(This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, **please click here*.)*
For some Cowboys, there has been no offseason.
For the few players that ended the 2014 campaign on the injured reserve list, the offseason consisted of about one week before having to return to the club's Valley Ranch facility to continue their rehabilitation process.
And for the guys who spent most of last fall on IR, it's been a long, tough road with a lot of hard work. But the good news is that those players should all be ready to play in 2015.
"When the team finishes the year, most guys get to go home for a period of time, but the rehab guys, I give them a week off and then they're back," said Britt Brown, the Cowboys' associate athletic trainer/director of rehabilitation. "They don't get any time to take a break.
"If it was a newer injury or they just got put on IR [at the end of the season], or if it's bad enough like Morris Claiborne, then they haven't gotten any time off at all. And they didn't get paid during that time of year, either. They don't get paid until the offseason program starts."
It's been a difficult road for Claiborne, the three-year cornerback who initially went out of the lineup with a torn patellar tendon in his left knee during the Cowboys' 38-17 win over New Orleans way back on Sept. 28. But, he'd been having some issues with the other knee as well up to that point, so he ended up having surgeries on both knees, about two months apart.
After many long months on crutches, working hard in treatment all during that time, he is finally showing progress.
"Everything's coming along pretty good," said Claiborne, who recorded one interception and seven tackles in four games before his season ended. "I'm about five months out of my surgery on my left knee and about three months on my right knee, so they're both catching up with each other, and they're both healing. I'm rehabbing both of them right now."
Originally, Claiborne was scheduled to have surgery on his right knee after the season because even though it hindered his play at times, he could still play through it. But when he hurt the left one, it made sense to take care of both.
"The right one had a hole going through my patella, so it needed to be cleaned up, and it kept swelling up and stuff like that," Claiborne explained. "It was just one of those things that we were talking about taking care of after the season, but it just so happened the left one went out on me in the New Orleans game, so I had no choice but to take care of both of them. I'd rather it gone the way it went than hurting in pain out there with, 'I can't do this, I can't that,' because of my knee."
For all players who suffer year-ending injuries, the frustration and emotional stress are probably worse than any physical pain they go through. It's a process to get through the realization of the season being over immediately and getting their mind right to take on the task of rehabbing.
"It was very frustrating to go through that," Claiborne admitted. "With me, having two knee surgeries, that was pretty tough, because your knees, you need those to walk. It was kind of hard for me because I was on crutches for like five months, six months, and it's hard. And getting around like that in public on crutches, you don't want to do anything. You just want to sit in bed, and it's easy to do that.
"The good ones rise up, though, and don't fall into that shell. That's where I'm at now. I just want to stay confident in myself, and I know I'm going to come back and make a big impact. That's how I feel."
Of course, as difficult as it was for Claiborne to wrap his mind around the fact that his season was over way too soon, consider Sean Lee's heart-breaking situation. It was a year ago, on the very first day of OTA workouts in 2014, when he sustained a torn ACL that ended his season before it even began. Of course, that it happened so early served as a blessing in disguise because it allowed him that much more time to strengthen the knee and get it back to normal before engaging in this year's activities. He's very much on track to be completely healthy for training camp in July.
"He's doing everything – running, lifting," Brown said of Lee. "He's well over the six-month mark, and usually by four months they're back running and lifting and doing stuff, so he's way past that at this point. Now that the offseason program has started, he's full-go into that. He's already lifting and running normal, cutting and doing stuff like that. He really doesn't have any restrictions at this point.
"He's unlucky that he got hurt when he got hurt because he didn't get to play during the season, but he was lucky enough to get hurt early enough so that he could return to the offseason program and be full-go, which is the most important thing. And he'll be over a year and four months when next season starts, so he'll be very far along."
Claiborne actually credits Lee with helping him get over some of the initial frustration of having his year end so early. During the season, guys who are on IR still come to the Valley Ranch facility to rehab, but are somewhat removed from the team's day-to-day activities. However, having another player with you to experience the lengthy and painful rehab process every day provides a strong sense of camaraderie among teammates that may not have previously had the chance to bond.
"You get a chance to build a stronger relationship with those guys from other positions," Claiborne said. "You get to see what those guys have been through, and their type of injuries, and you learn. Like Sean Lee. From the moment I started coming in for treatment, he wouldn't let me be down on myself. It's easy to go into a shell, and it's hard to take responsibility and say, 'This is what happened to me, and this is the next step I have to take.' I'd be bitter about that, but Sean helped me through that a tremendous amount. And it's not just him putting on a front. You can tell it's coming from a good, genuine place."
Brown pointed out that the rehabbing players are still around a lot during the season, so they aren't completely removed from the guys who are playing, but still, the nature of the daily schedule for each group makes it difficult for the IR group to stay totally involved in the on-field happenings. Plus, they don't travel to road games.
"They're around all day, as much as you need them to be during the season," Brown said of the injured players. "We usually give them off the weekend because they're working out five days a week and they just need a couple of days of rest after their rehab week. But they're in at 7:30 in the morning, and if they want to come in to the team meeting, they can. And they rehab throughout the day.
"They're usually around until we go on the field for practice, so they interact with their teammates just like they normally do. There is a little bit of distancing with that, but we try not to have it be too much."
In addition to battling back from his surgeries, Claiborne, who has been hampered by injuries since Dallas selected him sixth overall in the 2012 draft, will also have a fight on his hands for playing time this season from guys who thrived in his absence. That's in addition to a new crop of rookies, including this year's first-round pick Byron Jones. At this point, though, Claiborne is still focused on just getting healthy enough to play.
"It's a day-by-day process, but I'm ahead of the curve so far, as far as feeling better and walking better," Claiborne said. "That was one of my main things, walking, because a lot of people were telling me that I might not walk again because of this, and that I might never play.
"There're always those concerns, but I never let that get to me. I just want to show people that I can come back from this, and I feel stronger now that I'm getting better each and every day."