The “next man up” philosophy has turned into the “next group up” for the Dallas Cowboys because of the rash of injuries they have endured since the start of training camp and that has continued through the first six regular-season games.
The latest setbacks have the Cowboys (3-3) likely heading into Sunday’s crucial NFC East showdown for first place against the Philadelphia Eagles (3-3) without Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Ware (quadriceps) and running back DeMarco Murray (knee).
Both are listed as doubtful for the game, putting second-year defensive end Kyle Wilber and rookie running back Joseph Randle in the starting lineup for the first time.
“It’s just reality,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Injuries provide opportunity. Injuries are part of our game. You never know when you are going to get this opportunity. You have to be ready for it for your career. It’s really important that everybody understands this regardless of what your role is on this team.
“You need to be ready to play. You need to prepare. That is something we preach to everybody, and it’s not only for their careers but more importantly for our football team. You better be ready for it. You’re going to be evaluated on it. I think our guys understand that.”
Certainly, the “next man up” philosophy is as old as football itself, and it’s preached on every level from high school to college to the NFL.
Injuries are part of life in the NFL, and no one cares that you are without some of your best players.
It was that way when defensive end George Selvie went from his couch to the Cowboys’ starting lineup in training camp because of injuries to defensive ends Anthony Spencer and Tyrone Crawford. Defensive tackle Nick Hayden, who was out of football last year, has started all season in place of the first-injured, now-released Jay Ratliff.
Add in Ware, and three-fourths of the defensive line the Cowboys expected to start the season will not be on the field against the Eagles.
The switches don’t include rookie receiver Terrance Williams, who could get his third start in place of the injured Miles Austin today.
“He always tells us ‘next man up’,” Wilber said. “He says ‘Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready’. Coach Monte Kiffin always tells us ‘Everybody in the defensive room is a starter. You have to start playing like one.’”
“We have a bunch of guys waiting on an opportunity,” receiver Dez Bryant said. “Every guy who has gotten one, not one coach has said, ‘He can’t do that job.’”
It’s contagious, redundant and cliche in the Cowboys’ locker room because Garrett has preached the next man up philosophy since he took over as Cowboys coach in 2010.
He believes it, not just as a coach who is trying to get the most out of his football team but because he lived it during a 14-year career in the NFL as a backup quarterback, including seven in Dallas behind Hall of Famer Troy Aikman.
Garrett didn’t get many opportunities to play, but when he did, he was ready. It’s one reason why he lasted so long.
“I certainly can relate to the situation,” Garrett said. “That is my personal experience. Troy Aikman got 99.9 percent of the reps every day in practice, and if something happens to him, you’ve got to go in the game. People don’t care that you didn’t get any reps on Thursday. You have to be ready for those opportunities.
“If you’re a backup guy who isn’t getting reps every day, you have to work harder because you’re not getting physical reps, whether it’s citing the game plan or spending extra time in the film room or working before and after practice.
“It’s important to understand that because you never know when the opportunity is going to present itself. You have to take advantage of it.”
Wilber has the message down loud and clear. That might not have been the case as a rookie last year when he struggled with injuries as well as the transition from being a full-time starter on every level dating to when he started playing football to being a backup with the Cowboys behind Ware.
“You have to motivate yourself,” Wilber said. “It’s hard being a backup, especially behind a Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer. You definitely have to prepare yourself mentally to make sure you get these reps to be the best you can be so when the opportunity does come you can step up. I’m definitely understanding that more this year than last year.”
“He’s coming into his own,” defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said. “But he’s a player you have to kick in the butt to keep him going. You have to stay on him. He goes into his lull state, and you have to say, ‘Hey, pick it up.’”
The defensive line is ground zero for the next-man-up, next-group situation in Dallas.
Only four of the nine linemen the Cowboys have on the active roster — Ware, Hatcher, Hayden and Wilber — were on the team at the start of training camp.
Selvie came after the start of camp. Defensive ends Edgar Jones and Ceasar Rayford came after final cuts. Defensive tackle Drake Nevis was signed Sept. 24, and two more came this week in defensive ends Jarius Wynn and Jason Vega.
“I look at the yellow school bus that comes in here and brings the defensive line in here, then I smile about the little bus that goes out and takes them to the Gaylord [Texan resort],” Ware said. “Every week, there is a new defensive lineman who comes here.
“But they come here, they’re effective, they pick them the right way and they get the job done. If we can stay effective and be consistent, that’s what we ask for.”
It’s all about next man up.