. It just doesn’t really happen. The NFL season is a war of attrition, and championships can be decided by how healthy a team is coming down the stretch run.
The Dallas Cowboys have had to deal with injuries as well as they are not excluded. I want to review the impact players that have been lost for periods of time this season, and what the Cowboys have done to help cover for these player’s absence.
Barry Church - Church emerged over the summer and in training camp as someone who had previously been a special teams ace and a sub-package type player, to finally earning a starting role on the defense. Hard work and dedication paid off after going undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft. Unfortunately for Church, he suffered a torn Achilles injury in Week 3 at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cowboys have coped with this injury by using fellow undrafted free agent from 2010 and special teams ace Danny McCray in base packages as the starter. When teams have gone with three receiver sets (either three wide receivers or two wide receivers and a tight end) against the Cowboys, the team has often made another adjustment. They have slid Brandon Carr to the safety spot and used Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, and Mike Jenkins as the cornerbacks to cover the receivers.
The pro scouting department has also brought in free agents such as Eric Frampton, Charlie Peprah, and Vince Agnew to help the depth in the secondary. These players help rotate in minimally in defensive sets and even more so on special teams.
Matt Johnson was selected in the fourth round in the 2012 Draft. He was supposed to help the defense out in terms of depth, and be a potential starter in the future. The Cowboys were high on him for his ability to play with range in the secondary. Unfortunately, he has never been able to get healthy and contribute this year.
Sean Lee - When he slipped in the 2010 NFL Draft until late in the second round due to injury concerns, the Cowboys have found themselves an absolute steal. He is the Cowboys best player and has been definitely been missed since injuring his toe in Week 7 on the road against the Carolina Panthers. Fortunately for the Cowboys, another stud inside linebacker slipped to them in the Round 2 of the 2011 NFL Draft due to injury concerns. This player is Bruce Carter, and he is growing by leaps and bounds each week. He has taken over play calling responsibilities for Lee, and his speed and playmaking ability have stood out remarkably. Regardless of how this season turns out for the Cowboys, the thought of Lee and Carter manning the middle of the defense for the next ten years has to put a smile on any Cowboys fan face.
To help with depth issues, the team has used 2012 free agent signee Dan Connor, Alex Albright, and newly acquired Ernie Sims. Sims has quickly moved into a starting role, and has played well for the team since being signed in late October.
Phil Costa - Costa also was an undrafted free agent signee from the 2010 NFL Draft. He has steady improved his strength and technique. The one full complete game he was able to play in this season, the Cowboys totally gashed the Baltimore Ravens on the ground and racked up 227 yards rushing. Unfortunately, he has been unable to get and stay healthy and the Cowboys rushing attack has suffered.
Although draft picks are extremely valuable in building a healthy franchise, the pro scouting department saw enough of Ryan Cook that the Cowboys sent a seventh rounder to secure his services. Although Cook hasn’t played as well as had been hoped, he has been serviceable and much better than any alternative on the roster or in the free agent pool at the time.
Kevin Kolwalski is getting healthy and will present the Cowboys another option very soon while Costa continues to heal. I anticipate what he can bring to the table and feel he may be able to provide an upgrade at the position over Cook. This will be something to monitor in the next few weeks.
DeMarco Murray - Murray is extremely talented and looks to be the best back the Cowboys have had since Emmitt Smith wore the star. However, Murray has also continued a trend that started in college and has just not been able to get and stay healthy. Felix Jones has played decent in stretches, but has mostly played inconsistent as he has the majority of his Cowboys career. Jones will tease you and show you glimpses, but then go back to his normal, average play. He also is a back who just cannot get and stay healthy. Phillip Tanner was the third back on the depth chart, but seems to have been overtaken by Lance Dunbar, another undrafted free agent. While Tanner seems to have regressed from 2011, Dunbar has a little intrigue to himself. He was called up from the Practice Squad on October 8th initially to give help to the kick return game. Dunbar seems to have that “burst and wiggle” that you look for in a running back. What he lacks in size, he makes up in heart and has an interesting background that has made him mature as a person and player.
While the Cowboys have suffered more injuries than what have been listed, these have been the most impactful to this year’s team. Proper planning via the draft, undrafted free agent signings in the spring, and proper pro scouting during the preseason and regular season has kept the roster’s depth at a sufficient level to stay competive. Hopefully the Cowboys can continue to navigate this fine line, stay healthy and competitive, and be able to put together a run for the postseason.
Follow Craig Cortemeglia on Twitter at @ccortemegliaTLH