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Lance Dunbar's knee injury hurt Cowboys more than most realize

IRVING, Texas -- When the Dallas Cowboys’ injuries from 2015 are mentioned, the talk almost always starts with Tony Romo and ends with Dez Bryant.

Romo missed 12 games with a twice-fractured left collarbone. Bryant missed seven games with a surgically-repaired right foot.

Without Romo and Bryant, the Cowboys offense went nowhere.

But there was another significant injury that slowed the Cowboys and it came Oct. 4 against the New Orleans Saints.

Lance Dunbar tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on a kickoff return against the Saints. Already without Bryant’s big-play ability, the Cowboys saw the field shrink even more without Dunbar.

Earlier in the New Orleans game, Dunbar had a 45-yard run. In the first three games he had catches of 34, 39 and 21 yards.

The 45-yard run was the Cowboys’ longest until Dec. 3 when Darren McFadden ripped off a 50-yarder against the Packers. McFadden also had a 45-yarder against the Packers. No other running back had a catch as long as Dunbar’s 39-yarder against the Eagles.

The long-talked-about-but-rarely-implemented expanded role for Dunbar finally had seemed to be becoming a real thing.

“Before the season I knew what my role was going to be and we worked on it a lot and we actually became good at things I was doing out of the backfield,” Dunbar said. “Unfortunately I got hurt. Hopefully we can pick up where we left off. Just got to work, get back healthy and the rest will take care of itself.”

Before Dunbar can pick up where he left off, he would need to re-sign with the Cowboys.

He is set to be a free agent in March and the injury was bad timing.

He will have a limited market because of his injury and he hasn't been used enough to show what he can fully do.

Despite playing in only three full games, Dunbar had a career-high 21 catches for 215 yards, which was two off his career high. He carried five times for 67 yards.

At the time of his injury, the Cowboys were tiring of Joseph Randle and wanted to give Dunbar more work. In the 2013 Thanksgiving Day win against the Oakland Raiders, Dunbar carried 12 times for 82 yards before suffering a knee injury that ended his season.

“It’s very frustrating,” Dunbar said. “My whole career every time I got an opportunity, I got hurt or something bad happened. It just makes me stronger to keep fighting through all the adversity and get better. I’ll have another opportunity and when it comes I’ll be ready for it.”

Dunbar is not sure when he will be back to full speed, but the hope is he can be ready for training camp. He continues to rehab daily with the Cowboys’ athletic training staff.

The Cowboys know Dunbar best. And he knows them best.

For Dunbar’s sake, another year with the Cowboys makes the most sense rather than starting over with another team.