Even in the second practice week of the regular season, seismic NFL shifts happen in a blink. And in that respect, the Dallas Cowboys are suddenly and very painfully ahead of schedule when compared to last season’s messy depth chart.
Only 10 days into the regular season, the Cowboys have already run into something of a buzzsaw of attrition that includes two key injuries, two COVID positive starters and a substance-abuse suspension that appeared to come out of the blue.
Ranking the losses won’t be hard in the wake of Wednesday, when DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys’ $20-million-a-season star and unquestioned leader on defense, went down awkwardly on the practice field and then limped into the facility under the aid of athletic trainers. Hours later, the grim news set in: Lawrence suffered a broken foot and would be headed for surgery, erasing him from a defense that badly needs his presence for potentially as long as eight weeks.
In the crack of a metatarsal, a season that began with promising fireworks in a toe-to-toe loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers has now gone sideways fast. It's drawing flashbacks to 2020, when the roster began to crumble with early season injuries to cornerstone players. The Cowboys are creeping into that territory again, by way of a remarkable spate of misfortune before the team has even made it to its second game.
Dallas was without its top offensive lineman last week, when Zack Martin tested positive for COVID and couldn’t clear protocols for the game against the Buccaneers. Then in that opener, linchpin wideout Michael Gallup pulled up with a calf injury that is expected to keep him off the field for at least the next month. One day after losing Gallup, starting right tackle La’El Collins, a key piece of the team’s running attack, was suspended five games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. And if that wasn’t enough, the Cowboys learned this week that starting defensive end Randy Gregory had tested positive for COVID.
Then finally on Wednesday, when it seemingly couldn’t get worse, Dallas lost its best defensive player and leader in Lawrence.
With Gregory not expected to clear COVID protocols by Sunday, it means an already thin Dallas pass rush — that failed to sack Tom Brady in Week 1 — will now face budding Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert with a pair of backup defensive ends. And on offense, the Cowboys will be without their starting right tackle and a starting wideout, and having to hope that Martin steps back into the offensive line without any lingering effects from the coronavirus.
If head coach Mike McCarthy were ever a worrier, now might be the appropriate time.
If only because the immediate schedule suddenly doesn’t look all that inviting — and if McCarthy falls into another early season hole, this could again get ugly fast. While it’s hard to assess precisely what the Cowboys will be facing in their next five weeks, it’s also fair to note that their collective opponents aside from the New York Giants all looked capable of giving a full-strength Dallas a run for its money.
The Chargers have a talented and deep roster that is capable of a playoff run. The Philadelphia Eagles were a huge question mark entering the season but opened 2021 by beating the brakes off the Atlanta Falcons (on the road, no less). The Carolina Panthers have a fast, nasty defense that is going to open a lot of eyes this season, and the New England Patriots look like they’re going to be tougher than expected for everyone, even with rookie Mac Jones at the helm all season. That leaves maybe one easy game on the schedule before the Week 7 bye, if you think the New York Giants aren’t capable of getting up for an inter-divisional rivalry game.
When you weigh all of that — even if things don’t get worse from here for Dallas in terms of injuries, COVID or other unforeseen roster issues — there’s a chance the Cowboys could already be in some trouble heading into that bye week. All of which would quickly turn the clock back to last season’s rough start and raise more questions about McCarthy.
That didn’t seem to be a huge concern coming out of the Tampa loss, but with the significant hits to the depth chart already, nothing feels like it’s out of the question at this point. At the very least, it’s clear McCarthy is already looking at more questions than answers — which is a remarkable spot to be in this early.
Until he can start finding some fast resolutions, McCarthy will have to hope that Lawrence was right when he tweeted of his injury on Wednesday afternoon: “Will be back and ready for war. Believe.”
That’s a lone wisp of optimism in a small but meaningful whirlwind of roster hits. The only question is, when Lawrence is back and ready for war, will the war already be out of hand?