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Spagnola: Having To Play With The Ones You Got

Posted Dec 20, 2013


IRVING, Texas – Strange the other day, wandering through the Cowboys locker room after practice, new faces passing by, wondering hmmm, now who is that guy? And is this guy over there on the 53 or the practice squad?

         Gotten that ridiculous out here at The Ranch.

         Sorta reminded me of that 1987 season when the NFL decided the best way to bust the players strike was to continue playing games with replacement players, otherwise known as scabs back in the day, the Cowboys importing basically an entirely new no-name team in a two-week span.

         Remember those guys: Sal Cesario, Harry Flaherty, Buzz Sawyer, Sebron Spivey, Alvin Blount, Kevin Sweeney. Couldn’t tell the players without a flip card.

         Gosh, nearly same time, 26 years later, especially on defense, catching yourself wondering, now is that guy Jarius Wynn or Corvey Irvin? Now him, gotta be Everette Brown, right? And now that guy there, maybe Frank Kearse, the newest of the new guys to play on this defensive line? And over there, is that Drake … oh, sorry, no he’s gone already, Drake Nevis. Oh, and him, I know him, that’s Martez Wilson.

         Plus, we aren’t talking end-of-the-roster dudes here. These guys are playing – having to play – significant snaps on a defense that continues to be decimated by injuries. Why, just consider this heading into Sunday’s must-win against the 3-11 Redskins at FedExField – must since the Cowboys won’t know what the Philadelphia Eagles do against Chicago in that 7:30 p.m. start: More than half the defensive starters (six) were not the projected starters heading into training camp, and it’s not as if any of ’em beat someone out for that duty.

         Oh no, we’re talking injury-induced.

         Now look, understood everyone has injuries in the NFL. Lots of them, too. But man, when you have to start playing the backups to the backups, chances are you are going to be in big trouble, as the Cowboys have been the past couple of games when the Bears and Packers scored on 13 of 20 legitimate possessions – the Packers on all five second-half possessions to erase a 26-3 halftime lead in their 37-36 victory at AT&T Stadium.

         Worse, the Cowboys were facing backup quarterbacks Josh McCown and Matt Flynn in those games, the two combining to complete 53 of 75 passes for 647 yards and eight touchdowns. Eight!

         So don’t you dare minimize the Redskins starting their backup, Kirk Cousins, but at least he’s not from East Texas as the previous two are, although he definitely understands the game’s ancillary importance to a team with the second-worst record in the NFL, astutely pointing out the other day when talking about the Washington’s on-point preparation, “ … and I expect that to carry on this week, especially because it’s the Dallas Cowboys.”

         Or some facsimile of.

         Seriously now, especially if you consider who the Cowboys were not playing with on defense at one point in the second half of that Packers game:

         Anthony Spencer.

         Jay Ratliff.

         Morris Claiborne.

         Sean Lee.

         Bruce Carter.

         Justin Durant.

         Barry Church.

         George Selvie.

         Ernie Sims.

         Tyrone Crawford.

         Ben Bass.

         Exhausting, right? And just for good measure, no Dwayne Harris or Brian Waters, either. And oh, just for good measure, as we were watching practice Friday morning, there was no Brandon Carr working for a second consecutive day, he sitting in the trainer’s office watching through the window while downing fluids. Imagine, just imagine, if he’s not out there on Sunday, although being listed as probable to play.

         Plus Sunday, there will be no Lee, Durant, Sims, Claiborne and Harris for sure, while Terrance Williams is now questionable (bruised hamstring). And even the backup defensive end Wynn, who took over for Selvie when he went out in the Green Bay game, is listed as questionable with a chest injury. Geesh.

         Someone asked me earlier this week what the Cowboys can do in like the next three days to fix their defense, a defense which since the beginning of the offseason has owned the rights at some point or another to 33 defensive linemen, 19 of whom have appeared in a game. Sort of laughed, saying, well, maybe they have someone worthy around here of laying hands on a body.

         So look, I know what you’re thinking, and I myself have said it many a time this season: OK, the defense is bad, like epically bad if you consider some of the franchise’s all-time worst numbers it already has posted, and still with two games to go, and also challenging some NFL ignominious marks. But just go out and score points – compensate with offense for what you don’t have on defense.

         How they have tried. In 14 games the Cowboys already have scored at least 27 points nine times. That seemed like a lot to me with two games to go. It was.

         Since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978, the Cowboys have scored at least 27 points in more than nine games during a season twice: 1983 they did so 12 times; 2007 they did so 11 times. In 1983, they went 11-1 in those 12 games scoring at least 27 points. In 2007, the Cowboys went 10-1.

         This year in those nine games with at least 27 points the Cowboys are 5-4, including losses in the past two outings: 45-28 to Chicago and 37-36 to Green Bay. And just to compare, the other 31 teams in this league year are 126-40 when scoring at least 27 points, winning 76 percent of the time.

         Maybe worse than all of that, the Cowboys are just 1-2 in games when scoring at least 35 points this season, while the rest of the league is 51-2. Are you kidding me?

         And in case you are now wondering, yes, I did look, and in the franchise’s previous 53 seasons in the NFL the Cowboys are 101-4-1 when scoring at least 35 points in a game. Good gosh, they have lost half as many when scoring at least 35 points in 14 games this season as they have lost during their entire history.

          Fortysomething is becoming the new Thirtysomething around here.

         Ah, but you say, it’s only the Deadskins, last in points allowed this year, yielding 31 a game, exactly what the Cowboys scored the first time around in that 31-16 win at the AT&T. But remember, Harris accounted for one of the Cowboys’ touchdowns with an 86-yard punt return and set up another at the Redskins 15 with a 90-yard kickoff return. And it was a Kyle Wilber sack, forced fumble and recovered fumble at the Washington 3 to set up a third touchdown. So not exactly an offensive juggernaut that day against the team.

         Plus, as we well know the Redskins would love nothing better than to spoil anything Cowboys, and they certainly would spoil the season rotten if they should win Sunday, ending the Cowboys’ mathematical hopes of winning the NFC East to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

         Ah, but win, and the NFC East comes down to Cowboys-Eagles next Sunday at AT&T Stadium.

         "We feel fortunate to be in a position to control our destiny,” Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo says. "Last year we obviously didn't [get it done]. We had to sit with the Washington feeling all offseason. This year it's a great feeling to know we can go out and be a better team than we were last week and be able to do what we want to do …

“Would you rather have that [Green Bay loss] be the last game of the year or would you rather have two games left to go to win the NFC East? If you don't feel good about what you can still do, then you just haven't played the game long enough. It's a positive to have games left still and have an opportunity to do what we want to do.”

         Now, if the Cowboys can just do it with what they have left to do it with.

         We’ll see. 

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