So, who should get the credit for this metamorphosis into a potential playoff team? There are plenty of players worthy of the credit – Tony Romo is having an outstanding season and has been clutch in these critical games; Dez Bryant as mentioned already has been a productive beast; since his return from a sprained foot injury, DeMarco Murray has single-handedly reignited a stagnant running game; Jason Witten has overcome a slow start due to an injured spleen and is approaching the single-season catch record for tight ends. But, while all of these are worthy candidates, I have a different suggestion.
Injuries are a part of the NFL for every team. The Cowboys have had their share in years past. But, this season has been absolutely unprecedented in team history in terms of starters that have gone down for the season or missed significant time. The scouting department for the Cowboys are a shadowy group that Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett keep mostly secreted away. That’s because what they’re doing of late has frankly been miraculous! Before we review some of the successful holes they’ve plugged this season, let’s meet the crew responsible for the Pro Scouting Department – the ones responsible for scouring the free agents, the waiver wire, and practice squads across the NFL looking for potential diamonds in the rough. (Thanks to Tom Ryle of Blogging the Boys for this information which is not readily available – here’s a link to his original article about the scouting department this last March)
Tom Ciskowski – Director of College & Pro Scouting
Judd Garrett – Assistant Director of Pro Scouting (yes, the brother of Jason Garrett)
Will McClay – Pro Scout/Director of Football Research
Like other large organizations, there are countless other assistants and contract scouts that help them get the job done, but this is the scouting “brain trust”. And here is a somewhat complete list by position of just what they’ve had to face this season alone and the moves they’ve made to keep the Cowboys in the hunt.
PUNTER – Chris Jones was injured and went to IR on 10/24 forcing the Cowboys to sign veteran Brian Moorman who had been released by the Buffalo Bills; Moorman has been a very effective replacement except for an especially poor performance against the Bengals. Most thought the Cowboys would be on the market for a new punter after that game, but they stuck with him and he was effective against Pittsburgh. But, clearly he is not the long term answer.
CENTER – Starter Phil Costa was a late scratch against the Giants on opening day; the team had just recently traded a 7th round 2013 draft pick to Miami for lineman Ryan Cook. Cook was forced into the starting lineup and played well. He has since played the majority of snaps at center this year and performed remarkably well overall despite the mixed performance of the offensive line as a whole. Costa was sent to IR on 12/5. Another former starter, Kevin Kowalski is back on the active roster after missing significant time but Cook has kept his starting job. Prior to Kowalski’s return and with Cook and Costa ailing, Guard Mackenzy Bernadeau was forced to play center against the Browns with another free agent, Derrick Dockery stepping in at his guard spot. Dockery started both the Browns game and the Redskin game the following week as both Costa and Cook were unable to go.
RUNNING BACK – DeMarco Murray’s sprained foot caused him to miss significant time this season. Felix Jones stepped in as the starter, has played through his own injuries, and proved his worth. Both Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar have seen extensive playing time this season as well and have performed ably in key spots.
SAFETY – Starter Barry Church went down with an Achilles injury in the 3rd game of the season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; backup Danny McCray has been the primary replacement although even Brandon Carr has played some safety this season. Rookie Matt Johnson was highly thought of and expected to challenge for playing time but never made it onto the practice field and was ultimately put on IR in November. Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah were both signed during the season for roster depth, but both have seen significant playing time at safety and on special teams and have made a contribution. Micah Pellerin was also claimed off waivers from Green Bay in December and remains on the practice squad.
CORNERBACK – Orlando Scandrick was solid at nickel corner but a hand injury sent him to IR on 12/8. Mike Jenkins who missed significant time earlier in the season has stepped in to replace him but has had mixed results. Rookie Morris Claiborne was out this last Sunday with a concussion and Jenkins started for him, but newly signed Michael Coe and Sterling Moore both saw significant snaps and delivered.
LINEBACKER – Wow. This position has been a mine field this year. Both starters Sean Lee and Bruce Carter after playing at an extremely high level experienced season-ending injuries. Lee went to IR on 10/24 and Carter joined him there on 11/26. Initially, Dan Connor and Ernie Sims stepped in and played well with contributions from Orie Lemon and Alex Albright as reserves. Lemon was sent to IR himself on 11/7 thinning out the reserves even more. On Sunday, when Sims suffered a concussion in the first quarter, Alex Albright was forced into action and made some key plays. Albright was signed as a free agent back in July. Newly signed linebacker Brady Poppinga actually started the game and made the tackle on the very first play. Although DeMarcus Ware has not missed any games, he has been suffering through nagging injuries – most recently his elbow – that has limited his effectiveness. Meanwhile, on the other side, Anthony Spencer has put together his best season as a Cowboy.
DEFENSIVE LINE – This is another area of the defense that has required some magic. Jay Ratliff has missed more games than he’s played in and essentially ended his season a few weeks ago when he had groin surgery. The Cowboys have delayed sending him to IR in hopes that he could potentially return in time for a playoff run, but that is a long shot. Add to Ratliff’s struggles the awful situation around nose tackle Josh Brent (sent to IR/Non-Football Injury after his arrest) and the season ending triceps injury to Kenyon Coleman (sent to IR on 11/14) and the defensive line is very thin. Sean Lissemore missed some time but thankfully has returned in time to fill in at nose tackle while Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher have stepped up their play. Rookie Tyrone Crawford has seen extensive playing time and newly signed Rob Callaway (from our practice squad) and Brian Schaefering (signed off of Cleveland’s practice squad) are our only other backups.
Hats off to the scouting department! They’ve done an amazing job of finding players that the coaches can plug in and get good results. Few if any are potential stars, but this team needed players and the scouts have delivered. They are in my opinion the true MVPs for the Cowboys this season – and I suspect their work is not done. Let’s get by the Saints this Sunday and then get the win in Washington and win the NFC East. I love the fact we are still in the race! Go Cowboys!