NFC East: Britt Brown
Twelve players suffered strains of varying levels and missed either game or practice time in 2013: Miles Austin, Morris Claiborne, Sean Lee, Justin Durant, Dwayne Harris, Bruce Carter, Danny McCray, Barry Church, Dez Bryant, Lance Dunbar, Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams.
The shortened offseason conditioning program could play a factor in the increase in injuries, but it has not affected every team. The Cowboys have studied other teams’ approaches and injury numbers to come up with a solution.
Coach Jason Garrett said one possibility is cutting back on the time spent on the field, especially early in the offseason.
“It is valuable to do the football stuff. We don’t feel like there’s a lot of football stuff right now,” Garrett said. “We want to be careful about how much we take away from that. But there’s a couple weeks prior to all that stuff starting. We’ve talked about tweaking the daily schedule and what we’re doing those first couple weeks as we start to lay the foundation for the offseason.”
While many players train on their own before the official offseason program starts in April, there is only a two-week period of training before players get on the field for teaching sessions.
“[Strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik] I know is certainly not happy with it,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “[Athletic trainers] Jim Maurer and Britt Brown0 are not happy. I know Jason’s not happy with it and I damn sure know Jerry [Jones] and I are not happy with it. So we’re looking at ways to try to work on that.”
One way might be doing less instead of more.
The timetable is probably closer to eight weeks, a source told ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins. Romo suffered the injury in the second quarter of Monday's 41-35 loss to the New York Giants when linebacker Michael Boley came free on a blitz and buried the quarterback's shoulder into the ground. Boley said he heard a "little scream," which always seems like a bad sign.
I'm sure the Cowboys will wait a few weeks and see what this team does with Jon Kitna at the helm before deciding whether to place Romo on injured reserve. It's hard to imagine running Romo out there if this team is 3-10, but I'm sure he'll push for a return. He wanted to return to the field Monday night.
"I tried lifting my shoulder and it hurt like heck, but I was like, OK, it will just keep getting better," said Romo. "The adrenaline of the game will allow me to [play], it's my left shoulder, I don't need to use it too much. I will figure out a way what I can handle when I'm out there, but that was before I knew it was broken."
Cowboys associate athletic trainer Britt Brown took charge on the sideline and wouldn't allow Romo back on the field. Brown and Romo will spend several hours a day together for the next few weeks because he's in charge of rehabilitating players. Brown is considered one of the best in the league and it will be interesting to see how aggressive he is with Romo's rehab work.
We've seen players who battle hamstring issues throughout entire seasons (Giants, anyone?), but Bryant doesn't have a history of those types of issues. I think he's still adjusting to NFL workouts, so there will be an occasional problem. But I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about Bryant's chemistry with quarterback Tony Romo. He's a instinctive receiver who does an excellent job controlling his body.
He and Romo will have plenty of time to work things out as the Cowboys shuttle between San Antonio and Oxnard, Calif., for training camp. Over the years, I've seen a lot of rookies struggle with pulled muscles in the offseason. They're simply not used to all of these OTA sessions. You have to keep in mind that Bryant's junior season at Oklahoma State was cut short because of his lie to the NCAA about a visit with Deion Sanders.
He went months without going through a normal practice, so some of these things are to be expected. Now if the hamstring issues keep cropping up in training camp, then it's time to be concerned. For now, Bryant can "enjoy" the time on the sideline with Cowboys athletic trainer Britt Brown, who will make him wish he were on the practice field with his teammates.
And that's why Witten visited offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's office numerous times this week to make sure he wasn't left out of the game plan. The Pro Bowl tight end left Cowboys Stadium in a walking boot Thursday evening, but not before he had five catches for 107 yards in the Cowboys' 24-7 win over the Raiders.
"He was adamant right from the start that he was playing," said Garrett. "He must have come by my office or circled around my office probably around 20 times during the last three days. ‘Coach, you know I’m playing.’ I kept telling him, ‘Look at the game plan. There are a lot of Witten plays in the game plan. Don’t worry, we know you’re playing.’ It’s just what he’s all about. That guy tries to be great every day, every play and with everything he does."
The Cowboys overwhelmed the Raiders' talented defense with big plays in the running and passing game. Their most catalytic wide receiver, Miles Austin, returned to form with seven catches for 145 yards and a touchdown, but Witten remains Tony Romo's most reliable weapon. His average-per-catch is down this season, but he's still the player defensive coordinators worry about the most.
After the game, Witten said he felt guilty about keeping athletic trainers Jim Maurer and Britt Brown at work so long this week. He admitted that he was nowhere close to being ready to play Monday, but by Tuesday he started to feel some improvement. Coach Wade Phillips asked Witten several times during the week how he was feeling and told him he needed an honest answer.
"Today during pregame he said he didn't really feel it," Phillips said. "He said he was ready to play. He said he wouldn't lie to me, so I think it wasn't quite as bad as we first thought. He and Tony are a heck of a combination."
Added Romo: "The fact that he is as competitive as he is makes him twice the talent. ... He was playing. I told him he was playing."
Romo and Witten know all too well that the big-boy portion of the schedule is about to arrive. The Cowboys may have a head of steam heading into December with an 8-3 record, but they know it's a month that has haunted them for years. Since taking over as quarterback in 2006, Romo is 5-10 in December and January, including two playoff losses. Dating back to the Chan Gailey glory years (1999), the Cowboys are 17-29 in December.
Unfortunately, you can only play the Raiders once every few years. After a 10-day grace period, the Cowboys will play the Giants, Chargers and Saints. At the end of that stretch, the Cowboys will either be ready to roar into the playoffs or searching for wild-card crumbs. Some players claim that this team is different than the ones in the past that have struggled during the holidays, but there's only one way to find out.
"They are a close-knit group," Phillips said of the '09 edition. "Our guys are not selfish. They are very focused. I could tell it this week and I think they will continue that. They are the kind of group you love to coach. It is not a big ego group, but it is a group that pulls together and pulls for each other on offense, defense and special teams."
Perhaps Phillips is onto something. Coming off a 13-3 season in 2007, last year's team had a sense of entitlement unparalleled in this league. On more than one occasion, I heard players talk about wanting to flash forward to the playoffs. This team has attempted to stay in the present, and with eight wins, that strategy seems to be paying off.
When the Raiders briefly tried to make a game of it in the second half, Romo connected with Witten on a crossing route that went for 44 yards and set up the Cowboys' third touchdown. As he raced down the middle of the field, there was no way to detect that he'd barely been able to put any weight on his left foot three days earlier. It was one of five plays for the Cowboys that went for more than 40 yards, and it ended any hope of a Bruce Gradkowski-inspired comeback.
I'm pretty sure the Cowboys had enough talent to beat the Raiders without Witten, but it's a chance they never wanted to take.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Nick Eatman, a longtime reporter for Dallascowboys.com, was covering practice last Saturday when the club's indoor facility came crashing down. Eatman was an eyewitness to what happened in those terrifying moments. And he's done a superb job of praising some folks who responded with great courage.
I've had the pleasure of getting to know the team's athletic training staff over the years, so I wasn't surprised to read about how fearless they were last Saturday. Jim Maurer and Britt Brown are recognized as two of the best athletic trainers in the league. In fact, Brown's one of a handful of guys at Valley Ranch who could hold his own with Bill Parcells.
Assistant trainer Greg Gaither was just released from a local hospital after undergoing surgery on his broken leg. It's great that Eatman chose to write about some important men who don't receive a lot of attention.