IRVING -- If it wasn't one player, it was another.
By the time the Cowboys had finished the San Francisco 49ers in a 27-24 overtime victory, their quarterback was having trouble breathing; their running back was wearing a harness; their starting receivers were on the sideline, as was their starting center; and two of their top three cornerbacks were inactive.
"It's just reality in the NFL," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Injuries are part of the game and not having guys available is just part of the game. When we cut down a roster to 53 guys and activate 46 each week, we feel like every guy is capable, and every guy needs to be ready to play if that opportunity presents itself. That's something we preach to our guys all the time, because we know that it's real. It's real for us; it's real for 32 teams around the NFL. Players understand that. Hopefully, they understand it during the week in preparing for the ballgame, whatever their role is, and then be ready for an expanded role if that circumstance arises."
Cowboys starters missed a combined 25 games last season, 10 of those by quarterback Tony Romo. They have had two starters miss a total of three games so far this year, but they were without their top three cornerbacks for part of the season opener and had six key offensive players ailing Sunday against the 49ers.
Yet, the Cowboys pulled out what they considered a "must-win" game against the 49ers after blowing a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead against the Jets in the opener.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was effusive in his praise of Garrett in the postgame locker room in San Francisco.
"What's impressive to me is the way Jason is keeping this team together with Band-Aids both during the week and during the game," Jones said. "For him to keep hope alive, this is so impressive. We ought to be encouraged. Our fans ought to be encouraged. I give Garrett all the credit for being the spirit of how this team is making adjustments and responding to adversity."
Romo won praise for playing 15:37 of Sunday's game with a fractured rib and what a CT scan Monday determined was a partial puncture of a lung. But he wasn't alone. Running back Felix Jones dislocated a shoulder on the fifth play and played with a harness. Tight end Jason Witten has a rib injury. Receiver Miles Austin finally went out with a hamstring injury on the final play from scrimmage in regulation.
But the Cowboys have developed a "next-man-up" mentality, and Jesse Holley, Jon Kitna, Kevin Kowalski, Alan Ball and Kevin Ogletree adopted that philosophy Sunday.
"It's expected, so you do it," said Kowalski, a rookie who stepped in for Phil Costa at center. "I don't think there's much more to it."
Garrett recently told his players the Lou Gehrig story of how he became baseball's ironman only after starter Wally Pipp was injured. In his speech to the team Saturday night, Garrett referred to California as "the land of opportunity" in an effort to get his players to realize they need to seize their opportunity whenever it comes.
"He says, 'The next starter's up,'" running back Tashard Choice said. "He doesn't even call you backup. That's how he sees it. He understands the NFL, how people get hurt all the time, and he just says the next man no matter if you didn't get reps, if you didn't practice at all. You better know what you've got to do, because you're responsible for all these other 53 guys in the locker room who are depending on you."
Garrett said his attitude stems from a career as a backup quarterback in the NFL.
"If you're a backup player, and you're not getting the practice reps, you have to know it better than everybody else," Garrett said. "You have to know the plan on a piece of paper. You have to know it in the film room. You have to know it when you're watching the other players get the reps in practice, because it's not a very far walk or jog from the sidelines to the middle of the field, but it's a completely different world. You have to be ready for those opportunities more than anybody else, and we had a number of guys in the game who stepped up and were ready."