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Spagnola: Cowboys Soon To Find Out If The Kids Will Be All Right
FRISCO, Texas – Let me see if we’ve got this straight.
Rookie Chidobe Awuzie is starting at left cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys, Sunday to become his third NFL start.
Rookie Jourdan Lewis will most assuredly make his third NFL start at right corner against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium since it now seems rather doubtful veteran Orlando Scandrick will be able to return so soon from two transverse process fractures.
Rookie Xavier Woods, if the Cowboys open in a nickel defense against the 2-10 Giants with 14-year veteran Eli Manning back in the QB saddle, will start his third NFL game.
So, if you are scoring at home, sure looks as if the 6-6 Cowboys, who can ill-afford to lose any of these next four games if they even have hopes of earning a wild-card berth in the playoffs, will be playing three rookies at the cover positions when the Giants go three-wide. Three now.
Oh, and let’s not stop there. The next guy up behind those three likely will be second-year corner Anthony Brown. And among the starting safeties, let’s face it, Byron Jones is just in his third year, and assuming he goes up in the dime defense to take on Giants rookie tight end Evan Engram, that then would bring in Kavon Frazier, all of a second-year veteran.
Man, Jeff Heath, a first-year starter himself, must feel like the old man in the Cowboys secondary, he in his fifth season.
Talk about New Kids on the Block.
Yet, how about this from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, saying, “I’m excited about their future this year.”
But you know what, and while it’s taken three-quarters of the schedule to get there, that really was kind of the plan in the offseason. The Cowboys made a conscious decision attempting to get younger in the secondary. That is why they really didn’t even make an attempt to re-sign their veteran free-agent defensive backs: 31-year-old Brandon Carr, 30-year-old Barry Church, 27-year-old Morris Claiborne and 26-year-old J.J. Wilcox. Those guys combined for 39 starts in 2016, yet the Cowboys chose not to invest money in age, all but Wilcox going into at least their third NFL contracts.
“We kind of knew that with the offseason we had,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli says of being in this situation come Game 13.
Sure did, and that is why in the NFL Draft the Cowboys used a second on Awuzie, a third on Lewis and then moved up in the sixth to nab Woods. In fact, the Cowboys sort of thought, after seeing these guys early in offseason workouts, they all might be playing at some point in the season. And that point might have been sooner if not for what seemed like an outbreak of hamstring strains – to all three guys.
“We all did things to help each other,” Woods says when the rookie trio was battling the hammies. “We stayed on top of each other,” wanting to make sure they rehabbed and studied all together while unable to practice.
There is no doubt this is a talented bunch, causing defensive backs coach Joe Baker to say, “What you get excited about is what’s the ceiling.”
Yes, the ceiling, but the elevator normally doesn’t start at the top floor. While the talent and confidence in these youngin’s seems to be there, the experience certainly isn’t. Not yet anyway. And now you’re going up against Eli Manning on Sunday.
And look, I don’t care that this Giants team has been struggling; that the offense ranks no better than 28th in the league; that Manning has but an 84.1 QB rating; that the Giants rank 31st in average points per game, scoring no more than 17 points in five of the past six games.
It’s still Eli Manning.
And think about this: All three rookie defensive backs are 22 years old. That means when Manning began his NFL career in 2004, these guys were 9. Man, they probably grew up watching Manning and the Giants, and at age 12 probably were old enough to know it was the Giants eliminating the Cowboys during the 2007 playoffs.
Yet Sunday, they have to defend the guy?
You ever pinch yourself, out there playing against guys you probably grew up watching?
“It happens a lot,” Woods says smiling.
Sure, all three finding themselves playing against the likes of Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers.
“I do pinch myself,” Woods says. “I mean, even being in this locker room, being in here with Dez [Bryant], definitely pinch myself.”
But don’t interpret that as being intimidated or in awe while they are on the field. As Woods said, “I believed my whole life I was going to the NFL.”
Well, here you are. You, too, “Cheeto.” And you, Jourdan, too. Plus, with Scandrick injured, Brown demoted and veteran cornerback Nolan Carroll released, the Cowboys are where they thought they might be someday in the secondary.
Deal is, someday has arrived. And at a critical time. Because the Cowboys hadn’t righted the ship until the fourth game of Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension or not until the fourth game Sean Lee missed with a strained hamstring or were unable to win back-to-back games when scoring thirty-something against the Rams and Packers, the Cowboys find themselves in a win-or-else bind the entire month of December.
And even if they do win, they need help, and that help doesn’t seem to be coming. This past Sunday, the Cowboys really needed the Eagles to beat the Seahawks. They didn’t. They really needed Thursday night for the Saints to beat the Falcons. They didn’t, and in heartbreaking fashion, the Falcons kicking a 52-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter to take a 20-17 lead. And then while driving for the winning touchdown, Drew Brees is intercepted in the end zone when a gimme game-tying field goal was within range the final two minutes.
That’s why it’s bad business relying on others.
As for the young DBs, the Cowboys have little other choice than to rely on them. Marinelli says he’ll do his best to “shape the defense to who the guys are,” which is one reason we’ve seen the Cowboys trying to play so much zone the last couple of games. Keep the ball in front of them, then break on the ball and tackle. Just don’t let the ball go over your head.
So here we go, hang on to your seats. Youth sure is being served in this Cowboys secondary come Sunday afternoon at MetLife. Think about it, five of the team’s eight likely active defensive backs in no more than their second years in the league – and three of them rookies.
But you know what, those rookies?
“We talked about that in OTAs,” Woods said of daydreaming over the possibility of all three starting at some point.
Well, that dream has come through for them, and who knows, we just might be finding out the kids are all right. Read