Cowboys need sturdier building blocks

November, 23, 2012
11/23/12
3:00
PM ET
Miles Austin, Sean Lee, DeMarco MurrayGetty Images, AP PhotoThe Cowboys have been hampered by injuries to key players such as Miles Austin, Sean Lee and DeMarco Murray.

I like to write some sort of substantial analysis post on each of our division's teams after they play games, and more often than not I'll write the winning team first, which is why you see a Robert Griffin III column on this blog but haven't yet seen anything major on the Dallas Cowboys since Thursday's loss to Washington.

But the fact is, I've been struggling to think up something to write about the Cowboys that I haven't already written a dozen times. Other than their very first game of the season, no game the Cowboys have played this year (including Thursday's) has given me any reason to change my opinion of what they are -- an average team with a few really good players capable of looking better or worse than they really are in any given week, game or quarter. They're not awful, as many have been suggesting since about 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, and they're not great either. They're just kind of... meh.

Now, the folks who run the Cowboys aren't content with "meh," and they're certainly not happy about it. But they do perceive themselves to be in the process of building something that remains incomplete. So while the current state of affairs isn't a whole lot of fun, it will be acceptable in retrospect if they are someday soon looking back on it as a step along the road from "meh" to "very good."

[+] EnlargeBruce Carter
AP Photo/Tim SharpBruce Carter is expected to get an MRI Friday on the elbow he injured against the Redskins.
So what would be alarming to me about Thursday's game is the injuries again -- in particular Miles Austin's hip. Bruce Carter's elbow. Austin and Carter are two of the Cowboys' building-block stars, and each comes with a history of injuries. And when you realize that neither could finish a game that was already missing two other injured building-block stars with their own history of injuries -- Sean Lee and DeMarco Murray -- you start to think a new priority should be taking shape for the Cowboys as they continue their building project. They might need to start steering away from the whole talented-guy-who-can't-stay-healthy model.

Don't get me wrong: I understand football's a brutal game in which anyone can get hurt on any play, and that the hunt for durability and permanence in the NFL is a wild-goose chase. But this year's injuries to Lee and Murray, each of whom also missed time last year with injuries and came out of college with durability concerns, raise the question of the extent to which Dallas can count on these young stars so essential to their future success. Fresh scares this week with the perpetually injured Austin and with Carter, who also entered the draft with injury issues, underline the point I'm trying to make. As the Cowboys move into the coming offseason and begin targeting their next wave of building-block players in the draft and in free agency, "Can this guy stay healthy?" needs to be a more prominent question in their front office meeting rooms.

Because it's all about playing the percentages. If you have a couple of key guys on the team who are perpetual injury concerns, you can make up for it. But if you start to fill your starting lineup with too many of them, you're asking for trouble. Maybe Lee turns around his early-career trend and stays healthy from now on. Maybe Murray does too. Maybe they both do. But the Cowboys also need Austin and Carter to stay healthy. And Jay Ratliff. And Phil Costa, if they're planning on keeping him around for another crack at center. And now they're reaching the point at which they have too many key guys in too many key spots who have this same issue.

Again, of course you can't be certain on this stuff. The Cowboys could draft a player in the first round next year who's never missed a play due to injury, and that player could blow out his knee on the first day of training camp. These things happen. But considering where the Cowboys are now, and what they're trying to accomplish with their roster construction, if they're picking between two relatively equal options and one of those options has an injury history, I think they might want to go with the other one.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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