IRVING, Texas -Three months ago the Cowboys didn't think they would be choosing between starting Dan Connor or Ernie Sims at linebacker. In fact, just over three* weeks* ago, Sims wasn't even on the Cowboys' roster.
But a lot of things changed for the team when its young franchise linebacker went down with a season-ending injury. It was not even a month ago that Sean Lee had the surgery on his toe that cost him the rest of his 2012 campaign. The Cowboys have been trying to figure out who should be taking his place ever since.
The most obvious adjustment was to insert veteran linebacker Dan Connor into the starting lineup, which is exactly what the Cowboys did upon finding out about the severity of Lee's injury. The Cowboys also signed Ernie Sims, a former top-10 draft pick in 2006, to provide insurance at linebacker.
As it turned out, they needed that insurance almost immediately. Early into his first start against the New York Giants, Connor left the game with a neck injury. Sims, just a few days after flying in to join the team and coming into a new defensive scheme, was thrown into the fire.
Since then, Connor has continued to nurse the neck injury and Sims, with many more practices under his belt, has started the past two games alongside Bruce Carter at linebacker.
Last week, the Cowboys signed veteran linebacker Gary Guyton, formerly of the New England Patriots, to help make up for their thinness at linebacker. But Dallas did not like what they saw from Guyton in three days of practice and chose to release him before Sunday's game against the Eagles, putting total faith in Sims.
Sims certainly held his own in his two starts. In both games he recorded five tackles, tying for second on the team in each. Head coach Jason Garrett talked about what Sims has accomplished in his short time in Dallas.
"Ernie's done a good job," Garrett said. "He was a 4-3 outside linebacker and we felt like he could make a transition to playing in our scheme and he had to learn quickly. He was here for about three days and ended up playing a lot of snaps in a game. He's done a good job and he's learning more and more on how to play the Will linebacker position in our scheme. It's showing up in games. It's not perfect by any means, but he goes about it the right way. He's a good player."
But now, Dan Connor appears to be healthy and the Cowboys will be forced to make a decision. Connor was a full participant in Wednesday's practice and once again suited up and participated in the portion of practice open to the media. This points toward him likely being available to play in Sunday's game against the Browns.
"It was good to see Dan get some work," Garrett said. "He did some work (Wednesday) both on defense and in the kicking game. So we're hopeful he's back from that injury and we'll see how he progresses in the next couple of days. It's good to have him back as an alternative."
Connor was rewarded the starting job in Lee's absence, but Sims has proven that he can play the position with confidence. So what will the Cowboys do this Sunday? Only one of them will start. Whoever it is will have an eager backup ready to take his spot.
There is, of course, the possibility that Connor starts the game and Sims is still brought in on sub-packages, like the nickel defense. But that doesn't mean Sims wouldn't still be fighting for a starting spot.
Lee brought a lot of character to the team as a starting linebacker. There is the saying that competition builds character. If that's true, then the Cowboys are probably hoping that Sims and Connor provide plenty of competition for each other.