The significant injuries to the skill players of the Dallas Cowboys have left them without their star power this season and made the NFC East more even. Wide receiver Dez Bryant’s broken right foot, quarterback Tony Romo’s fractured left clavicle, and the loss of Lance Dunbar for the rest of the season due to a torn ACL have turned the Cowboys into a more predictable and ordinary team.
These injuries and others along with suspensions have left Dallas playing without a full deck all season. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick was lost for the season with a torn ACL in training camp and prized rookie defensive end Randy Gregory suffered a high ankle sprain in the 27-26 season-opening win over the New York Giants and his been out ever since. Linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive end Greg Hardy were both suspended for the first four games before each played in their first game this season on Oct. 11.
As a result, the division has been and will be more competitive this season. The playing field has been leveled. All four teams can beat each other on any given day and nine wins could win this division this year unless a team gets on a big winning streak. Philadelphia and the Giants both started the season 0-2 and the Eagles have not been as strong as expected. Washington plays up-and-down football, is mostly stuck in mediocrity, and is always looking up in the division. Heading into week six, New York led the division at 3-2 while everyone else was 2-3. Although the Cowboys have lost three straight, their 2-0 division mark was a plus at this time.
Coming into this season, Philadelphia was supposed to be a high powered team under Chip Kelly’s up- tempo style. The signing of Sam Bradford and 2014 NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray were believed to give the Eagles the upper hand in the division but their offense has not shown it. The Giants were an unknown and the Redskins fortunes were unpredictable with questions at quarterback.
The Cowboys’ situation has been the biggest news. Despite all the injuries and inefficiency, Dallas is still in the mix in the divisional race five games into the season at 2-3. Their week six bye came at a good time for their coaches and players to reassess their season. It also allows the injured players more time to rehab without missing a game. The losses of Romo and Bryant leave the Cowboys without their two biggest stars for about half the season and maybe more depending on how their rehab goes. While recent reports have Bryant’s rehab going well and that he could possibly return by Oct. 25 when Dallas plays at the Giants, that could be a bit premature in terms of medical reality and for the superstar’s long-term future. Bryant, known for his zest for the game, tends to push it. Thus, Cowboys’ medical officials and coaches would be wise to counsel him on when the time is right for him to play again with his surgically repaired foot.
Dallas is 0-3 this season with Romo and Bryant sidelined. While the Cowboys can still play some football without them, they are forced to spread the ball around more and are looking for someone to pick up the slack. Gone has been the deep and big play threat that Bryant consistently presented on the outside. This provided the offense with balance and kept the defense honest.
Without Bryant, teams are daring Dallas to beat them more with the pass. Teams have put an eighth defender in the box to gang up on stopping a suspect Cowboys’ running game and rely more on single coverage to defend Dallas’ wide receivers. The result has been an ineffective Cowboys’ offense as running backs Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden have not produced consistently. The loss of Dunbar also took away another key player that was a big play threat, especially as an alternate receiver out of the backfield. Without Romo, Dallas is missing their unquestioned leader at the game’s most important position. Romo is a veteran quarterback with savvy for the big play. His understanding for the game and his ability to operate the Cowboys’ offense can’t be duplicated. Furthermore, Romo has also been capable in the clutch as he showed in throwing a game-winning touchdown pass with seven seconds left to play in their season-opening win over the Giants. That has all been missed.
While Romo has also been mistake-prone in these pressure situations during his career, he has had his share of late game heroics as well such as last year when he led Dallas down the field in the final two minutes and threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Bryant to beat the Giants in New York.
If the Cowboys are to survive this season and still be in contention come December, they will have to have efficient play from quarterback Matt Cassel who was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 22. Cassel was recently named the starter and replaces Brandon Weeden who was 0-3 as the starter during which he threw just one touchdown and two interceptions. The passing game has been ineffective and inconsistent since Romo’s injury week two in Philadelphia and the offense as a whole has struggled to find its’ groove.
Cassel will have to spread the ball around and look to connect with receivers on some deep throws. Third-year wide receiver Terrance Williams has been missing in action but is capable of more. Williams started all 16 games and caught eight touchdown passes in 2014. Cassel will need to look to find him in the offense more, not only on deep routes but on crossing patterns, slants, and out routes. Brice Butler, acquired by Dallas earlier this season to help the receiving corps, will have to contribute as well.
The Cowboys are banking on Cassel giving the offense a spark and stabilizing things until Romo can return later this season. Romo has to sit out at least four more games due to being placed on the team’s Reserve/Injured-Designated to Return list. The earliest that Romo could come back and play is Nov. 22 when Dallas travels to Miami to face the Dolphins. Between now and then, the Cowboys have games against the Giants, Seahawks, Eagles, and Buccaneers. A 2-2 record for Dallas is likely in this stretch with a possibility of 3-1. Either of those marks would keep the Cowboys in the divisional race depending on how the other three teams do but going 3-1 would give Dallas a better outlook for winning the division.
The race to the NFC East title this year will be a dogfight perhaps like never before. The Cowboys have come back to the divisional pack and been slowed by the injuries. The Giants have overcome a slow 0-2 start to win three straight and stand in first place heading into their divisional showdown with the Eagles on Monday Night Football on Oct. 19. The Eagles, who also started 0-2, are playing better but need to show more. The Redskins have managed to play some decent football and can still be a factor in the divisional race despite their up-and-down play.
While the status of Romo and Bryant and whether or not they can return at full strength from their injuries will have a lot to do with the success Dallas has this season, one thing seems to be assured. The race for the NFC East championship will be a back-and-forth affair due to various factors keeping each of the teams within an arms reach of each other. This is proof that the competitiveness of the NFL makes for it being hard to predict. At times it seems that no or few teams are capable of running away with things. This years’ NFC East is a perfect example of that.