Can the Dallas Cowboys Be Trusted to Stay Healthy?

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Can the Dallas Cowboys Be Trusted to Stay Healthy?
Sharon Ellman/Associated Press

Those who say injuries aren't an excuse because everybody has them are being lazy. Injuries absolutely can be an excuse for a weak performance or a poor season. Everybody has injuries, but some teams have more of them than others, and some are hit harder in key places. 

For two years running, it has felt as though the Dallas Cowboys have been unfairly hammered in the health department, especially on defense. Guys like Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Anthony Spencer, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Morris Claiborne and Barry Church have all gone down at various times and to varying degrees. 

Unsurprisingly, during those two 8-8 seasons, the 'Boys have allowed the highest yardage total and the fifth-highest point total in the NFL

We decided to do a little digging to see if Dallas can blame back-to-back non-playoff seasons (and a combined record of 16-16) on injuries. For that, we utilized research from Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, who every year tracks games missed by starters, 16-game starters and starters on the injured reserve across the entire league. 

We figured some teams get hit hard one year but that things probably balanced out the next year, so we combined Gosselin's 2012 numbers with his 2013 numbers. Here are the results:

Most games missed by starters, 2012-2013
Team Total Record Playoff appearances
1. Green Bay Packers 153 19-12 2
2. Indianapolis Colts 149 22-10 2
3. Dallas Cowboys 133 16-16 0
4. New York Giants 129 16-16 0
5. Carolina Panthers 122 19-13 1
6. Jacksonville Jaguars 118 6-26 0
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 118 11-21 0
8. Arizona Cardinals 116 15-17 0
9. Detroit Lions 110 11-21 0
10. Denver Broncos 105 26-6 2

Pro Football Reference/Dallas Morning News

Quite simply, Green Bay, Indy and Denver have been good enough to overcome a slew of injuries. Dallas has not. Hell, the Packers even lost All-Galaxy quarterback Aaron Rodgers for nearly half of the 2013 campaign, but they still found a way to make the playoffs. 

Next, for a different gauge, let's turn to which teams have had the fewest 16-game starters the last two years: 

Fewest 16-game starters, 2012-2013
Team Total Record Playoff appearances
1. Kansas City Chiefs 5 13-19 1
2. Indianapolis Colts 12 22-10 2
2. Jacksonville Jaguars 12 6-26 0
4. New England Patriots 13 24-8 2
5. Atlanta Falcons 14 17-15 1
16. Dallas Cowboys 18 16-16 0

Pro Football Reference/Dallas Morning News

Dallas ranked right in the middle of the pack, matching the league average with exactly 18 16-game starters out of a possible 44. Again, many teams hit harder than them—including the Patriots, Colts, Chiefs, Panthers, Broncos and Saints—have managed to fare much better on the field. 

Finally, let's look at the number of starters teams have been forced to place on injured reserve during that span:

Most starters on injured reserve, 2012-2013
Team Total Record Playoff appearances
1. Jacksonville Jaguars 11 6-26 0
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9 11-21 0
2. Carolina Panthers 9 19-13 1
4. San Diego Chargers 8 16-16 1
4. Arizona Cardinals 8 15-17 0
4. Denver Broncos 8 26-6 2
4. Pittsburgh Steelers 8 16-16 0
4. Detroit Lions 8 11-21 0
4. Dallas Cowboys 8 16-16 0
10. Atlanta Falcons 7 17-15 1

Pro Football Reference/Dallas Morning News

Sure, only three teams have lost more starters to injured reserve than the Cowboys have, but they're actually two above the league average of six. In fact, 22 of the NFL's 32 teams lost between five and eight starters during that stretch, so the only real anomalies are Jacksonville (11), Tampa Bay (9) and Carolina (9), as well as the seven teams that lost four or fewer starters (Minnesota, the Jets, Kansas City, San Francisco, Baltimore, Oakland and Seattle). 

Some teams were hit harder one year than the other, but the Cowboys' injuries have been pretty even. They lost five starters in 2012 and three in 2013, and they had eight 16-game starters in 2012 and 10 in 2013. They're the only team in the NFL that has lost between 60 and 80 starter games to injury in back-to-back seasons, but Green Bay and Indy have both surpassed the 80 mark once each while having 66 or more injuries the opposite year. 

If anyone has gotten screwed, it's the Jaguars, Bucs or Panthers, all of whom have been hit harder than Dallas in every single category. Of course, those teams have generally possessed less talent and have lower expectations anyway.

The Giants and Falcons resemble Dallas' situation broadly, but New York and Atlanta suffered the lion's share of their injuries in 2013, not 2012. It was lopsided. The Falcons were good when they were healthy in 2012 and the Giants were at least better, finishing at 9-7. 

Ultimately, the two teams that compare best to Dallas are indeed the Packers and Colts, both of whom have made the playoffs in back-to-back years. 

Maybe it's because the Cowboys have been hit so hard on one side of the ball? That's a tough argument to make, considering that the Saints lost a league-high 53 defensive starters in 2013 but still managed to win 11 games. And the Packers defense was hit much harder in 2012, per Football Outsiders, but they survived to win the NFC North. 

The bigger question might be regarding why Dallas is suffering all of these injuries. Why is it that a handful of teams have been hit harder than all of the others the last couple years, and why is Dallas in that group?

Maybe they're just drafting injury-prone players, but it's not as though Claiborne or Church had red flags in that area. Ware might be about aging and Spencer was an isolated incident, but Lee has been a different story. The good has still outweighed the bad there, but the guy is simply brittle. 

Regardless, the training staff has to be up for review, especially when you consider that the Cowboys have become the NFL's hub for hamstring pulls. Ultimately, 23 games were missed in 2013 by seven different players suffering from hamstring injuries, according to ESPN.

"That has to be a flaw in the training regimen," Gosselin wrote. "Trainers from around the league raise an eyebrow at all the hamstring injuries suffered by the Cowboys. That needs to be addressed."

Here's what head coach Jason Garrett said in December, per ESPN

We have to look at how we’re practicing and some of the things we’re doing in our strength and conditioning program. We always try to evaluate that. We try to do good analysis of that along the way. We’ve had too many of them. There’s no question about that. They happen all around the league, I get that. But we have to keep doing our part and our evaluation to how we can eliminate them the best we can.

They're already out of excuses. One more injury-filled season without a playoff appearance and big changes will be necessary. Nobody should be immune, including the coaching staff, the training staff, the front office and the limping players themselves. 

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