Breaking Down Impact Jason Witten, Dez Bryant Injuries Have on Dallas Cowboys
Three of the team's top four receivers from 2011 have dealt with injuries of varying degrees over the last month. The only non-injured member of the four is Laurent Robinson, who is currently taking snaps in Jaguars training camp after signing in Jacksonville this offseason.
The injuries began early in camp with Miles Austin's fourth hamstring injury in a span of 12 months, and the Cowboys have been ever so cautious easing him back this preseason. Austin is not expected to play in either of Dallas' remaining two exhibition games, but he should be closer to 100 percent by the time Week 1 of the regular season rolls around.
Two newer injuries—to Dez Bryant and Jason Witten—have further tested the Cowboys' depth in the passing game.
Bryant left practice on Monday with an apparent knee injury, but an MRI showed that the second-year receiver was dealing with nothing more than patella tendinitis, according to Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas.
The diagnosis was a big sigh of relief for an offense that could ill afford to lose another receiver.
While the Cowboys expect Bryant to be back by Week 1, tendinitis can be a tricky ailment, and chances are good that the injury will eventually flare back up during the regular season. Still, tendinitis is an infinitely better diagnosis than some of the early speculation regarding the severity of the injury.
Dallas had another big scare a couple of days prior when Witten, one of the NFL's better overall tight ends, suffered a potentially serious spleen injury during the Cowboys' 3-0 win over the Oakland Raiders.
ESPN's Adam Schefter helped quiet those fears when he revealed Wednesday that Witten would not need surgery on the laceration. Spleen injuries in the past, such as Al Harris' with the Green Bay Packers in 2008, have cost players as much as one to two months of game time.
Returning for Week 1 is still in the cards for Witten, but it's more than likely that he will be back for the Cowboys' second game of the 2012 season.
Dallas dodged huge bullets with each injury.
Losing Bryant for any amount of time in the regular season would have left the Cowboys' receiving cupboard awfully bare. Austin can no longer be counted on with chronically bad hamstrings, and losing Robinson in free agency means the offense has very little in terms of proven depth behind Bryant.
Kevin Ogletree has been starting in place of the injured Austin, but he has just 25 career catches and zero touchdowns in three NFL seasons. Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley, Andre Holmes and Danny Coale would be next in line on the Cowboys' receiving depth chart.
Beasley did catch seven passes for 104 yards against the San Diego Chargers in Week 2 of the preseason, but the drop-off from Bryant to Beasley or any other backup receiver would have been a substantial one.
Losing Witten for regular-season games would have been just as disastrous.
Fourth-year tight end John Phillips is the Cowboys' current backup, but he has just 22 career catches in a reserve role since 2009. 2012 rookie James Hanna is also available, but he's raw all around and likely not ready to start a meaningful game in the NFL.
Witten has always been Tony Romo's security blanket, having never missed a regular-season game and catching at least 60 passes in each season but his rookie year (2003). Losing that kind of production from the tight end position would have been a huge blow.
Fans in Dallas can now sleep easy that the starting lineup during the regular season likely won't feature the names "Beasley" and "Phillips" for more than a week.
Bryant and Witten are arguably the Cowboys' top two players offensively, with both requiring extensive game plans from defensive coordinators to keep them under control. Witten is also a factor in the run game, and losing him as an in-line blocker would have been a blow to the team's running game.
The impact now should be minimal.
The two will both be healthy by Week 2 at the very latest, so Tony Romo should have a full arsenal of weapons early in the regular season. Witten is the one to watch, as he'll be idle for a long stretch before being cleared to return to practice.
The Cowboys have, for now, dodged two potential season-changing bullets early in the preseason. But any setbacks with either of the injuries could still have big impacts on the start of the 2012 season.
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