Sure, injuries to starting players can be incredibly tough on NFL teams, but look at it a different way—injuries can also help a team grow stronger.
Jerry Jones always talks big, so it’s easy to dismiss his comments on his Cowboys overcoming injuries and coming out stronger on the other side. But the larger-than-life owner presented a compelling argument that Tony Romo and Dez Bryant injuries won’t ruin Dallas’s season.
“If we improve within because they're not here,” said Jones, via ESPN.com, “and then we have them come back, which will make us better when they do return, then I think we've got a chance to be a better team. ... From the standpoint of them not being here and falling off the map, I don't see that at all. The game is not designed that way. There's too many people that have to get on the field and play the game.”
Jones may not have realized it, but recent Super Bowl champions have proved his theory correct. The NFL season isn't just simply a war of attrition. It also matters who gets hurt and when. Several recent Super Bowl champions have been ravaged by injuries during the season and remained strong enough to go on a championship run.
In 2010, the Packers prevailed as Super Bowl champions despite having the second-most games lost to injuries (231) in the NFL that year. Green Bay placed 15 players on the Injured Reserve list and quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered multiple concussions en route to the title.
The following season, the Giants hoisted the Lombardi Trophy despite also ranking second in the NFL with 246 games lost to injuries. New York lost starting cornerback Terrell Thomas and middle linebacker Jonathan Goff for the season, and suffered injuries throughout their defensive line before finding their groove at the end of the season.
It doesn't end there: The Saints won Super Bowl XLIV despite having the second-most games lost to injuries (248) in the NFL that season, and the Ravens won in 2012 after having lost 199 games to injury, ranking ninth in the NFL.
Expectations plummeted for these teams after being ravaged by injury, but throughout the season, the backups quickly grew in confidence and coaching staffs presented their best work. There's a thin line between starting and backup talent in the NFL, and so much depends on how coaches put players in position to win and how they adjust to personnel changes.
Emotion and confidence play a major role as well when it comes to injuries. With Dez Bryant out, Cowboys No. 2 receiver Terrence Williams is likely eager to show he can be a No. 1 receiver. If Williams improves, he can carry that confidence into the late season when Bryant returns, therefore creating a deeper and more confident team.
Of course, Cowboys fans are certainly thinking that the caveat to this argument is that quarterback injuries are more significant—the 2011 Indianapolis Colts with Curtis Painter proved that decisively. But playing the backup isn't necessarily a death sentence. The 2008 Patriots finished 11–5 with Matt Cassell (although they missed the playoffs). But Super Bowl champions have been led by backup quarterbacks: Jeff Hostetler led the 1990 Giants past the Bills, Kurt Warner stepped in for the ‘99 Rams and most famously Tom Brady in 2001.
This week, Dallas turns to quarterback Brandon Weeden, a former first-round pick who has lost his last eight starts. Weeden, who's in his second season in this system and handled himself well last week in Philadelphia, will be the starter for now—unless he loses his job to new acquisition Matt Cassel. Although Cassel has never regained the form he had in New England, he hasn’t been surrounded by a talented team.
But no matter who starts, Dallas will have to become more conservative, which could suit them well. Coach Jason Garrett could show off his talented offensive line by hammering opponents with the run game. And Rod Marinelli’s defense ranks No. 2 in the NFL after two games and adds pass-rusher Greg Hardy in Week 5.
None of this is to say Cowboys fans should be excited about Romo and Bryant missing games or buy plane tickets to San Francisco for Super Bowl 50. But they're up two games in the loss column in the NFC East already. If the Cowboys can stay competitive until their stars return, Jones could be right ... they’ll rejoin a stronger team than they left. Championship-caliber teams can overcome injuries and even grow because of them. The next two months will tell us a lot about how great the this version of the Cowboys can be.