In the NFL, injuries usually ensure that the best-laid plans go awry.
For proof take a look at the inside linebackers when the Dallas Cowboys host the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night.
The starters were supposed to be Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, two young, dynamic and talented players that could lead the Cowboys defense at that position for the next several years.
The starters Sunday will be Dan Connor, a player the Carolina Panthers didn’t want after four seasons, and Ernie Sims, a player no one wanted when this season began.
Their backups are now Alex Albright, a second-year player who is better known for his play on special teams and having a singer for a girlfriend, and Brady Poppinga, who was signed on Monday.
“You have to be able to absorb injuries over the course of the year,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett told reporters on Wednesday. “You have to have quality depth. It’s hard to do in this day and age in the NFL so you have to draft well or you have to have young players step up.”
Or have older players step in, as the case may be.
The Cowboys have been doing a lot of absorbing this season. The Cowboys have 12 players on injured reserve, including four defensive starters. They have an additional rookie on the practice squad injured reserve list (wide receiver Danny Coale) and 14 players were listed on their injury report on Wednesday.
How vital were Carter and Lee? Well, Carter is the leading tackler on the team with 78. Lee was a machine in the seven games he was able to play this year, finishing with 58 tackles. Lee, at the moment, is the second-leading tackler for the Cowboys and he hasn’t played in six weeks.
That’s how much these two players meant to this defense when they were healthy.
Meanwhile, Sims has played five games for the Cowboys and actually has more tackles (22) than Connor (20), who has been with the Cowboys all season but missed a couple of games with an injury.
The Cowboys were lucky to sign Sims after Lee’s injury. The seven-year veteran, who entered the league as a first-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2006, was unemployed after the Indianapolis Colts released him after last season.
“I’m excited,” Sims told reporters on Wednesday. “I was at home taking care of my family a few weeks ago and now I’m starting.”
Connor, a third-round pick for Carolina, had his best season a year ago, netting 75 tackles. But the Panthers chose not to re-sign him. Dallas swooped in and signed Connor to a deal to provide insurance in case Carter, who missed all of last season with an injury, didn’t flourish as Dallas hoped.
Connor has gotten used to being versatile. He’s played both inside linebacker positions and knows he’ll start, but doesn’t know for sure how much he’ll play.
“(Cowboys defensive coordinator) Rob (Ryan) will use them all,” Connor said. “That’s how he game plans. He keeps you guessing.”
One thing neither will have to do is call the defensive signals on Sunday. Head coach Jason Garrett announced earlier this week that outside linebacker Anthony Spencer would call the signals, something he did last week after Carter left the game.
Spencer admits having newer players at key positions this late in the season makes things more difficult.
“We don’t have any choice but to keep playing,” Spencer said.
And the Cowboys have no choice but to keep plugging players into the crumbling dam that is this season.