IRVING, Texas — Ernie Sims and Brady Poppinga joined Dallas from the NFL scrap heap. They could end up playing important parts in trying to salvage a season.
Both times the Cowboys lost the play-calling linebacker in the middle of their defense to a season-ending injury, they turned to a veteran to fill the roster spot.
First it was Sims after Sean Lee badly damaged a toe Oct. 21 against Carolina. This week it was Poppinga after Bruce Carter dislocated his left elbow in the Thanksgiving loss to Washington.
The Sims move wasn't quite so urgent because the season was relatively young and the Cowboys still had Carter and Dan Connor, a free agent pickup in the offseason and former teammate of Lee's at Penn State.
Poppinga comes aboard with Sims back in the starting lineup a second time and Dallas trying to hang on to playoff hopes that took a big hit with the 38-31 loss to the Redskins. Poppinga is the only backup listed at the two inside linebacker spots as Dallas (5-6) gets ready to play Philadelphia on Sunday, trailing the New York Giants by two games in the NFC East with five to play.
“We've got a scouting department … that brings in guys that they feel like can fit in and play and step in right now. And this is a `right now' type situation,” said defensive end Marcus Spears. “As far as thinking about all the other stuff as far as they're off the streets or they've been playing somewhere else, that's water under the bridge because they're here and we have to play with them.”
Clinging to hope is made easier by Poppinga. He was among a gaggle of Green Bay defenders who went on injured reserve in 2010, and the Packers won the Super Bowl anyway.
Poppinga certainly won't be the shy guy hiding in the corner of the locker room. Sweat dripping off his nose in a first encounter with Dallas reporters Monday — which wasn't even a full workout day — he invited anyone to “tap into” the energy he stored during 10 months away from football.
“I don't know how many times I just wanted to run through the door and just blast something,” said Poppinga, who played six seasons in Green Bay and last year in St. Louis. “But you know you got to have patience and you got to understand when you're a regular civilian in this world you can't break laws or break doors.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett won't know until later in the week how much Poppinga can help against the Eagles (3-8). But he already knows the energy level is a little higher on defense.
“He's very passionate about the game,” Garrett said. “He's fun to be around the couple of days we've been around him. I'm excited to see him practice and see how well he can pick things up and get himself acclimated to what we're doing.”
So many Green Bay defenders went down in 2010, Poppinga isn't sure he remembers how many — “six, seven?” he says — although it's worth noting that none of the injured was Clay Matthews.
Lee was that kind of player for the Cowboys.
“Basically, you've got to have guys when they do come in that are the next guy up, they've got to commit to learning the defense,” Poppinga said. “And they've got to be able to integrate themselves with the team and become part of the team. That's what most important. That's what separates championship teams from average teams is team chemistry and guys wanting to go out and play for each other.”
Sims, a seventh-year player drafted ninth overall by Detroit in 2006, actually started against Atlanta 11 days after signing with the Cowboys while Connor was out with a neck injury. Now he and Connor will start side by side, and their significance isn't diminished by the unusual move of outside linebacker Anthony Spencer calling the defensive plays rather than someone in the middle.
“Let's be abundantly clear about that,” Garrett said. “There's a lot of responsibility those inside guys have.”
Sims played the Sunday after he signed with Dallas, getting two tackles for a defense that held Eli Manning to 190 yards passing in a 29-24 loss to the New York Giants. He has 20 tackles in five games
“As ready as I was going to be,” Sims said of his quick Dallas debut. “When I got here, coaches asked me was I ready to play, and of course I'm going to say yes.”
If they ask Poppinga the same question, they'll get the same answer.
“I'm ready and willing to do whatever they so ask of me,” he said. “So I don't know what that means.”
It means the Cowboys are scrambling to stay in the playoff chase.