In a sport as violent as the NFL, injuries are simply part of the game. It is unavoidable and every team has to deal with them. But for the Dallas Cowboys, injuries will be the main focus around Valley Ranch in 2014. And that focus starts at the top with quarterback Tony Romo.
In December, Romo had surgery to relieve pressure on a herniated disc known as a discectomy. WebMD defines a discectomy as a surgery to remove lumbar (low back) herniated disc material that is pressing on a nerve root or the spinal cord. Last May, Romo had a different back-related procedure done when he had a cyst removed. This offseason, all eyes will be on the 34-year old quarterback. And despite reports that he is ahead of schedule for his rehabilitation, Romo has not yet taken a real NFL hit. He is unlikely to do so until the regular season starts.
Unfortunately, injuries have been a constant problem for Cowboys starting running back DeMarco Murray. In his first three years in the league, Murray has yet to play an entire season. Although he came the closest last year playing in 14 games while posting his first 1,000 yard season. Murray staying healthy will be a big focus in 2014.
On the receiver corps, Dallas released their biggest injury-plagued receiver in veteran wideout Miles Austin and his always injured hamstrings. But it wasn’t the Cowboys offense that was ranked last in the NFL in 2013. It was their defense. And on that side of the ball, there are major questions surround several players returning from season-ending injuries.
And most of those questions will revolve around two defensive lineman: defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive end Anthony Spencer. Melton was signed during the offseason to be the cornerstone of this new Rod Marinelli-led defensive front. A defense now without All-Pro defensive lineman DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher. Coming off his first Pro Bowl season in 2012, Melton suffered an ACL injury in just the third game last season as a member of the Chicago Bears. The Cowboys are hoping Melton can return to his previous high-level of play, but only time will tell.
As for Spencer, the news now seems more dire. It was revealed last week that Spencer may start the regular season on the PUP List due to having the infamous microfracture surgery on his knee. That would mean the 2012 Pro Bowler would spend the first six weeks of the season on the sidelines. That’s terrible news for a Cowboys team in desperate need of an edge rusher. Even Spencer has started to admit he is unsure exactly what’s going to happen as this particular surgery is known for ending player’s careers prematurely.
If Melton or Spencer struggle at all this season, then the Cowboys will have to look to two other defensive players coming off similar season-ending injuries to pick up the slack: defensive end Tyrone Crawford and defensive tackle Ben Bass. Crawford was on track to make a big splash in 2013 until he tore his Achilles on the first day of training camp. Many believe the Cowboys third round pick out of Boise State in 2012 can be a star in this league. And Dallas’ defensive coordinator has made early indications that Crawford, who has position flex, could play inside on the line rather than on the edge. Still, he could be plugged in to play anywhere he’s needed.
As for Bass, the undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M in 2012 had his first real chance to make an impact on this Cowboys team last season. After an outstanding training camp, a separated shoulder prematurely ended his year before it even began. Bass will be looked to this season to provide some much needed interior depth in a Marinelli defense scheme that thrives on frequent substitutions.
Injury will also be a major focus on the Cowboys linebacker corps. The Cowboys starting middle linebacker and defensive leader, Sean Lee, will have most of the spotlight on him once again this year. That is mainly due to his injury history and his outstanding play in 2013. Despite having a career-year last season, recording 99 tackles and four interceptions in just 11 games, Lee also missed five games with hamstring and neck injuries. In fact, Lee has missed 15 games in the last two seasons. When he is on the field, Lee is a Pro Bowl caliber-player. He just needs to stay healthy.
And staying healthy was also a problem for starting outside linebacker and 2013 free agent signee Justin Durant last year. Coming off a career high 103 tackle season as a member of the Detroit Lions in 2012, Durant signed a two-year deal with Dallas last March as an unrestricted free agent. But a hamstring injury limited him to just 10 games and 24 total tackles in 2013. It’s unclear if Durant will even make it out of this offseason without getting released.
Finally, one of the bigger injury spotlights is probably on cornerback Morris Claiborne. As the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the highly-touted athletic ball-hawk out of LSU is already considered by some to be a bust. But injuries have certainly hindered Claiborne’s overall development. After a mediocre rookie campaign, Claiborne followed that up with an even worse sophomore year losing his starting job to veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick early on. But the second-year corner also struggled with shoulder, finger and hamstring injuries. Many believe this could be Claiborne’s final chance to prove himself before landing on the Cowboys trading block.
This year, maybe more than ever before, the topic of injury will be the main storyline for the Dallas Cowboys. And the success or failure of this upcoming season will most definitely be defined by it.