As Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Gerald McCoy limped to the locker room Monday morning with a ruptured right quadriceps tendon, unable to put pressure on his leg and nearly falling as he attempted to take a step without assistance, the drills barely stopped with teammates likely not even knowing he was hurt until after the workout.
The plan for the Cowboys' defensive line did not even make it a full padded practice without seeing things go astray.
Football people will always rally around the next-man-up battle cry, but McCoy was a huge part of the retooling of Dallas' defensive line. The six-time Pro Bowler with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Cowboys after spending one season with the Carolina Panthers.
"You never know when things like this are going to happen and it's certainly disappointing," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "We're first and foremost disappointed about Gerald, but also it's disappointing for us."
In addition to McCoy, the Cowboys added Dontari Poe, Aldon Smith and Everson Griffen, who just cleared coronavirus-testing protocols, to replace Robert Quinn, Maliek Collins, Kerry Hyder, Christian Covington and Michael Bennett from last year's front.
The moves spoke to how the Cowboys will operate differently under coordinator Mike Nolan than his predecessors Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard.
The Cowboys wanted bigger players up front than they had in the past. Maybe not in terms of weight -- although at a listed 346 pounds, Poe is 36 pounds heavier than any linemen the Cowboys had a year ago -- but maybe in grown-man strength.
If Marinelli wanted quicker players to penetrate the gaps, Nolan wants players to be able to stand their ground better, like McCoy. Smith is technically a linebacker in the Cowboys' hybrid scheme but will play mostly on the line of scrimmage.
The Cowboys' new-look front would have been among the best in the NFL, if the season was 2014. Back then, McCoy made his third straight Pro Bowl with the Buccaneers and had 8.5 sacks. Poe made his second straight Pro Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs and had a career-high six sacks. Smith played in seven games for the San Francisco 49ers because of off-field troubles in his fourth season, but had 42 sacks in his first three seasons. Griffen put up a then-career high 12 sacks, starting 16 games for the first time with the Minnesota Vikings.
McCoy turned 32 in February. Griffen is also 32. Smith turns 31 on Sept. 25 and Poe, who is on the physically unable to perform list partially because of a quadriceps tear he suffered last season in Carolina that required surgery, turns 30 Tuesday.
Age clearly wasn't a concern for the Cowboys. Productivity certainly was.
What the Cowboys will miss without McCoy
Booger McFarland notes the additions the Cowboys have made on the defensive line but explains why they will miss Gerald McCoy.
"You look at a 32-year-old NFL player today and it's definitely different than it probably was 15-20 years ago. I think we all recognize that," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said.
But then McCoy goes down in the first padded practice.
Jones does not agree the Cowboys altered their free-agent philosophy by adding older free agents. The terms of the deals were to their liking.
In addition to McCoy's $18 million deal, Poe was signed to a two-year, $8.5 million deal that guaranteed him $3.5 million, Griffen can earn $6 million if he plays in every game. Smith, who has not played in a game since 2015 because of suspensions, did not receive any guaranteed money but can make up to $4 million on his one-year deal.
Under Marinelli, the Cowboys made it work on their defensive line rotation with unheralded additions such as Jeremy Mincey, George Selvie and Nick Hayden. Their biggest addition up front was Cedric Thornton (four years, $17 million) and he lasted one season. Benson Mayowa was the first restricted free agent the Cowboys ever signed and he lasted two seasons.
Since 2014, the Cowboys have added DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Taco Charlton and Trysten Hill in the first or second round of the NFL draft. Only Lawrence, who signed a five-year, $105 million deal in 2019, has developed. Gregory is suspended indefinitely and while the Cowboys are hopeful he can be reinstated, they don't know if it will happen. Charlton, the Cowboys' 2017 first-rounder, was cut last year.
Hill was a major disappointment as a second-round pick last year and might be in a roster fight this summer. The Cowboys took Neville Gallimore in the third round of this year's draft. Both players will get substantial looks to replace McCoy.
"We're still fired up about our personnel there, and we'll probably be going with what we have," Jones said.
Among the returning defensive linemen from 2019, the Cowboys had just eight sacks. Lawrence had five, Dorance Armstrong had two and Tyrone Crawford had one in the four games he played before being shut down because of double hip surgery.
Griffen had eight sacks last season with the Vikings. McCoy (five) and Poe (four) combined for nine sacks in their one season together with the Panthers.
"We all understand the priority of what pass-rushers bring to your football team," McCarthy said. "We want to be explosive on offense, put points on the board, and then we really, really want to put our pass-rushers in position to pin their ears back. That is part of the way we look to attack this season. You can never have enough good pass-rushers."