IRVING, Texas – With the calendar turning to June and the start of training camp 49 days away, just happen to be contemplating the greatest challenge confronting the Dallas Cowboys in 2013.
Might that be facing the New York Giants in the season-opener … again?
Might that be the Week 6 meeting with the Washington Redskins, somewhat incredible when thinking back to this time last year, now known as the defending NFC East champs?
Might that be encountering this quarterbacking Murderers' Row of Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning twice, quite possibly R.G. Griffin twice, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers and might as well throw in Jay Cutler while we're at it, meaning the top three-rated quarterbacks from last year and five of the top 11?
Or just might the most oppressive foe facing the Cowboys in 2013 be this negative perception hanging overhead thicker than moss on some Southern oak?
You know what I mean, don't you? This ugly perception created from winning just one playoff game over the past 16 seasons; having finished no better than 8-8 in the past three seasons and earning a playoff spot only once in the past five years; and, of course, the inability to close in the final game of the past two seasons with the NFC East championship on the line.
The perception being no one around here knows what the heck they're doing, not in the draft, not in the hiring and firing of coaches, not in free agency or even when re-signing their own players to long-term deals. And definitely not the head coach, who in his only two full seasons as a head football coach has finished 8-8 and 21-19 overall when including the final eight games of the 2010 season (5-3) after taking over a 1-7 team on an interim basis.
To illustrate, here, you'll get a kick out of this. Just last week a guy recognized me at the gas station, and is the norm this time of year he casually asks "how 'dem Cowboys going to do this year?"
Normally my answer is something like, well, we'll see, they haven't even had one practice in pads yet.
But for some reason I decided to have a little fun with this guy to see his reaction, so with as much exuberance as I could muster, I said with a big smile, "They're going to do really, really well this year."
The guy did a double take, looked at me in disbelief and said, "Yeah … right," waving away in disgust as if a tree had just hit me.
See what I mean? People already are anticipating failure before even that first practice in pads, the negativity, and understandably so from so much disappointment since 1996, spreading almost universally.
Pessimism is this anvil hanging over the Cowboys organization, the prevailing perception a most evil foe.
Just the other day, heard this discussion on talk radio suggesting the Cowboys were not in good enough condition to close last season and is why they lost the final two games, one in overtime to the Saints and then the finale to the Redskins, all following a three-game winning streak.
There was no mention of the Cowboys missing seven injured starters in Game 16, five of those on defense, with their best defensive player, DeMarcus Ware, playing with a harness to keep a shoulder in need of offseason surgery in place and to support a dislocated elbow. There was no recall of Tony Romo fracturing a rib in that game or Dez Bryant playing with the broken finger also in need of offseason surgery.
I'm just sayin'.
And look, I know all teams suffer injuries. That's life in the NFL. But when injuries then strike your backups, and you are now starting backups to the backups, things grow quite dicey.
Don't forget the Cowboys had 11 starters this past season miss a total of 82 games. And it wasn't just any starters. Linebacker Sean Lee, on his way to a Pro Bowl season, missed 10 games. Jay Ratliff, the four-time Pro Bowler, also missed 10 games. Starting center Phil Costa missed 13 games and was knocked out of the only three he managed to play. Running back DeMarco Murray, who opened the season with 131 rushing yards against the Giants and then had 93 in Game 5 against the Ravens before leaving with the foot injury that caused him to miss the next six games. Inside linebacker Bruce Carter, on his way to leading the team in tackles with Lee out, missed the final five games of the season with a dislocated elbow.
Un-uh, then there was Barry Church, emerging as a starting safety, tearing his Achilles in the third game of the season. Kenyon Coleman, granted a two-down player, missed the final nine starts. My gosh, even the punter, Chris Jones, missed 12 games, and although he technically wasn't a starter, corner Orlando Scandrick, the team's nickel guy, missed the final five games.
And still, this was not the extent of this injury epidemic, just the considered Day One starters. Fourteen other players missed a total of 73 games, including the likes of Mike Jenkins (3) and Sean Lissemore (6), along with draft choices Matt Johnson and Caleb McSurdy out all 16 games, and then Josh Brent missing the final four after his car accident. [embedded_ad]
Go ahead if you can stand it, add it up: That comes to 25 players missing a grand total of 156 games. Good grief.
Of those 25 players, 13 were not available for the season finale against Washington – eight of those starters if you count the punter, along with the third corner.
So come on, poor conditioning?
Now, even the most pessimistic of you would have to say "depleted," no?
No one around here is presenting injuries as an excuse for 8-8 in 2012, certainly not the owner nor the head coach, and neither am I. These are just the facts, period. As reasonable souls, you do what you want with them.
But how different might the Cowboys have looked down the stretch with Lee and Carter at linebacker, Ratliff and/or Brent at nose tackle, Scandrick and Jenkins available as the third and fourth corners, Church playing safety and Coleman backed up at defensive end by Marcus Spears instead of Spears being backed up by rookie Tyrone Crawford. Why, there was Sean Lissemore now starting at nose tackle backed up by some guy named Brian Schaefering signed out of sheer desperation on Dec. 12, and as bad, if not worse, there was Ware playing with no more than one arm?
Maybe it's selective amnesia most forgetting the Cowboys were forced to play down the stretch with the likes of this Schaefering and Charlie Peprah and Sterling Moore and Michael Coe and Rob Callaway and Brady Poppinga, along with Ernie Sims and Eric Frampton and Dan Connor and Brian Moorman and Ryan Cook starting – all but Connor either signed off the street or claimed on waivers or signed off the practice squad or traded for on or after Aug. 31 when the initial 53-man roster was set. In fact, five of those guys were not placed on the 53-man roster until after the Thanksgiving Day game.
Yeah, that bad.
So as the Cowboys move into only the final week of Organized Team Activity workouts with a three-day minicamp the following week, and with the season opener still some three months away, keep at least some of this in mind when considering their 2013 chances.
Don't let the low-lying pall hanging overhead automatically curb your enthusiasm, causing you too to disgustingly wave a get-out-of-here hand at me.