I learned a valuable lesson when I declared the Dallas Cowboys doomed five weeks ago as a result of the season-ending injury suffered by superstar linebacker Sean Lee. The Cowboys found a way to survive that injury, even flourishing in early November to get back into the playoff picture.
But now that the man who filled Lee's big shoes is also out for the season, I'm having a very difficult time seeing how the Cowboys will possibly hold up defensively over the final five weeks.
Bruce Carter has been placed on injured reserve after dislocating his left elbow Thursday against the Washington Redskins, according to ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer, leaving Dallas with just Dan Connor and Ernie Sims manning the middle of the defense.
Connor has been dealing with a neck injury and hadn't taken more than 21 snaps in a game until last week, while Sims wasn't even on an NFL roster one month ago. Carter hadn't missed a single defensive snap since Lee went down.
Those two guys are capable as Band-Aids, but this is a major concern, because Dallas won't be successful by clotting blood and patching things up. This is a team that, based on what happened against the 'Skins and based on the hole they're forced to climb out of, has to improve and excel over the next few weeks, rather than simply hope they don't take another hit.
After Anthony Spencer, Carter had been the Cowboys' best defensive player with Lee down. His range has proven to be Pro Bowl-worthy, which is a major reason why he leads the team in tackles by a wide margin. And he's only missed three tackles on 625 snaps.
As an inside linebacker with limited pass-rushing opportunities, it's hard to emphasize Carter's impact with numbers. You had to see it to believe it.
There was, for example, that time when the 240-pound Carter spotted Falcons speedster Julio Jones three yards and displayed remarkable speed and showed off great instincts with his angle before chasing Jones down from behind.
A couple seconds later...
Time and again he snuffed out typical gains and turned them into losses. An example from last week against Cleveland came when Brandon Weeden checked down to Trent Richardson. Carter saw it immediately and made a remarkably fast and aggressive play to take Richardson down for a three-yard loss.
A second later...
And on a more standard handoff, he shed a block with ease and did the same thing to Michael Turner in the Atlanta game. I could give you dozens of similar examples.
A second later...
"I never thought he'd have the ascension that Sean Lee did, but he has," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said of Carter earlier this month, per ESPNDallas.com. "I mean, he has. That's the bottom line. This guy has become a hell of a football player right in front of our eyes this season."
Don't forget that the second-year linebacker was also calling defensive signals in place of Lee, which leaves the defense in an even tougher spot yet again. I don't know if this is the last straw for the 'Boys, but considering all of the other injuries they're dealing with, including the loss of Barry Church and Kenyon Coleman on this very defense, it's beginning to look as though there won't be enough gas in the tank for a late-season run.