Handling Tyron Smith’s injury could spur Cowboys to success or disappointment

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The injury bug has taken regular bites out of the Cowboys this season, and made its most recent visit in the off days, putting Randy Gregory (calf) on the IR list just as Demarcus Lawrence (foot) nears being ready to resume play.

The bug’s impact on Dak Prescott was also evident in Sunday’s loss to Denver. The quarterback was rusty after missing the prior week with his own calf injury, missing open receivers throughout the first three quarters of the contest. Dallas fell into a 30-0 hole before Prescott gained some traction and rallied the team to two late scores. Prescott seemed to regain his lost form in that last quarter and it seems the effects of his injury may be short term. Lawrence’s rehab (he was photographed working with resistance bands on the practice field Thursday) offers some balance to Gregory’s short-term loss.

The only injury with a status that remains unknown, and whose handling could have the biggest impact on Dallas’ playoff hopes is that to Tyron Smith’s ankle.

The perennial Pro Bowler had a tremendous start to the season, coming off neck surgery, but has been in and out of the lineup since he was kicked in the back of the leg by Tony Pollard in the New England game. Smith missed two series after that incident but finished the game.

He started against Minnesota but left the contest midway through the second quarter. He then missed all of the Denver game with what the club has termed “bone spurs.”

Are we seeing an ankle version of Smith’s neck maladies? I asked a surgeon this week to explain the options with bone spurs, and how soon he could return. His answers were as muddy as the Cowboys’ information.

No Clear Answers on the Blind Side

“Bone spurs,” the doctor told me, “mean he has arthritis in that ankle. They’re a sign of arthritis. You have have heard of osteoarthritis, that’s where you have bone on bone. We don’t know how much cartilage degeneration there is in his case, but there is degrading to some degree.”

I asked if removing the spurs with an arthroscope could offer a quick fix and get Smith back into playing trim and was told there was no easy fix.

(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

“If the spur was affecting the joint it might be helpful, but taking out the spur will not remove the pain he’s experiencing.”

That’s critical, because the club has mentioned that his status the rest of the season will likely come down to the player’s pain management. That they’re using rest and rehab at this stage of the season indicates that this isn’t an issue that will go away.

I also asked if Pollard’s kick of Smith against New England was the cause of Smith’s problems and was told it wasn’t.

“Bone spurs shows a chronic condition. They don’t develop overnight. The kick didn’t help matters but that’s not the cause of his problems.”

Dr. Philbin Will Have to Supply the Remedy

This doctor’s sobering answers mean it will likely fall to offensive line coach Joe Philbin to again work his magic, and that it will also fall to the training staff to help Smith manage his ankle. Will the club rest Smith for a playoff run in December and January?

It appears we’re all going to have to manage our expectations as the player will, week-to-week.

We’ve already seen how Smith’s subtraction affects what the team can do offensively. Against New England, and against all opponents, Dallas relied heavily on five-man protections and sent the maximum five receivers out on patters without concern. The line could handle blitzes and stunts by itself.

Since Smith has been spelled by Ty Nsekhe and Terence Steele, the club has provided those players with chip help and has used more six-man protections. Steele struggled at times in pass protection against Denver, though that is to be expected from a young player that spent all season at right tackle and then suddenly had to switch to his left.

(AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

None of this may matter in the longer term. Philbin has shown himself to be a master at crisis management. He kept the offense moving last season when his line resembled a MASH hospital. Steele may settle in after having his brain scrambled by switching from a right handed to a left handed stance so quickly.

He’ll get the chance to do so if Smith can’t return.

Smith may find he can manage the issue and resume playing at a high level.

What we won’t have, is certainty at left tackle going forward. After so many weeks of nearly flawless, free-flowing football, that’s a jarring reality to face.

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