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Wounded receiving trio puts Cowboys behind 8-ball before season starts

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Witten's spleen injury hurts the Cowboys as they look to firm up their offense. (US Presswire)  
Witten's spleen injury hurts the Cowboys as they look to firm up their offense. (US Presswire)  

SAN DIEGO -- The Dallas Cowboys say they're not overly concerned with their injured wide receivers and are hopeful that Dez Bryant and/or Miles Austin return for the Sept. 5 opener against the New York Giants.

And that's terrific. Except ... what if they don't?

I know, the Cowboys dodged a bullet with Bryant, with an MRI revealing a knee injury suffered Monday was patellar tendinitis, but that's not exactly a free pass. Tendinitis requires attention, and you have to expect this could become a recurring issue as the season progresses.

"There are a lot of versions of tendinitis all over our bodies," said coach Jason Garrett, "and we do have to manage it. [But] we are pleased with the MRI on Dez's knee. We just have to see how he does with the rehab coming back."

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Then there's Austin, sidelined this summer because of hamstring problems. It was hamstring problems that kept him out of six games last year, too. And I think that's an issue because this is the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver, and when an injury one season shows up the next, I start to worry.

And maybe Dallas should.

"I'm not overly concerned," receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. "We'll get him back. We're pretty sure and pretty confident we'll see him back there against the Giants."

OK, fine. But let me ask one more time: What if he's not? I haven't even it mentioned that tight end Jason Witten -- who last year led the club in receptions and hasn't had fewer than 79 catches in any of his past five seasons -- is missing, too. He's out because of a lacerated spleen that could keep him out of the opener.

That means the team's top four receivers from last year weren't on the field Tuesday, with the three who are still with the club -- Austin, Bryant and Witten -- not expected to be in the lineup this weekend and are iffy for the opener. It also means that someone has to fill the void and move up the depth chart, and that someone is fourth-year pro Kevin Ogletree.

Maybe you've heard of him. Maybe you haven't. All I know is that the Cowboys entered training camp looking for a third wide receiver -- someone to replace Laurent Robinson, who left for Jacksonville as a free agent -- and Ogletree is the front-runner.

That could change, just as it did a year ago when the Cowboys signed Robinson after San Diego cut him before the regular season. But it might not, too, which means Dallas, in effect, would swap out Robinson -- who led the team with 11 touchdown catches and was a reliable target -- for Ogletree, who in three seasons has 25 receptions and no touchdowns.

Now you know why I think Dallas should be concerned.

"He's done a good job stepping up in the absence of Miles and Dez," Garrett said of Ogletree, "and done a good job for our football team being the lead receiver. The quarterbacks have confidence in him. He's becoming more consistent. And he's done a good job attacking the football and making contested catches.

"We saw that the other night in the game [vs. San Diego, a 28-20 preseason loss]. He has to get better in all areas, but he's improving on a daily basis and going about it in the right way."

Ogletree isn't the only one in the mix. Rookie Cole Beasley, who led the team with seven receptions for 104 yards in the loss to the Chargers, should make the team as more of a part-time slot receiver and full-time special-teams performer. Andre Holmes and Dwayne Harris are candidates, too, with Harris hammered Tuesday by San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer -- a hit Harris later called a "cheap shot" and that produced a brief scuffle.

"We have a next-man-up philosophy," Garrett said. "Injuries create opportunities, and backup players need to be ready to take advantage of the opportunities if they do get them."

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Publicly, at least, Garrett seems unfazed by the attrition. Partly because there's nothing he can do about it and partly because nothing counts until Sept. 5. So he's hoping Ogletree, Beasley, Holmes, Harris -- someone, anyone -- steps forward to demonstrate why Dallas should not wait on the waiver wire for its next wide receiver.

"All I know," Harris said, "is that without Miles and Dez on the outside -- and Witten -- you know you're going to be seeing a lot of footballs if you get open."

Exactly.

But without Miles and Dez on the outside -- and Witten -- I would think someone in Dallas would be nervous that maybe, just maybe, this season begins as last year ended -- with another loss to the Giants. Romo said he's OK with the situation at wide receiver, telling reporters that the candidates there "are going to be alright," and Robinson assured me he feels better about the group "than I did a couple of months ago."

For the Cowboys' sake, I hope they're right. Because if they're not, Dallas could be in a heap of trouble.

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