IRVING, Texas - The "next man up" philosophy Jason Garrett's preached all season seemed a little bit cliché three months ago. Of course the next player on the depth chart needs to contribute when someone gets injured.
But as the season's progressed and the Cowboys have suffered a devastating amount of injuries, the theory he preaches and the need for the "next man up" to be a key contributor's become more and more essential.
The Cowboys have a laundry list of important and seemingly irreplaceable players unable to suit up and take the field. Yet somehow, the Cowboys seem to be playing their best football of the season.
Their recent success can be partially attributed to the fact that reserve players have stepped up and softened the blow of losing so many impact players.
"First of all, we don't talk about injuries," Garrett said. "We talk about the next guy being up. I think we've done a good job of that with our team. We've had some different injuries like every team in the league and the next guy up has to step in there and play."
And plenty of players have had to step up. On defense alone, the Cowboys played last Sunday's game without Jay Ratliff, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Josh Brent.
They went six weeks without DeMarco Murray. They're missing their starting center and have suffered various injuries to their offensive line.
But the Cowboys continue to place new players on the field that can get the job done. In last Sunday's game, the three leading tacklers for the Cowboys were all projected to be backups in training camp. Danny McCray, Alex Albright and Dan Connor were all thought of as special teams players back in August, but they all played plenty of defensive snaps against the Steelers.
Albright played significant minutes on the inside at linebacker after Sims got hurt, and he came up with a couple crucial tackles.
The Cowboys have been asked to rely heavily on players that joined the organization in the middle of the season. Players who were brought in as backups when a player went down with an injury were later relied on as starters as more injuries piled up.
Garrett credited the front office for being able to find available players who could be thrown into the Cowboys' game plan without making the coaches readjust their formula.
"I think organizationally we have done a very good job of acquiring players as this season has gone on who have come in and helped us a lot," Garrett said. "They've played a lot of snaps for us. Guys who weren't with us in training camp, guys who weren't with us a few weeks ago and they've come in and done a good job. I think Rob (Ryan) has done an outstanding job on the defensive side of getting these guys integrated into our defense, getting them to play within our scheme, but also giving them things they can handle and can execute on Sunday."
One example was Ernie Sims, who was brought in to provide depth at linebacker after the injury to Sean Lee. But Sims quickly became a starter, and, shortly after, a defensive play caller for the team after more injuries at the position.
Sims even recorded 10 tackles in the Cowboys' victory against the Bengals. But when he left the Steelers game in the first quarter with a concussion, the Cowboys were forced to reach even deeper into the linebacker well. They called upon Albright and he answered against Pittsburgh, recording six combined tackles.
"Alex is a really interesting guy," Garrett said. "If you remember, we actually moved him to tight end in training camp, too. He's one of those athletes who, first and foremost, is smart. When I say smart, he's intellectually smart. He understands the game. He's also an instinctive football player. We actually moved him to tight end for a few days when we had some injuries there, but he's played inside linebacker, he's played outside linebacker, he's been a real contributor to our special teams. It goes to how he approaches this game, how smart he is, and he's a very good athlete. I think he's underappreciated as an athlete."
Brady Poppinga started on defense Sunday, despite only being with the team a few weeks. Eric Frampton played a considerable amount of snaps at safety and played well in coverage. Sterling Moore was also a contributing member of the secondary. Brian Schaerfering was a Cowboy for less than a full week, but he contributed at defensive tackle, and the same goes for Michael Coe at cornerback.
None of these players were with the Cowboys in training camp. None of them got much interest from other teams. But they were required pieces for the Cowboys to keep functioning.
"You certainly work hard trying to get them up to snuff," Garrett said. "You're teaching them the language of the offense, the language of the defense. That's something you have to spend some extra time doing, particularly this far into the season. But you also have to make some real good decisions on how you are going to use a guy and what you're going to ask him to do."
It's not just the guys filling in the holes that make up for injuries. All the backups-turned-starters have done well. Don't be mistaken, you can't replace Lee or Carter or Ratliff. New players have simply come in and contributed what they are able to and played within the game plan.
When starters go down, it's also up to the other starters to raise their level of play in their absence. That's exactly what the Cowboys have been able to do. Veterans like Anthony Spencer have dominated games at times, recording another key sack Sunday.
Gerald Sensabaugh's had a number of crucial pass break ups this season, and, most recently, Brandon Carr's come up with big plays in critical moments, especially in the last few weeks. Carr recorded his second interception in as many weeks when he picked off Ben Roethlisberger in overtime, all but sealing a Cowboys victory.
Garrett's discussed his "next man up" approach all season. In the middle of close division race, it's certainly paying off.