News of starting guard Brian Waters’ season-ending injury Tuesday is just the latest in a string of setbacks that will severely test the Next-Man-Up mantra of Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. It’s a problem the franchise is becoming adept at addressing during the Garrett era, having had plenty of practice last year.
A voracious injury bug in 2012 arguably cost the team a division title. The Cowboys were just one win away from making the playoffs last year, and they ended the season with 12 players on IR, along with starting defensive lineman Josh Brent on the non-football injury list.
Don’t believe injuries cost Dallas the division last year? There’s no way to quantify it, but the combined play of second-half inactives Brent, Jay Ratliff, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Barry Church and Orlando Scandrick, not to mention a one-armed DeMarcus Ware, is surely worth a single win during a stretch where the Cowboys lost four games by a combined 21 points.
This season is shaping up to be similarly challenging. The Cowboys have already lost for the season four key contributors along the defensive line: Tyrone Crawford, Anthony Spencer, Ben Bass and Ratliff. Ware has missed the last two games with a quad injury and has no set return date.
Losing three projected starters along the line, all pro bowlers, is bad enough. But in a defensive scheme that depends on a steady rotation to keep linemen fresh for an attack style of play, losing key reserves on top of those pro bowl starters is devastating.
The Cowboys pro personnel department has done an admirable job of finding players off the street to fill the voids, and the coaching staff has had some success in preparing those players to compete. How long can that last, though?
The Waters injury will test backup guard Mackenzy Bernadeau first and foremost. Next Man Up. But it could also affect the resurgent play of right tackle Doug Free, as well as the developing rookie center Travis Frederick. Waters is widely regarded to have made each of those players better. One man goes down, and now the whole right side of the offensive line is a question mark.
This on top of injuries to starting safeties Barry Church and JJ Wilcox, starting running back DeMarco Murray and his backup Lance Dunbar, starting corner Morris Claiborne, linebackers Ernie Sims and DeVonte Holloman, and No. 2 wideout Miles Austin.
But at its core, football is a simple game. Success starts up front: Pressure the opposing quarterback, and protect your own, and you can win in the NFL.
In the second half of the 2013 season, the Cowboys will count on a patchwork defensive line to achieve the former, and a severely weakened offensive line to accomplish the latter.
The second half schedule sets up realistically for a 9-7 finish, but the Cowboys will trot out backups, and backups to backups, in key positions for the duration of the season. Injuries cost the team a division title in 2012. The bug is back, and looking to claim 2013 as well.
To save this season, the Cowboys will rely on Garrett’s leadership, the personnel department’s flair for locating talent, and the coaching staff’s ability to develop it. Garrett talks a lot about identity, and how a team is defined by how it responds to adversity.
With the loss of Waters, we’re about to find out who the 2013 Dallas Cowboys are.