Dallas Cowboys' injured band of players back together, ready to play

OXNARD, Calif. -- It was only the first walk-through of Dallas Cowboys training camp, but quarterback Dak Prescott knew where he was throwing the football even before he saw the defense.

"I made sure I threw it to Blake," Prescott said, referring to tight end Blake Jarwin, who is coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in last year's season opener. "Obviously I know everything that he's been through, fighting his adversity, fighting his injury and getting back on the field."

For months, Prescott, Jarwin and offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La'el Collins went through grueling rehab from injuries that either ended their 2020 season prematurely or kept them off the field entirely.

Their injuries accounted for 62 games missed, which played a massive part in why the Cowboys finished 6-10 in coach Mike McCarthy's first season.

As the Cowboys move to full-padded practices for the first time this week in training camp, they are healthy -- though Martin is dealing with a sore ankle -- and will play a crucial role in why the Cowboys have such high expectations for the 2021 season.

And through their rehab, they formed a tighter bond and made a promise.

"It was an unspoken rule," Jarwin said. "[Director of rehab Britt Brown] has been on us and you have two or three more reps and you kinda look at each other like, 'Let's go do this.' We've got to suffer now to be great later. I think every one of us understood that. It was important for us and I think it's going to pay off big dividends."

Prescott's return from the compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle has been the most chronicled because of the position he plays, as well as the $160 million contract the Cowboys signed him to this offseason.

Collins needed a walker immediately following hip surgery last fall, and was rehabbing for 18 weeks. Jarwin had high hopes for the 2020 season after signing a $24 million extension only to see his season end after 25 snaps.

Smith tried to battle through a neck injury that had bothered him for years, but he relented and had surgery. Martin had missed just two games in his first six seasons, but a concussion and torn calf kept him off the field for six games.

"Really we just held each other accountable every day to be about it," Collins said. "In the offseason, there's a lot of different things you could be doing, but you got to make that commitment and that sacrifice to be there every day. When you have that and have that type of trust, it carries over."

The man they trusted the most to get them back was Brown, who is entering his 25th season with the Cowboys. In the first meeting of training camp, McCarthy recognized Brown's efforts with those returning from injury, and the players gave him a standing ovation.

"Old school. Special. Gritty," Prescott said describing Brown. "He's passionate. Does his job with true passion, true love, loves the guys that he's coaching and you feel it each and every day that you go out there, whether it's a light day or whether it's a hard day, he's going to let you know. He's going to be honest. He's going to take care of you."

Jarwin called Brown a "silent hero." Collins said practices are easier than the rehab sessions with Brown. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (back), wide receiver Amari Cooper (ankle) and defensive tackle Trysten Hill (ankle) likely agree as they are going through the resistance-band training with Brown.

The group of five injured players counted more than $50 million against last year's salary cap, with Prescott taking up $31.4 million on the franchise tag. The figure would have been greater had the Cowboys not restructured the contracts of Smith, Martin and Collins to create cap room.

"If you look at our time with the team, 30 plus years, I don't think we ever had that many top players [miss games], in terms if you take percentage of salary cap, however you want to look at it, missed games," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said.

Every team has to deal with injuries. When McCarthy won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in 2010, he needed 77 players, so there is a line between reasons and excuses even if they live in the same neighborhood.

The Cowboys will have to deal with more injuries in 2021; they just hope it doesn't happen to their key players.

"We're a different team with our veteran players coming back," McCarthy said. "Just watching them go through the rehab and feeling good about the return, it definitely will be a huge impact to our roster, huge impact to our team. We want a healthy, competitive training camp, and they'll be a big part of our success."

Prescott referred to their returns as having the band back together.

"Me and Tyron talked about it as we were approaching that first team session, 'It's been a long time, huh,'" Prescott said. "To see a healthy Tyron, a healthy Zack, a healthy [Ezekiel Elliott] ... to have us all back in there with some of those young guys who are going to be great players, it's awesome. We have a great supporting cast. When those guys come out, we got great guys coming in. ... It's something I am looking forward to each and every day and I know we are going to get better. My excitement is through the roof."