IRVING, Texas -- DeMarco Murray has a cast protecting his surgically repaired left hand. The right side of the offensive line is hurt. Tackle Doug Free has painful bone spurs affecting his left ankle. Guard Zack Martin has a sprained ankle that required a heavy tape job for him to continue playing Sunday.
Most likely, they won't know for sure until game day if those three starters will be able to play in what will be the biggest game of the season.
"The mentality is, if you're on the football team, you have a responsibility to be ready to play and you have to prepare as such," coach Jason Garrett said. "And that's your job. You're a pro football player and everyone's counting on you. So the accountability thing is huge to your teammates and to your football team. So it starts with the preparation."
If Murray, Free and Martin can't play, then the Cowboys will call on the next man. Every team in the NFL operates on a "next man up" philosophy. The Cowboys have had to do it throughout the season because of injuries.
Rookie Anthony Hitchens has had to start games at all three linebacker spots because of injuries to Justin Durant, Bruce Carter and Rolando McClain. Sterling Moore has had to step in for Morris Claiborne at cornerback. Jack Crawford had to play defensive tackle because of injuries, and when he was lost for the season due to thumb surgery, others had to replace him.
Safeties Jeff Heath and C.J. Spillman have been pressed into action. Jermey Parnell replaced Free after halftime of the win against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Parnell started three games earlier this season after Free suffered a broken foot. Mackenzy Bernadeau, who would replace Martin vs. the Colts, had to start at left guard for one game when Ronald Leary was hurt.
If Murray, the NFL's leading rusher, can't play, Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar would split the running back duties. They have 328 rushing yards this season. Murray needed less than three games to reach that total this season.
But at least they have played. And Parnell and Bernadeau have starting experience. With so much on the line Sunday, it's better that their teammates have already seen them excel; they are not unknown commodities.
"All those guys have experience and we have all the faith in the world," Leary said. "From [Parnell] to Randle to Dunbar, they all bring their own thing to the team. Them coming in, stepping up, it's going to help in a big way."
Garrett made his career as a backup quarterback. When he made his famous 1994 start against the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving, nothing gave him more confidence than receiver Michael Irvin telling Garrett what was going to happen the next time the Cowboys ran the same play later in the game after Garrett threw an interception.
"Certainly, what happens in those situations is the confidence in other people who have been playing and instilling the confidence in the guy who is coming in to play," Garrett said. "I always benefited from that. I think the best teams have that in them. They say, ‘OK, here we go. We believe in this guy. He wouldn't be out here if he didn't belong.' I think that's the mentality you have to have."