ARLINGTON, Texas – The Cowboys aren't ready to speculate on the severity of Anthony Hitchens' injury, but to hear it from their postgame locker room, they are preparing for the worst.
Hitchens, entering his fourth season with the Cowboys and slated to start at middle linebacker, went to the ground with a grisly-looking knee injury on the second-to-last play of the first half on Saturday night.
The injury was bad enough that Hitchens needed assistance walking to the locker room, and reports surfaced after the Cowboys' 24-20 win that it is feared he suffered a torn ACL.
Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones declined to speculate on that report, but he was not encouraged by the situation.
"I don't want to go there," Jones said. "All I know, though, is I don't like the way it sounds."
Hitchens had been enjoying a standout training camp and was poised to hold down the middle of the Dallas defense. Instead, his potential absence raises a lot of questions about a linebacker corps that is already short on depth.
The Cowboys have an All-Pro in Sean Lee, but fellow starter Damien Wilson could be facing legal and NFL action after he was arrested during the summer. Meanwhile, Hitchens' primary understudy at middle linebacker to this point, Jaylon Smith, is slowly but steadily working his way back from a traumatic knee injury.
Smith upped his participation on Saturday night, logging roughly 16 snaps and finishing with three tackles and a tackle for loss. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said he's hopeful Smith will be able to play in Week 1, but the situation with Hitchens won't affect their game plan for bringing him back.
"We'll stick with our plan with him. We won't jeopardize the guy's future over anything like that, but as you know, Jaylon is coming along," Stephen Jones said. "The plan was all along for him to be ready for the Giants. Are we going to throw him in there for 60-something plays? I don't think so. But a lot of that is going to depend on what he's ready for. My guess is probably not."
Instead, if Hitchens does miss extensive playing time, it sounds like the contingency plan falls to Justin Durant. The Cowboys re-signed the veteran linebacker in July, likely as an insurance policy for Wilson. He has been with the team through the duration of training camp but has yet to play in a preseason game – though that is by design.
"We've been going real slow with him," Stephen Jones said. "He's a wily veteran, he knows our defense, he knows what's expected of him. We have a lot of confidence and trust in him, we just haven't wanted to rush him in. But he could've played tonight."
Durant played well during both of his stints with the Cowboys, though injuries were also a problem for him. In 2013, he missed six games with a hamstring injury, and in 2014 he suffered a season-ending elbow injury after six games. After re-signing with the Cowboys last fall, another elbow injury forced him out of the last three games of the season.
Be that as it may, facing the loss of a starter just two weeks before the regular season, the Cowboys are pleased to have a contingency plan.