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Can Cowboys stay in playoff race without Dez Bryant?

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The Cowboys gave Dez Bryant the contract he wanted before training camp because they couldn't imagine playing without him. Now they are going to find out how truly valuable he is for longer than expected.

NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport broke news Sunday morning that Bryant could be out until December. Instead of the four-to-six week recovery timetable the team initially hoped for, a bone graft during the surgery means that he faces a 10-12 week return timeframe, sources informed of his procedure told Rapoport. If Bryant isn't ready until the final five games of the season, it's worth wondering if the Cowboys will make it to the playoffs.

The Cowboys were dominant last year because they had four top-shelf cornerstones on one offense: Bryant, Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and the team's vaunted offensive line. Now Romo will have to carry a far bigger burden, and his twice-surgically repaired back might not be ready for the added weight.

Dallas was already counting too much on its line to make up for the loss of Murray. The backfield, led by Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden, is one of the thinnest in football. Romo's receiver group is deeper, yet turns into a mediocre group without Bryant.

Terrance Williams, slot receiver Cole Beasley and tight end Jason Witten all fit perfectly in their current roles as supporting players. But Williams lacks the chops to be a No. 1 wideout, Beasley is best left in the slot, and Witten is not the same receiver he was nearly a decade ago lining up next to Terrell Owens. Romo was so good last year in part because he had to do less. His 435 pass attempts were a career low for a full season, more than 200 below his 2012 total. He will now have to throw more this season, but without Bryant's services. That leaves Romo exposed to more potential for injury.

This was a historically good offense, but it will be a huge uphill battle to be a top-10 group until Bryant returns. Coach Jason Garrett's best hope for survival comes from his improved defensive front seven. Even the defense, however, feels imbalanced. The promising pass rush is trying to compensate for a potentially porous secondary.

Owner Jerry Jones has always built his rosters like the fantasy owner that goes with the "stars and scrubs" strategy. There are usually a few high-priced superstars, a few overpaid guys on a second contract and a lack of depth that shows up by December. Jones needs the middle of his roster to step up now, or Bryant will return to a Cowboys squad facing a big deficit in the NFC East title race.

Bryant's prolonged recovery could strangely wind up proving why he was worth all that money.

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