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Spagnola: Cowboys Rolling Deep Into Necessary Depth

Posted Nov 16, 2012

IRVING, Texas – Boy, isn’t it a good thing the Dallas Cowboys didn’t dabble in reckless fantasy football roster machinations before this season began?

         Remember? Remember all the suggestions?

         Man, go ahead, trade Felix Jones. He’s in the last year of his contract. DeMarco Murray will carry the load, and he can be backed up by Phillip Tanner and rookie free agent Lance Dunbar. Hmmmm …

         Or, now that they have Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne, along with Orlando Scandrick, no need for the disgruntled Mike Jenkins. Trade the guy. Right?

         Marcus Spears, too. Why, Kenyon Coleman is going to be the starter and you got Sean Lissemore and drafted Tyrone Crawford in the third round. What do you need an eight-year veteran in a backup role for? See what you can get for the guy.

         Oh, and let’s go one more. How many of you wanted Anthony Spencer out of here? Now come on, don’t be shy, raise your hands high. Get ’em up.

         Scary the bind the Cowboys could be in had the team’s coaching staff and front office resorted to these kneejerk reactions, as if there would be something wrong with having a little depth on this roster littered with 23 guys in no more than their third NFL season. And because they didn’t, check this out:

         Jones is preparing to start his fifth consecutive game of the season since Murray’s foot sprain, which nearly needed surgery, is still keeping him out of practice. And not only is he doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, but with only one semi-tough practice available during the short week prior to the Thanksgiving tradition, he’s possibly out for the Washington game four days later, too.

         Spears will start at his old left defensive end position Sunday against the Browns since Coleman has been placed on injured reserve following surgery to repair the torn triceps muscle he suffered in the win over Philadelphia. Crawford will be the next guy up there, since Lissemore still isn’t practicing thanks to the high ankle sprain he suffered against Baltimore a month ago. And the guy they kept on the practice squad, rookie free-agent Ben Bass, an after-thought signee just because they needed another body on the defensive line for that first rookie minicamp – and he was close, having grown up in Plano, Texas – he’s now their sixth defensive lineman for Sunday and will get some snaps.

         Then there is Jenkins. You know what? Wouldn’t it have been nice this past Sunday in Philadelphia, with Claiborne suffering from rookie-itis, becoming grabby and of all things for a corner, jumping off sides, if the Cowboys could have turned to the veteran cornerback to give the kid a series or two to collect himself? But no, Jenkins’ back was still weak, having suffered spasms, leaving him a game-day inactive. And the way things are going this week – he still hasn’t practiced – he’s likely inactive again.

           Looking at my defensive stats here in front of me, Spencer, the guy everyone wailed over after the Cowboys franchised him at $8.8 million to reserve his rights, is fourth on the team in tackles, his 53 behind only Sean Lee (77), Bruce Carter (66) and DeMarcus Ware (54). These stats also say he is second on the team (just where he finished last year) with 3.5 sacks, behind only Ware’s 9.5; tied for second with Ware with three tackles for losses (behind only Carter’s eight); and his 15 QB pressures is second behind Ware’s 20. And if not for Claiborne unnecessarily grabbing on the other side, Spencer would have had an interception this past Sunday against the Eagles, and maybe even returned it for a touchdown.

         The lesson, loud and clear?

         In football – and remember this isn’t basketball or baseball, it’s football – there is nothing wrong with having a couple of good guys at the same position since there usually is enough plays to go around. And, as you’ve been reminded when watching the Cowboys this season, people do get hurt. A lot.

“I mean all that is foresight from the Joneses, their communication,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “People say whatever they say, they run the team, sure, but they are also smart. It’s unbelievable.

         “We kept depth on the roster, we kept the right guys, we kept the best players for this very reason. Sometimes you want to keep a young kid, he’s got promise, but you let a big-time veteran go. Well, that’s not the right thing to do. We did the right things. We kept these guys around and it’s helped us.”

         Inject the word “immensely.”

         With seven games remaining, the next two in a five-day span, the Cowboys already have three season-opening defensive starters on injured reserve (Barry Church, Lee and Coleman). They are just getting Lee’s backup, Dan Connor, back after missing two games with nerve damage in his neck (stinger) and have placed one of his called-up backups, former practice squadder Orie Lemon, on IR.

         And how about this? Nine games into the season, 11 defensive players have missed a total of 37 games, and that total will skyrocket since Lee, Church and Coleman definitely will miss seven more each. That’s 58, and it doesn’t appear at this point that Lissemore is ready to return and who knows about Jenkins? Rookie Matt Johnson? Who knows? The fourth-round draft choice has missed all nine games and still isn’t practicing.

         On offense, three guys, Murray, Phil Costa and his backup Ryan Cook have totaled 11 missed games, and Murray could miss two more. Costa (high ankle sprain) will also miss at least two more and the Cowboys are highly uncertain if Cook (knee), who has yet to practice this week, will be ready to play Sunday.

         And by the way, let’s not forget punter Chris Jones also landing on IR four games ago, assured of missing a total of 11 this season. I mean, the punter for heaven sakes.

         Catching my drift?

         The Cowboys are ridiculously testing this next guy up notion, but hey, what you going to do? And guarantee you they aren’t the Lone Rangers when it comes to injuries in the National Football League. They are rampant, and why you never, ever should consider depleting a position of strength … if … you happen to be lucky enough to have a couple three at the same spot and can afford them with the salary cap.

         “We have been recycling guys all year,” Spears said the other day, realizing Jay Ratliff missed the first four games of the season, Spencer missed Games 4 and 5, Lee, the defensive captain, along with its heart and soul, will end up missing 10 of 16, Church will finish with 13 missed games, Lissemore likely with at least six and now Coleman the final seven.

         But so far defensively, the Cowboys have been duck-taping these positions with multiple solutions. Take safety. Danny McCray was the next guy up, but they also have relied on Carr and Jenkins to move from their corner positions at times on the nickel and dime packages, and also have brought on veterans Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah to play roles.

         At linebacker, without Lee and then immediately Connor, they sign Lemon from the practice squad and Ernie Sims off his couch.

         “To lose Lee was a big blow,” Spears said, “but we have the guys to get it done.”

         At defensive end, they now return Spears to his starting spot, play Crawford more and sign Bass off the practice squad, a guy another team came calling for a few weeks back.

         At running back, the Cowboys simply insert Jones, but with him trying to play through a bum knee and shoulder, they lean on Tanner and sign Dunbar off the practice squad and get the rookie ready for snaps.

         At center, the team first for Cook when Costa was injured – the first time – when it became obvious David Arkin wasn’t good enough to sufficiently back up the position. And if Cook can’t go Sunday (he’s listed as doubtful), the Cowboys likely will activate Kevin Kowalski off PUP, but that will necessitate a tough roster cut to make room.

         At punter, Brian Moorman fortuitously was released by Buffalo when Chris Jones first injured his knee, and is signed the next day.

         And at corner, with Jenkins missing last week, they sign Vince Agnew off the practice squad and basically let Claiborne take his lumps at Philly.

         This is exhausting, isn’t it? And still there are seven games to go?

          Fortunately for the Cowboys, they have a few good men with quality heads on their shoulders.

“My mindset from the beginning is you need to know all three positions,” said Mackenzy Bernadeau, who realized when he returned from offseason hip surgery of his own a couple of weeks into training camp that he needed to learn both guard positions and the center position as well, which he has only played in a preseason game.

And then there is Spears, who could have pouted after Ryan brought Coleman with him to Dallas, immediately bumping Spears off the position where he started in his first six seasons with the Cowboys into a backup role. Didn’t happen.

“You have personal feelings, you get angry not being in there, but if you’ve been around long enough you know you’re going to get your chance to play,” Spears said, and best of all, he’s not being vindictive toward this opportunity. “Not trying to beat my chest and prove I should have been playing. I just want to help this team win.”

That’s some right stuff there, all of it, including every one of those insightful decisions made nearly 12 weeks ago to preserve the depth now available for this current excavation project from that 3-5 hole.

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