Injuries bring opportunity for some unknown Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has said it countless times: “injury creates opportunity.”

It’s been that way since the days of Pudge Heffelfinger, the first paid professional player in 1892, and Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees great who got his job because of an injury to Wally Pipp.

It’s that way now.

The Cowboys are lamenting the situation with defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, who has been placed on the physically unable to perform list because of continued complications with hamstring and groin injuries. He will miss at least the first six games of the season.

It’s a huge setback in their transition to the 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Ratliff, a former Pro Bowl nose tackle, was supposed be a pass-rushing force at the under tackle position in the defense, similar to Hall of Famer Warren Sapp when Kiffin was in Tampa Bay.

Now the Cowboys might not see Ratliff, 31, until possibly the game against the Philadelphia Eagles Oct. 20, if then.

They are thankful about the emergence of defensive tackle Nick Hayden, one of a few former unknowns who head into the final preseason game against the Houston Texans on Thursday with a chance to make the team and/or cement significant roles in 2013.

The others include defensive end George Selvie, who signed with the team a week into training camp because of injuries to Tyrone Crawford and Anthony Spencer. Selvie could be an opening-day starter if Spencer is not ready. Rookie free agent safety Jeff Heath has taken advantage of Matt Johnson’s continued injury absence and an injury to Eric Frampton to make a run at a roster spot.

Garrett said the Cowboys have a long history of giving guys from different backgrounds opportunities dating to all-time greats such as receiver Drew Pearson and safety Cliff Harris, who were undrafted free agents, to current stars Tony Romo and Miles Austin, who went from undrafted to millionaires.

“We preach it really every day,” Garrett said. “It doesn’t matter where you came from. It matters what you do once you’re here.

“I think we do a good job as an organization, as a coaching staff, holding true to that. We have some great stories on our team of guys who take different routes to get here and they are really, really good football players for us and among the best in the league. I just think it’s an important thing. I think it’s a democratic way of doing things and it’s a competitive way of doing things.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re as objective as we can be in our evaluations and give guys a chance, regardless of where they come from or what their background is, to show us what they can do.”

The Cowboys held out hope that Ratliff would return in time for the Sept. 8 opener against the New York Giants, but they finally admitted the inevitable on Tuesday.

Vice president Stephen Jones acknowledges that Ratliff has had some setbacks but maintains the Cowboys are still counting on him to play at some point this season.

“I feel confident that he will,” Jones said. “I believe in Jay. I think he’s a competitor. I think there are some things that can be frustrating when you have injuries. Jay has a real injury. Those things happen. I’m convinced that we’ve got a program now — he’s had a few setbacks — that hopefully will put him on the road where he can play for us at some point this season.”

The earliest Ratliff can be activated from the PUP list is Oct. 14. The Cowboys can practice him for three weeks before determining his playing status. He can remain on PUP for 12 weeks before being ruled ineligible for the season.

Ratliff declined to comment about his situation in the locker room on Tuesday.

His agent, Mark Slough, said Ratliff was very disappointed and frustrated about his slow recovery from a groin injury that was more serious than initially thought.

Slough said Ratliff was focused on playing in the opener but has resigned himself, like the Cowboys, that it would be in his best interest and that of the team to continue rehab and be healthy for 10 games.

Until then, the Cowboys will be counting on Hayden to take a fill-in starter role on the line. Veteran Jason Hatcher will move into Ratliff’s tackle role with Hayden filling the nose tackle position in Kiffin’s defense.

“Nick has done a good job,” Jones said. “Obviously, guys step up and are competitive and do what they’re supposed to do. We’ve gotten to a point with Nick that we think he can play winning football for the Dallas Cowboys and that’s important.”

Hayden is a former sixth-round pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2008. He is listed as a six-year veteran, but his résumé is sketchy at best. He played two games as a rookie, 10 games in 2009 and 14, including 10 starts, in 2010. He was cut before the 2011 season and was out of football until he was picked up by the Cincinnati Bengals, playing two games at the end of the season.

He suffered an ankle injury in camp last year and was waived. Even when he returned to health, Hayden drew no interest from around the league, not even for a tryout. The Cowboys signed him on Feb. 11 for depth purposes as they transitioned to the 4-3 alignment.

He came in hoping to make the team, but now he’s a starter, turning last year’s disappointment and Ratliff’s setback into a dream come true.

“You never know when this game is going to end. That’s why you just have to take full advantage of every opportunity,” Hayden said. “I’m just glad I got the opportunity to come here. I’ve just got to run with the opportunity and show this team what I got and why they picked me up.”

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram