Just when the Dallas Cowboys thought they were getting healthier for a stretch run, they lost their Thanksgiving Day spark.
Lance Dunbar, who fueled the Cowboys’ running game with a career-high 82 yards Thursday in the victory against the Oakland Raiders, will have surgery on his left knee and miss the rest of the season.
Team sources said the surgery will repair a ligament. It is expected to require three to four months of recovery.
For Dunbar, it was another setback because of injury this year. But the Cowboys remain heartened by two victories this week and the potential return of middle linebacker Sean Lee to the lineup in time for the Monday Night Football game at Chicago on Dec. 9.
“Everything is happening right now at the right time,” defensive end DeMarcus Ware said in the locker room after the victory against Oakland. “But you can’t get comfortable. You can’t get comfortable with where you are, and we aren’t, and we know that we have a big game coming up this week.
“But it’s just good to have a couple days off, being able to get some guys back and then making a run and trying to get where we’re trying to go.”
The Cowboys have extra time between games to get healthy. Starting strongside linebacker Justin Durant might also be close to returning from a hamstring injury suffered in the same game as Lee.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne, kick returner Dwayne Harris and special teams linebacker DeVonte Holloman could also benefit from the extra time.
The Cowboys have four days off before returning to Valley Ranch on Tuesday for their normal Monday work. They’ll take Wednesday as their regular Tuesday day off and start the practice week on Thursday for Chicago.
That gives the Cowboys at least five more days off their feet, a boon for players, such as Ware, who are playing but are not 100 percent.
“Really big, being able to go through two games without getting really dinged up,” Ware said. “You get an extra 10 days to get your body right, get guys back and healthy, not just half-and-half or 50 percent. You have guys coming in at 100 percent, ready to play.”
After Chicago, the Cowboys come home to play the Green Bay Packers, who might have quarterback Aaron Rodgers back from injury by then. Then it’s a game at Washington and the regular-season finale at home against Philadelphia.
“I still think that it’s going to come down to beating the Eagles,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “Then again, I’m not forgetting about Washington. … We’ve got our hands full. This will be a good test for us. If we can come through this thing and somehow get them and have some success and maybe have a chance for the playoffs, we’ll have run a good gauntlet that gets us ready if we don’t get hurt in a key spot.”
Jones believes the Cowboys have equipped themselves to make a push for the division championship. He said the Cowboys’ move to use more man-to-man defense has helped, as has play-action and moving Dez Bryant around on offense.
And, he said the loss to New Orleans did not break the Cowboys’ spirit.
“Apart from that New Orleans game, which really stunned me, I had really thought that we were playing better than what our record indicated,” Jones said. “I look back and see some of those teams, where they are, the quality of teams they are — we lost by, all told, three or four points there, and I can see that this team has got a resolve. It has worked hard. We will get some guys back, and we will use this break to build on it.”
Dunbar won’t be around for the stretch run, but it was hard for the Cowboys to count on him.
He suffered a sprained foot in preseason, and it kept him from making his season debut until Week 2. Two weeks later, he hurt his hamstring and missed two games.
He returned in time for the Detroit game and played sparingly until Sunday against the Giants, when his 18-yard run and a 17-yard catch showed signs of what the Cowboys were high on in preseason. Then Thursday, he burst out with a 45-yard run on his second carry of the game, in the third quarter, to key a drive that tied it 21-21.
He wound up with 12 carries for 82 yards and one catch for 12 yards, accounting for 94 yards of offense, averaging 7.2 yards a touch.
For the season, he has 30 carries for 150 yards and seven catches for 59 yards.
“We came out of training camp thinking he could be a big part of what we were doing,” coach Jason Garrett said.