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Mick Shots: And now the sorrow of NFL football


FRISCO, Texas – Cowboys win, 49-17, Sunday against the Giants.

Cowboys push their record to 6-3, riding a two-game winning streak heading into Sunday's game at Carolina.

Now just two games in back of the NFC East-leading Eagles with eight games to go, one of those on Dec. 10 at home against those Eagles.

Everything seemed to be trending up.

Until this:

The Cowboys finding out sixth-year veteran linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, on injured reserve the past four games after suffering a stinger in the neck area during the San Francisco game on Oct. 8, will be lost for the remainder of the season. Possibly for his career.

The combination of already having undergone vertebrae fusion surgery following the 2019 season, then also having discovered a narrowing of the spine complication back then, and then this stinger, becomes very sobering when also considering quality of life after football.

As one person told me, "It's very complicated" when wondering if and when LVE might return off injured reserve.

"There are a lot of factors involved,'' Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said during his Tuesday radio segment on 105.3 The Fan. "But he just really needs to see how this continues to heal, and then go from that point as to whether or not he would want to continue to, say, expose himself to injury.''

Vander Esch, the team's leading tackler before suffering the neck injury and second leading tackler last season, has been an integral part of this burgeoning defense, not only on the field but off the field, too. In fact, he provided a great support system last year for rookie 'backer Damone Clark, recovering from a similar neck surgery as Vander Esch before the Cowboys even drafted him in the fifth round.

"When you've been playing football your whole life, sometimes that's all you know," said Clark, taking on a bigger role these past four games having started along with LVE from the start of the season. "And I know for me, life and football, it's two important things, but obviously your health is more important.

"For me, I want to be able to walk away on my own two feet. I don't want to walk away because I'm injured. It's unfortunate what's happened to Leighton, but Leighton, he's strong, a strong guy. Leighton will still be here with us."

From the team's standpoint, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said, "The most important thing is to give him the time and space to sort through this thing, and it's not the first time he's been through it, the whole history of it."

Just another shot of adversity for Leighton and this team to overcome.

  • Takes A Village: McCarthy talks often about how many players are needed to get through a season, often referring to the 77 players needed during the Packers' 2010 Super Bowl winning season. Well, it's time for another roster adjustment for the Cowboys, already having played 58 guys with eight more games to go, coming to grips with Vander Esch out for the remainder of the season. Sure, safety Markquese Bell has filled in nicely next to Clark at linebacker. Also Rashaan Evans, too, being elevated from the practice squad his allotted three times. Now the Cowboys must find a spot on the 53-man roster for Evans, the sixth-year linebacker who led the Falcons last year with 158 tackles and signed to the Cowboys practice squad on Oct. 12. Unless the Cowboys suffer an injury worthy of being placed on injured reserve, to make room for Evans on the 53 they would have to release someone from the roster, preferably someone who can clear waivers and be re-signed to the practice squad. And this is the time of year teams out of the playoff picture will scour the waiver wire, trying to restock for next year. One potential candidate to try squeezing through waivers coming to mind would be cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, who has been inactive the past four games and has played only 25 snaps in nine games. To be determined.
  • Watch for This: John Fassel imparted some special teams wisdom when talking about his gunners on the punt coverage team. Points out when punting inside the 50-yard line he wants one of his gunners to front the punt returner if he tries returning the kick and the other gunner to speed behind the return man in case he lets the ball bounce to try to pin the ball maybe inside the 10. That is if the punter doesn't angle the ball out of bounds, as Bryan Anger did against the Giants at the 6-yard line.
  • Not So Young: Carolina quarterback Bryce Young certainly made an impression on me after winning the Davey O'Brien Award following the 2021 season at Alabama. During an interview with 97.6 The Ticket the next day after the ceremony in Fort Worth, explaining how after an offseason workout finishing around 5:15 p.m., he took off from Tuscaloosa, Ala., for Texas around 6 p.m., a 90-minute flight to DFW just in time for the award ceremony. Then Young immediately returns to campus, saying he probably got in bed around 4:15 a.m., but was up for class around 7 and then mandatory workouts, saying in jest, "Living the life … student first then athlete." And when the hosts pointed out that surely Coach Saban would have excused you from the afternoon workout to get to the award ceremony in plenty of time, Young chuckled a bit before composing himself enough to say, "Yeah, you guys don't know Coach Saban. There was no shot, no shot at all." Young went on to point out the reason Alabama players win awards like that is the commitment standard they are held to by Nick Saban. When hearing that, said to myself, not sure where this guy is going to get drafted, but I want him on me team. He went No. 1, and the Cowboys meet him at Carolina Sunday noon.
  • Fourth Quarter: So when the Cowboys hit the fourth quarter Sunday against the Giants, leading 42-7 in the eventual 49-17 victory, there was none of this schoolboy raised hand with four fingers in the air. There was work to do. The backups, get in there. And this was the type of work these guys don't ever get in practice. They were playing real football, and as we know, backups usually get a few scraps of reps during the week. Take Cowboys backup quarterback Cooper Rush. Prior to that fourth quarter, Rush had taken only 33 snaps in eight games, all in mop-up duty. But he got 18 that quarter when the Cowboys were using that time for practice, Rush completing seven of nine passes for 68 yards and leading them to the final touchdown. When told that probably is more snaps than he receives during a week's worth of practice, he laughed, saying, like "18 more" since he gets none during the week.
  • Carolina Blues: Was scouring for some positives notes on these Panthers, but sure were hard to find, but about what you'd expect from a 1-8 team. The Panthers come into this game Sunday 29th in scoring, averaging 17 points a game, and scoring no more than 17 points in six of their nine games but no more than 15 in the past three – 15, 13 and 13. The Panthers rank 30th in total yards, 275 a game, 31st in first-down conversions (37.7 percent) and Young has been sacked 29 times, ranking 29th. Well, how about defense since the Panthers rank seventh in total yards against? Hmmm, the 269 points against rank 31st, their seven takeaways 31st and the 17 sacks 29th. Oh, and the aforementioned Young? His QB rating is 75.9, coming in at 29.
  • Dak Tear: Want to know what kind of tear Dak Prescott has been on since that 42-10 loss to San Francisco, the Cowboys wining three of the next four? Well, after that loss, his QB rating was a middling 87.5, ranking 19th in the NFL. Now then, thanks to this four-game torrid pace, after throwing for 272 yards against the Chargers in a 20-17 victory and then at least 300 yards and three touchdowns in each of the next three games against the Rams, Eagles and Giants – a franchise record – and also completing 72.7 percent of his passes for 1,082 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions, his quarterback rating has ballooned to 105.1, third best in the NFL heading into Week 11. And by the way, those three-game numbers made him just the 11th quarterback since the 1970 NFL merger to pass for at least 1,000 yards, 10-plus touchdowns and complete 70 percent of his passes with fewer than two interceptions.
  • Short Stacks: You know Dak was on somewhat of a hot streak in 2022 those first 10 games back from injury, the Cowboys averaging 35.1 points a game while going 8-2, the only losses coming in overtime to Green Bay when scoring 28 and Jacksonville when scoring 34 and putting up a 93.2 QB rating … The Cowboys, after a light workout on Wednesday, had seven players listed on the injury report, although all fully practicing, and that includes KaVontae Turpin, who missed the Giants game with a shoulder injury … Two former Cowboys players are listed on the Panthers' 53-man roster, backup quarterback Andy Dalton and starting safety Xavier Woods, who spent four seasons with Dallas, starting 48 of his 68 games played.

A very thoughtful last word goes to DeMarcus Lawrence when processing the loss of Vander Esch on this tight-knit defense, ranked third in yards against and No. 2 in pass defense.

"It's hard to lose a brother like Leighton, somebody that we rely on each and every day, especially as a Mike 'backer," Lawrence said. "Definitely want to show our gratitude for him for what he did for us over the last years. You know we're still with him. I know he's still with us in spirit, but he's still up here each and every day working on himself and helping us. We certainly appreciate him and praying for him to get better."

Just the hard reality of pro football.

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