At one point, there was optimism surrounding the status of La'El Collins. As recently as mid-August, the Dallas Cowboys felt he'd need just a bit more time to recover from his hip injury and be ready to take the field in 2020 -- noting his injury at the time was "not something of high concern" -- so they placed him on injured reserve in the hopes of seeing him ready to join them in hosting the Cleveland Browns in Week 4. Six weeks later, currently in the final week of September and readying for a defensive front led by Pro Bowl pass rusher Myles Garrett, they're now labeling Collins' issue as "significant," and the tone regarding his potential return (or rather, lack thereof) is suddenly ominous and exceedingly dark.
"Well, I mean, he's a ways off," Mike McCarthy told media Monday, cementing the team's about-face on the matter. "But I think like anything, any player that's on IR, unfortunately you hope it doesn't get to that option, but time will tell. He's obviously dealing with something that's significant. We'll just continue to do the best we can and help him progress."
What option is McCarthy inferring, you ask? Owner Jerry Jones provided that answer in a Wednesday chat with 1053.FM the Fan -- citing surgery as an option for the 27-year-old. Furthermore, Jones didn't mince words or attempt to politic his way around a prognosis for Collins. Instead, he outright shrugged off a timetable, as well as adding confusion to the caldron of questions surrounding the injury and its rapid regression.
"Accept what I'm fixing to say -- we don't know. I don't know," Jones confessed.
And for as disconcerting it was to hear Jones -- who prides himself on knowing the minutia of the Cowboys down to how many plies of toilet paper are on any given roll in any given restroom at any given time -- his next statement was even more so.
"The doctors don't know," he said.
Collins entered training camp in August reportedly out of football shape, a tidbit disputed by his agent, and was allowed some time to rehab and acclimate, but was also involved in an auto accident in late August. The latter was described at the time as major but it was reported Collins came out supposedly OK but also complained at the scene of neck pain, per a video of the incident released by TMZ -- eventually ramping up to individual drills before being placed on injured reserve ahead of Week 1 with a hip injury. With the mandatory three weeks having now passed, there is no return in sight for Collins, and the team describes his issue as more plural and less singular.
In other words, the hip injury isn't the only thing he's working through with a quarter of the season set to pass this weekend.
"We are trying to work through some structure issues," Jones continued. "We're trying to work through those relative to -- I'm going to compare this to human activity with COVID. One begets the other. The less activity you can have sometimes in these injuries or in these health issues, the harder it is to get it better, and you can have something else that's preventing you from doing the things you need to do to get better in another part of your body. And that's what's happening here."
As for an updated outlook, sources tell CBS Sports there is a possibility he doesn't return to the field in 2020.
One source characterized it by saying, "Return is possible, but don't go betting on it." Another pointed at the play of backup swing tackle Brandon Knight as one reason the Cowboys are taking a deliberate approach with Collins. Time will tell what actually happens here, but the outlook is bleak as the calendar readies to flip to October, and the Cowboys aren't being completely forthcoming on the details -- to their own admission -- but it's becoming more and more clear it's not just one item of concern.
"He's just working with a couple of issues that he's trying to get right," team exec Stephen Jones himself told 105.3FM the Fan this week. "As we said, didn't want to get in specifics in terms of exactly what his injury is or injuries are, but working through all that with him, trying to get him in a place where he can get himself ready to play at a high level again."
Should he opt to undergo surgery, because it will occur with a month of the schedule in the rearview, and because it's not a procedure with a short recovery time -- also factoring in time to return to practice and return to football shape before taking the field for a live game -- it's quite possible Collins will require the next several months or more to recover before again being the dominant right tackle he's proven himself to be.
"The reason you're not hearing something definitive, as you well know, if you're going to have a problem in the NFL because of the length of the season, when you start off in early August or late July, the best time to have anything corrective that identifies with surgery is right then," Jones said of the potential procedure. "The quicker you can do it, if you're going to have to do it, the better off you are. Because of the length of the season, you can basically have surgery sometimes in July and you can be sitting in there a month before the playoffs and be back helping your team. That happens. So, you want to do it early."
All told and as stated, there is still the possibility Collins, but time is running out on making a decision regarding surgery. For now, it appears they're walking the fine line between pain management and conceding defeat to the injury.
"The reason you don't do it early is because, if necessary, you have moved along and have narrowed that gap of how to manage it so you can get the most time out of the season," said Jones. "Every player wants to do that and certainly the team does. So, we've been easing along so that we can see if we can get more time that way with Collins. And that's the process that you see going on and the doctors, the trainers, the owner does not know when it's going to be at a point that he can do some other things that have him ready to go in a week or two.
"So, it's still there. It's still working, still possible for him to play. The longer you go, the less optimistic you get."
Collins has been a bit of an ironman the last three seasons, having miss just one regular season start in that span. Having working his way up from the ranks of the undrafted in 2015 to one of the best (albeit unheralded) right tackles in the NFL, the Cowboys awarded Collins a five-year, $50 million contract extension last September that included $35 million guaranteed. His absence is being salved by the admirable play of Knight, but has made things infinitely more difficult for a Cowboys offensive line that's also been without perennial All-Pro Tyron Smith at left tackle the last two games due to neck stingers.
So when undrafted rookie Terence Steele was forced out against the Seattle Seahawks with flu-like symptoms, an in-game adjustment saw the Cowboys break glass in case of emergency and move All-Pro right guard Zack Martin to right tackle and Knight -- an undrafted second-year talent -- to man the left edge. While Martin was instantly dominant in a position he's played before at both the high school and collegiate level, but never once in an NFL game, the expectation is Smith has a great chance of returning and Steele will definitely be in tow for Week 4, putting Martin next to center once again.
"[With Smith and Steele] coming back, I think getting Zack Martin goes back in at his usual spot," said Stephen Jones. "I think we're a better group that way."
The once vaunted Cowboys offensive line is anything but in 2020 and in large part due to injury at the edges, but it's beginning to feel like they'll have to get used to not seeing Collins protecting the front side of Dak Prescott this season. Barring a miraculous turn of events in the next week or so, it's Knight's job until further notice, and maybe until 2021.