IRVING, Texas – It’d almost be easier to list the players who stayed healthy than the ones who got hurt during the 2013 season.
The whole laundry list of injuries is too great for a top 10 list, so we’ve narrowed it down to the top 10 injuries to watch for the Cowboys heading into 2014.
Some others who didn’t make the list but should be noted are Matt Johnson (ankle), Morris Claiborne (shoulder/hamstring), George Selvie (shoulder) and Ben Bass (shoulder).
The entire register of players dealing with injuries is expansive, but these 10 top the list.
10. Doug Free (ankle) – The Cowboys right tackle had a cleanup surgery on his ankle, a procedure expected to be rather routine.
While Free should be ready for the start of training camp, if not sooner, the Cowboys need him to be as good or even better in 2014. This is the final year of his contract so it’s likely he will be determined to improve as well. But the Cowboys certainly don’t want a relapse of the 2012-version of Free.
9. Dwayne Harris (shoulder) – A cleanup surgery isn’t expected to linger for Harris, who was banged up down the stretch last year. Easily the Cowboys’ most versatile player, Harris is a rare triple-threat. There aren’t many players in the league, or even in NFL history who excels like Harris as a punt returner, kick returner and coverage specialist.
Harris’ surgery in January shouldn’t limit him this offseason but considering his importance to special teams, the Cowboys can’t afford any more setbacks. Harris also dealt with injuries to his hip, hamstring and abdomen last year.
8. Brian Waters (biceps) – This is an injury to watch simply because it could affect the Cowboys’ guard position in 2014, even though Waters’ contract expires in March and he might not ever suit up for the team again. Waters is mulling retirement, a stance he has kept since the biceps injury in mid-season last year. Even late in the season, Waters said he hadn’t decided if he was going to retire officially and/or have the biceps surgery. The guard said having the surgery didn’t automatically mean he would play again either.
The improved play of Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary down the stretch can allow the Cowboys not to get desperate in signing Waters again. Of course, he’s an improvement over the two, but don’t be so sure he would come back and take Leary’s position. Bernadeau was good enough to keep his job, but that doesn’t mean the Cowboys would turn away Waters and his decorated experience.
7. Lance Dunbar (knee) – Just when he finally saw what Lance Dunbar can do with a few extra carries, it was gone an instant. The second-year running back suffered a posterior lateral corner and underwent surgery following the Thanksgiving Day win over the Raiders.
Dunbar’s career-high 82 yards rushing helped the Cowboys rally for the win. But his speed and elusiveness could be a nice complement to DeMarco Murray’s style. Even despite Murray’s improved play down the stretch which led to a Pro Bowl spot, the Cowboys are counting on Dunbar’s change-of-pace in 2014.
6. Dez Bryant (back) – Unlike some of the others on this list, Bryant didn’t have a procedure on his back and likely wouldn’t even call this an injury. But chronic back issues have plagued him at times the last two years. He couldn’t finish the 2012 finale in Washington and his back locked up on him at least twice this past year.
He managed to play through it, which is a positive sign. But a 25-year-old with some back issues, especially considering he is emerging as the team’s best overall player, is reason enough for concern.
5. Anthony Spencer (knee microfracture surgery) – Like Waters, Spencer might have played his last snap with the Cowboys. He’s a free agent in March and hasn’t suited up since Week 2 against the Chiefs – his only game played this past year. Spencer’s knee injury eventually needed microfracture surgery, an extensive procedure that is considered one of the toughest to recover from.
The Cowboys could certainly use some depth at defensive end and if they could get Spencer at a reasonable price, because of the injury, it’s something to heavily consider. His rehab this offseason will be closely monitored not only by the Cowboys, but other teams that might want to add a talented player, despite the injury risk.
4. Tyrone Crawford (Achilles) – We still don’t know exactly where Crawford fits in the new 4-3 defense, but the prevailing logic is he should be able to compete for a starting job someone along the defensive line. He was the first of a plethora of injuries at training camp, and his Achilles’ tear started the domino effect.
Crawford has the frame to potentially work as an inside pass rusher, though they were working him in on the outside when offseason workouts began last year. The roster may dictate that he bump back inside, but wherever he ends up, he figures to be an important piece on defense in 2014.
3. DeMarcus Ware (elbow) – The veteran pass rusher is scheduled to have surgery on his left elbow next week. This latest procedure doesn’t seem to be too serious. But it’s not the fact Ware is having elbow surgery, it’s more about the volume of the injuries now. They are definitely piling up. He only has two elbows of course, and both of them have been injured.
Ware missed the first three games of his career last season with a quad tear, an injury he says is now fully healed.
2. Sean Lee (neck) – It’s always concerning when the team’s starting middle linebacker, who just earned a significant contract extension, has a neck issue.
Lee’s injury history caught up to him again toward the end of the 2013 season, as he was unable to play in the final three regular season games and still seems to be dealing with the neck pain.
The Cowboys needed Lee late on a defense that struggled throughout the majority of the season, and they can’t afford for that injury to linger into 2014. That’s an injury that’ll need to be monitored, as Lee, who didn’t get surgery on his neck after the season, continues to rehab.
1. Tony Romo (back) – Nothing really comes close. Not only are we talking about the quarterback of the team, but also a recurring back injury to a now 34-year-old. How Romo responds from this injury is undoubtedly a major factor in the Cowboys’ success for 2014.
Sure, Kyle Orton proved in Week 17 he can be competitive for a game. He had the Cowboys in position to win but threw his team out of contention. Of course, that isn’t something Romo hasn’t done either, so it’s hard to put all of the blame on Orton, who actually played well up to that point in the game.
Still, the Cowboys need their franchise quarterback healthy. Tony Romo gives this team a chance to win at all times. There aren’t many quarterbacks who could play with the worst defense in franchise history, a below-average running game and still get his team to an 8-8 record.
Tony Romo has been carrying this team on his back for a while. And it finally gave out.