IRVING, Texas – Maybe for the first time in the eight years of naming the Dallas Cowboys' Mr. Indispensable, the annual award that comes with a hearty pat on the back and quite possibly national Twitter acclaim, the chosen one is not so clear cut.
That can mean one of two things for the Cowboys heading toward training camp for the 2013 season:
Either the Cowboys have a slew of players they just can't do without.
Or they just don't have that one dominant player standing out above all the rest. You can decide.
But, well, the ton of injuries suffered by the Cowboys this past 8-8 season sure clouded not only the team's performance but also individual expectations for this year. Like just how good is this guy? He only played six games or eight games or 10?
Think back to last season if you can stomach a second consecutive year that winning the NFC East came down to winning or losing the final game of the season, that of course the Cowboys lost both times. Like Sean Lee, he seemed on his way to the Pro Bowl, yet played just the first games of the season. Or Bruce Carter missing the final five games. DeMarco Murray missing six games. Jay Ratliff missing 10. Miles Austin rarely 100 percent. DeMarcus Ware playing nearly the entire season with a bad hamstring, and then down the stretch with a shoulder in need of postseason surgery and an elbow's function aided by a brace.
Some season, huh?
But we must soldier on, and as always the quarterback is ineligible, meaning Tony Romo doesn't count. That would be too easy, and usually is the case with I'm guessing at least two-thirds of the NFL teams, that the starting quarterback is the one guy they can't do without. That certainly applies to Romo, no matter how maybe a quarter of the polled players voted in NFL.com's Top 100.
So let's go.
Now anytime a guy is coming off a 110-catch season he must receive serious consideration. And Jason Witten does. But again, and this shouldn't be punitive, but let's face it, if at the end of a season if your excuse for not winning your division title is losing your starting Pro Bowl tight end, even if he's an eight-timer, would be pretty lame. Plus, the Cowboys used a second-round pick on another tight end, Gavin Escobar, and still have high hopes for James Hanna.
You know, almost the same could be said of Lee. You know, well, we didn't win the NFC East because we lost our inside linebacker for 10 games.Hey, I think that happened last year and I haven't heard anyone point out Lee playing just six games last year was the reason the Cowboys finished 8-8. And, while there isn't a legit backup to Lee, my guess is the Cowboys could always move Carter into the middle and find someone to play the weak side in a pinch.
And you know, same with Carter, too. Weak-side linebackers don't usually make or break a team.
An argument could be made for Ware to become the first back-to-back winning of Mr. Indispensable. Obviously there are guys in the league who think he's pretty darn good, Ware finishing 12th in that Top 100 voting even if he finished with just 11.5 sacks last year, his lowest total since 2009 when he followed that 20-sack season in '08 with but 11.
At least, though, the Cowboys found another guy with sack capability last year, Anthony Spencer finishing with a career-high 11, meaning the Cowboys would at least have someone to potentially pick up the slack in a potential absence of Ware.
OK, now I'm really tempted to go here, and don't think I'd get many arguments: left tackle Tyron Smith. Oh my gosh, what would the Cowboys do if they lost him for like 10 games? The thought makes your skin crawl, doesn't it? I mean at this point, who takes his place? Move Doug Free from the right side to left, since at least he's played the position before? Jermey Parnell? Truth be told, he struggled on the right side alternating series with Free those final four games, and now he'd be on the left? Romo would either need to be fitted for a neck swivel or brace if that was the case. Hmmm, maybe the Cowboys could talk Flozell out of retirement.
But at this point in Smith's two-year career, he's only played left tackle one season, and he certainly experienced some growing pains at the tender age of a 22 for all but the final three games last season. And it's not as if he's received Pro Bowl consideration … yet. Guess the Cowboys could become left-handed, meaning lining up the tight end almost exclusively to the left to help out the left tackle.
Keep this one in mind for next season.
But this year, with the move to the 4-3, and the team searching for depth at defensive tackle, Ratliff certainly crosses my mind. Again, lose him for 10 games again, and who takes his place? Heck, the Cowboys had a hard enough time last year dealing with his absence, and at least for a portion of it Josh Brent was around – until the final four games – and he most certainly won't be this year.
Again, though, I say this: Did anyone blame Ratliff's absence for the Cowboys' failure to win the NFC East last year? I think not. A contributing factor for sure, just as the losses of Lee, Carter, Murray, Barry Church, Phil Costa, Kenyon Coleman and Chris Jones were, along with Ware's but one-armed attack, but just not the sole reason.
So that leaves me juggling two final candidates:
On the one hand, Murray, and we have evidence how much his absence has hurt this team's running game the past two seasons – his only two in the NFL.
On the other, Dez Bryant, not only one of the most talented players on this team, but maybe in the entire NFL. Hey, you saw some of the did-he-really-just do-that things he rocked (been wanting to use that word for some time) last season.
Murray in the first four games of the 2012 campaign rushed for 306 yards, putting him on pace for 1,224 yards, and maybe even more since he had 93 yards rushing against Baltimore before he left with an injury. And it's not like the Cowboys have a legitimate backup to replace him now. At least Felix Jones had some experience, although even he had to play banged up down the stretch.
Yeah, I know, the Cowboys did draft Joseph Randle in the fifth round. But how many fifth-rounders simply step right in to light things up? That would concern me, especially since the guys behind him entered the league as rookie free agents. Absolutely imperative Murray stays healthy.
But here also is the dissenting rub: When he returned for those final five games, Murray rushed for just 333 yards, and averaged just 3.87 yards a carry, probably more a sign of the Cowboys inability to run-block than questioning his ability to run. But if the run-blocking doesn't improve, then how important can your running back be?
So that brings us to Dez. Amazing, huh, if you think back to his rookie year or second year, or maybe even the first half of this past season. Dez, right? The guy so many wanted to give up on? Dez, right? The guy many were suggesting to trade away? Dez, right? The guy many said he was more trouble than he's worth, remember?
Yeah, that guy. We're pretty aware Bryant's 92 receptions left him eighth among NFL wide receivers last year. His 1,382 yards receiving ranked him sixth. And his 12 receiving touchdowns ranked him third among NFL wide receivers. Can I get an ALL RIGHT?
But even more enlightening were his numbers over the second half of the season. In the final eight games Bryant caught 50 passes for 877 yards and 10 touchdowns. Factor that over the course of a season, and he would have been on pace for 100 catches, 1,754 yards receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. He had a streak of catching at least one touchdown pass in seven consecutive games over those final eight until getting shut out in the finale, playing with that broken finger.
So don't roll your eyes when the kid – he's still only 24 – says he can put up a 2,000-yard season. He got to where he did last year with three games of 17, 14 and 15 receiving yards, so just think. Over the last eight games, 50 yards was his lowest total, and 224 the highest.
Anyone else on this team capable of numbers like that? Maybe Miles Austin, but we haven't seen that kind of production from him since his breakout year of 2009.
Plus, lose Bryant, and what have you got? Austin, OK, probably Terrance Williams, who has yet to catch his first NFL pass, and probably Dwayne Harris, who has all of 17 NFL receptions, all coming in the final seven games of last year. That's really it.
And another thing: You see Bryant's third-year numbers, 92 for 1,382 (15) and 12. Well, let's compare them to the third-year numbers of four of the best receivers to have ever played for the Cowboys: [embedded_ad]
- Bob Hayes, 49 for 998 (20.4) and 8.
- Drew Pearson, 46 for 822 (17.9) and 8.
- Tony Hill, 60 for 1,062 (17.7) and 10.
- Michael Irvin, 20 for 413 (20.7) and 5, although Irvin was coming back from a torn ACL in his second season, only playing 12 games in his third year, with just seven starts. So to be fair, here are Irvin's fourth-year totals: 92, 1,528 (16.4) and 8, and remember he wound up in the Hall of Fame.
So if it's numbers that concern you, well Dez, by comparison, is right up there with the big boys. But you know this. You see the exceptional physical talent this kid has, able to do things that make you go *huh *… make you want to pay to see him play in person. If he continues to come, if he continues to refine his route-running, understand the adjustments he needs to make on the fly and take care of himself off the field – personally, physically and emotionally – there is no telling.
And one other thing I've noticed: Dez suddenly realizes he not only must be responsible to himself, but also to his teammates, and that suddenly seems to matter greatly to him. See the postponement to surgically repair that broken finger the final month of the season, the one that never again will curl forward at 90-degrees.
And when you've got a guy like that on your team, still with room to grow, well, Dez Bryant, here is this year's Mr. Indispensable crown. You the man.