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Spagnola: A Hairy First Half For The Cowboys

Posted Nov 1, 2013


IRVING, Texas – So here we are, at the halfway point, eight games down, eight games to go.

         Four wins, four losses.

         The dreaded .500.

         And so I was asked to describe the Cowboys record at this halfway juncture of the 2013 season in one word, and on the spur of the moment out came “blah.”

         In somewhat more appropriate words, rather lacking.

         Right?

         Certainly not really good, and certainly not gosh awful, reminding of my grandpa when asked in Italian how he was feeling – come stai? – he would hold out his hand, palm down and sort of shake it back and forth at alternating 45-degree angles.

         Nothing to write home about, nothing to cry about. Just sort of, well, mehhh.

         So for further assistance, I asked Cowboys owner Jerry Jones his feelings about this team, one with a retooled offensive line, a healthy quarterback, a changed defensive coordinator and defensive philosophy, a new offensive play-caller, a rookie class that will bring a smile to your face, but more injuries than Carter had liver pills.

         Happy? Mad? Sad? So-so?

         “No, I’m not happy with it,” Jones said after just a short pause for the taping of Special Edition, airing locally 10:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS-11. “I really thought with the makeup of our team, with [Tony] Romo and what I thought we did to bolster up our offensive line, I thought we would have won at least two of those really close games we missed out on. The ones we won, I think we should have won all of those.”

         He’s not happy, and my guess is you’re not happy either.

         Jerry has a point. Usually during an NFL season, even an eight-game sample, you win some you should have lost and you lose some you should have won. But in the Cowboys case, they’ve lost three they should have won – or at least ones we could make an argument for having won – and have yet to win one they should have lost.

         See, this is what happens when a team plays so many close shaves: You win some, and you lose some. In the Cowboys case so far this season, though, when it comes to these close shaves, which we’ll define as games decided by no more than seven points, they have won one (beat the Giants 36-31), but have lost three by a total of five points to Kansas City, Denver and Detroit. Teams with a combined 20-4 record.

         Makes you want to pull your hair out, doesn’t it? Two one-point losses to Kansas City and Detroit, and that three-pointer to Denver. And the winning points in the Denver and Detroit losses came with a grand total of 12 seconds remaining in the games, with all 12 this past Sunday.

         So close but yet so far.

         But that has been your frustrating Dallas Cowboys … so far. Since the start of the 2012 season, a total of 24 games, 16 of those have been decided by no more than seven points. And I know there is a perception that the Cowboys must be 0-16 in these close games, even though head coach Jason Garrett continues to insist that “we’ve won our share.”

         Well, he’s right, exactly half. The Cowboys are 8-8 in these 16 games decided by no more than seven points, the most of any team in the NFL over that time period. The Seahawks, Steelers and Lions check in with 15 games decided by no more than seven points (Seattle 9-6, Pittsburgh 6-9 and Detroit now 5-10).

         Four more check in with 14 tight squeezes, the best of this top 8 being Indianapolis at 12-2, Atlanta and New England at 8-6 – one game over .500 – and the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens at 7-7, .500, too.

         This is not meant to appease your frustration (probably adds to it), but just bring some perspective that this is life in the NFL if you are not dominating or being dominated. You win your share, lose your share when the games come down to the wire more often than not.

         Oh, and if we go back to when Garrett took over as head coach in 2010, inheriting a 1-7 record, six of the final eight games that season were decided by no more than seven points, the Cowboys going 3-3 in those. And this fingernail-biting continued into 2011, nine of that season’s 16 games decided by no more than seven points, the Cowboys going 4-5 in those games.

         Add it all up, and that brings us to a 15-16 record in the 31 of 48 games played under Garrett having been decided by no more than 7 points, the Cowboys now standing 25-23 during his jurisdiction. That’s certainly a long ways from the 1-7 team he took over, but not yet good enough to schedule any parades.

         So here the Cowboys go with eight games left, starting this Sunday back home at AT&T against the 1-6 Minnesota Vikings, who have been double-secret protective of just who might start at quarterback. Then again, all the Cowboys really need to know when it comes to the Vikings is Palestine’s Adrian Peterson starts at running back.

         And this is where Jones followed up his aforementioned feelings concerning 4-4 with a “but …

         “… with that in mind we’re behind what I thought we’d be but the division is behind where I thought it would be, so frankly if we will be the team I expected when we started the season, which is improved since the first game, even though we’ve had injuries, I’m pretty positive about how we could end this thing and have a shot at the big one.”

         Which means winning the division and getting into the playoffs, obviously the immediate goal of this team.

         And why not, right?

         The Cowboys have swept the NFC East in the first round, going 3-0. That means the one-game lead over Philadelphia (3-5) really is a two-game lead at this point when it comes to the tiebreaker. The four wins the Cowboys have are as many the Redskins and Giants combined.

         This means the Cowboys only must worry about themselves at this point, and that certainly is enough to worry about, especially when it comes to the injury-depleted defense. Good gosh, when that Detroit game ended disastrously, six of this season’s either projected or current starters were not on the field, and two of those (Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer) will never be again this year. And of those other missing four, chances are three of those will miss Sunday’s game: DeMarcus Ware, Morris Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox.

         Which in turn begs the question: Is there any hope for a defense strafed for opponent franchise-highs of 623 total yards and 488 passing yards this past Sunday by Detroit?

         Is there any hope for a defense now ranked 32nd in the 32-team NFL when it comes to total yards against? And mind you in the entire history of the Cowboys, only once has the defense finished last in the NFL, and that occurred in the inaugural 1960 season, finishing dead last in a 13-team league. Twice more the Cowboys finished 13th, in 1962 and 1963, but that was a 14-team league by then.

         And the lowest a Cowboys defense has ever finished a season? Why, that would have been the No. 23 in 2010. And to further pile on the dire depth of this current defensive ranking, from 1964 until that 2010 season, 20th was the lowest any Cowboys defense had finished a season (five times).

         But now this.

         So offense, what you got?

         Can an offense sporting the league’s fifth-ranked quarterback (Romo, 101.7), who has thrown the third-most touchdown passes after eight games (18), a wide receiver one short of tying for the league lead in touchdown catches (Dez Bryant, 8), the league’s second-ranked kickoff returner and third-ranked punt returner (Dwayne Harris) and the league’s third-ranked receiver in yards-per-catch (Terrance Williams, 17.1, just .5 behind, uh, Calvin Johnson) bail out this team the second half?

         That’s what it’s going to take, and for the offense to do so the third-down conversion percentage must improve dramatically if they are going to get back into driving the football for touchdowns. Since the Denver game, the Cowboys have converted just 31.7 percent of their third downs (13 of 41) and consequently have just four touchdown drives of more than 60 yards in the past three games.

         And for that to happen, then the Cowboys must resume running the ball effectively, averaging just 2.8 yards a carry over the past four games, which just ain’t going to get it, not to mention totaling 17 carries for losses during that time span. And without a doubt, they must protect Romo better than they have over the past four games when opponents have totaled eight sacks and a ridiculously high 17 quarterback hits.

         Other than that and getting healthier … oh, and I did I mention they are losing in all probability Brian Waters (partially torn biceps) for the season and you probably don’t need to be reminded they have been without five of their top eight defensive linemen since DeMarcus Ware went down three games ago in the second quarter?

         Man, so there you are, the 2013 Cowboys halfway to … ?

         “You are what you are,” Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said on Friday, “and we’re 4-4. We’re disappointed but we’re certainly optimistic about what lies ahead of us.”

         Where there aren’t yet any of your hair follicles lying on the ground.

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