Reports in cyberspace over the last 24 hours give us considerable concerns with regards to Cowboys guard Ronald Leary’s knee issues and by extension, the makeup of the entire offensive line as we look ahead to the season opener on Sept. 8 against the Giants.
Leary was an undrafted free agent after the 2012 draft where the Cowboys invested an extraordinary amount of cash for a player that was passed over again and again in the draft itself. The Cowboys liked him and decided to live with his medical checks that surely knocked him off of many team’s lists – including any pick the Cowboys might spend on Caleb McSurdy.
Leary has been a top performer in Oxnard and has given me tremendous optimism about his level of play – his bad knee pending. But, as we have said a number of times here and everywhere, the trouble with injury prone players is that they spend a considerable amount of time injured. And when he leaves the team on Aug. 13 – rather than mid November – we are reminded how far the squad has to go in terms of depth.
This is particularly true on both the offensive and defensive line and it is a stark reminder to many of the hole that this team is trying to dig out of during the present tense to fix the problems of the past tense.
As I have said for several years, the Cowboys top talent is comparable and competitive with those who are in the playoffs every year. If you’d like, we can say that 1-10 or even 1-15, the Cowboys roster is very good. It could be better, but it is more than passable with elite talent on its roster. But, this league is about the ability to show your resolve and ability over the course of 6 months. And during that time there are a number of physical challenges that result in attrition and subtraction to your resources. It happens every year as in 2012 when we saw the Cowboys repeatedly sign street free agents who had to not only jump right onto the game-day roster, but many times right onto the field as a starter or key reserve.
Where the Cowboys run into major issues is when they are asked to matchup the bottom 30 on their roster with the bottom 30 elsewhere in the league. For it is spots 16-45 on game-day that end up winning and losing many seasons. And often times, during a year, someone in that group will have to elevate and replace someone who is lost from your elite. If there is a significant drop-off in performance, you are then up a creek without a paddle. But, if they can supply an adequate replacement, then you can survive. That is why teams win in this league. Nobody avoids attrition altogether. Not all injury totals or injury victims are created equal, but championship teams are built to sustain a certain amount of damage.
So, a team that has little depth has certain spots where it simply cannot afford a hit. And on this team, for a long, long time, it has been the interior of both the offensive line and the defensive line in total. Do they have enough players to fill holes with some amount of excellence to survive and play on? Or, because of the presence of a fringe NFL player who is elevated to start, is the squad no longer able to protect their QB and run their offense. Are they no longer able to run the Tampa 2 as it is designed?
Rob Ryan will tell you that in 2012, his defense was never seen. Rather, it was the defense that he was able to run with guys being plugged in every week as brand new players. Nobody is here to argue that he did a fantastic job as defensive coordinator last year, but if somebody believes that another coordinator could have done more with Dan Connor, Brady Poppinga, and Ernie Sims playing linebacker and Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah splitting safety duties in Week 17 at Washington, they are likely delusional.
The best teams in this league – as in the deepest – have reserves that are often draft picks that they are developing for just this moment. San Francisco last season is a great example as their top 2 picks were not even used until December when injuries hit. But, when they did, they plugged in AJ Jenkins and LaMichael James for the first time in Week 14. That, is the complete opposite of signing Brady Poppinga off his couch and playing him that Sunday.
Now, that is an extreme example, but when this team now sees Brian Waters as a savior – a guy who hasn’t played since 2011 and who is 36 years and is also on his couch right now, it does serve as a reminder that the roster has been greatly improved, but there is a long ways to go. Waters, of course, is the savior this time, since Brandon Moore wants to retire instead of start at right guard. And, Waters was the first choice in 2011 (he opted for New England), when the Cowboys ended up keeping another old guard Derrick Dockery from retirement – although his performance was amazingly forgettable.
These are your choices when Stephen Peterman, Pat McQuistan, Robert Brewster, Sam Young, and David Arkin don’t pan out.
It is the treadmill of the NFL. You make a mistake and you now have to make up for it. You can sit there and say all teams make mistakes, because they do. But, that doesn’t help when Kevin Kowalski is joining Phil Costa and Dockery trying to block Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre Paul in Week 17 of 2011.
If you want to know why Tony Romo and the Cowboys get killed for their December records, look no further than spots 16-45 on the roster. When your ship leaves port at Labor Day each year, it can not resupply during the season. Every player you lose is either replaced by somebody on board or you are grasping at the couch crews. By December, you have lost 8 pieces of your group and have to plug them internally with picks and prospects. But, what if you have a hole in your roster the size of 2008 and 2009?
Then, you are hoping Nate Living and Ron Leary hold up health-wise. And that says nothing about Jay Ratliff playing and playing well for 16 Sundays. And what if either Ratliff or Jason Hatcher are lost to injury? What defensive tackle depth have they built? So little that veteran free agent Nick Hayden and undrafted free agent Ben Bass look to be right with Sean Lissemore as your best options. Yikes. Not a ton of rotation players there.
This is a good team. But, they remain paper thin in spots. And although everyone is thin at certain spots, there are better spots to be thin at than on the line of scrimmage in both directions. Which leads us back to the question of, “if you have four picks in the Top 80, can you afford to take luxury items like a tight end and another wide receiver?”
I was bothered by it in April, but I think we will all be bothered by it in November when we are seeing that the draft priorities in 2014 will be the same as what they should have been in 2012 and 2013; Getting as many 300 pound quality bodies in here as possible.
It is still quite possible that Leary will be able to stay healthy and give this team plenty of quality for the next bunch of years, but David Arkin is starting on Saturday in Arizona and I am still pretty convinced that he is a fringe roster player and certainly not a starter. Costa remains undersized and out-powered as well, and Livings seems to have a way to go health-wise.
The Cowboys have been drafting better, I believe, but have been operating at a deficit for years and will need several more Bruce Carter home runs before they are back in the black. In the meantime, cross your fingers and hold your breath. It is August and the offensive line looks beat up and patched together already.
That is generally not a great sign.
Hope for the best on those medical updates over the next three weeks.