Lance Dunbar's return faster and better than expected

OXNARD, Calif. – As his Dallas Cowboys teammates practice, Lance Dunbar is off to a side field. A cord is tied around his waist, and at the other end is assistant strength coach Kendall Smith. As Dunbar sprints, Smith tugs the cord tight to create more resistance.

Dunbar has no limp. The only way to know his left knee has an issue is the light wrap around it.

He looks, for the lack of a better word, normal.

On Oct. 4, 2015, against the New Orleans Saints, Dunbar tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on a kickoff return. He also tore his patellar tendon. His season was over on the night he had a career-high 45-yard run.

As Dunbar stared at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome roof, he could not stand the pain.

“I was having the career that I always dreamed of having, finally got a chance to make some plays, but it kind of got taken away from me,” Dunbar said. “At first I was kind of asking, ‘Why me?’ But I stopped myself pretty quick. I said it like two times when I was on the ground.”

Almost 10 months after the injury, Dunbar has yet to be cleared, but he is far closer to returning to the field than most imagined. The Cowboys placed him on the physically-unable-to-perform list just to give him some more time, but it is possible he could return at some point during training camp.

His eyes are on the season opener on Sept. 11 against the New York Giants.

“That’s my goal, but I can’t really put a time on it,” Dunbar said. “Whenever I’m ready, I’ll be ready. [I'm] just listening to the training staff. They have a plan. It’s whenever they feel I’m 100 percent ready to go.”

Despite only playing in parts of four games last season, Dunbar managed a career-high 21 catches and had five carries for 67 yards. He was developing into a real third-down threat, a space player that defenses have a difficult time matching up with. In last year’s opener against the Giants, Dunbar caught the first two passes of the game-winning drive for 40 total yards.

The quick return from this injury should not be a surprise. In 2013 he suffered a torn posterior lateral corner in his right knee in what was his best game: 12 carries, 82 yards vs. the Oakland Raiders. The severity of the injury was not really known, but he was back for the 2014 season without any issue.

“I’ve been running routes; I’ve been doing pretty much everything,” Dunbar said. “Just have to respect the time. It’s a serious injury, and nobody expected me to be where I’m at right now.”