FRISCO, Texas – It's one thing to attend practice in uniform, but Anthony Hitchens got the real deal on Wednesday afternoon.
Several weeks after returning to the practice fields for rehab and conditioning, Hitchens got a full practice Wednesday as the Cowboys began their game planning for the Green Bay Packers. More than a month after suffering a tibial plateau fracture in his knee, it was a big step for the fourth-year linebacker.
"I practiced today for the first time in pads. It went well," Hitchens said. "They're going to watch the film and see how I looked. I might feel good, but I don't know how I looked yet."
Hitchens was at the tail end of a fantastic preseason when he suffered what looked like a season-ending injury on Aug. 26 against the Oakland Raiders. On the night of the game, Cowboys officials feared he had torn his ACL.
The actual diagnosis came as a welcome relief, given that it kept Hitchens off the injured reserve. But despite that, it seems remarkable that playing in Week 5 is even a possibility – even if it's not a surprise to Hitchens himself.
"I'm really not surprised, because the whole process has been getting better every week," he said. "Last week, I felt really good. I think if they had really pushed me, I probably could've played last week – in my eyes. But the staff and everything, I didn't have a full week of pads, I didn't hit no one all week, so they decided not to play me."
Getting Hitchens back into the lineup could be a huge boost for a linebacker unit that was compromised last week by the variety of injuries it has absorbed. The Cowboys have been without Hitchens all season, but they also lost Sean Lee to a hamstring injury last week.
Those two losses put quite a strain on Jaylon Smith, Justin Durant and the rest of the remaining healthy linebackers. To even get Hitchens back, let alone both of them, could make quite a difference.
"He's a guy that's been here for four years now, and he knows a lot – he knows the system," Smith said. "He'll definitely help."
Of course, as ready as Hitchens might feel. It's ultimately not a decision he can make. The Cowboys' training staff will evaluate his progress and his practice and determine if he's ready. If they give the go-ahead, then the coaching staff can decide where to use him – and when his first playing time of the season will come.
"If I looked good, then I'm good to go," he said. "If I looked good at practice, they're going to give me the green light."
All things considered, that's a pretty remarkable turnaround for the veteran linebacker. Even if he misses Sunday's game against Green Bay, Hitchens' return can't be too far off – especially with the bye week coming after the Packers.
For a guy who was feared to be out for the season, Hitchens is working his way back with plenty of time left to play.
"It's a little frustrating, but everything happens for a reason," he said. "I'm ready to get going now, and hopefully I keep building on what I had. We've only played a quarter of the season. I've still got a lot of time to play good ball and help this team."