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Spagnola: 2020's Unprecedented Balancing Act


FIRSCO, Texas – Doggone it, we should be talking all about Cowboys Night Sunday at AT&T Stadium.

We should be talking about Aldon Smith putting on a game uniform for the first time since Nov. 15, 2015, even though this will be just a tad more than a glorified practice.

We should be talking about quarterback Dak Prescott grinning widely over his two starting offensive tackles, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, finally returning to 11-on-11 drills Friday, on the field together for the first time during camp.

We should be talking about the possibilities of that Dream Line, the Cowboys having the ability if they so desire to line up a front four of DeMarcus Lawrence, Aldon Smith, Everson Griffen and Tyrone Crawford or Dontari Poe or Trysten Hill or Neville Gallimore.

We should be talking about, if we haven't done so enough already, rookie CeeDee Lamb and his unlimited possibilities.

We should be talking about new kicker Greg Zuerlein's perfection so far in the live kicking sessions we've seen during training camp.

And we should be talking about Mike McCarthy's return to AT&T Stadium, this time not as the Green Bay head coach who won Super Bowl XLV in Arlington and had beaten the Cowboys seven of eight times since 2011, including his last two appearances inside AT&T Stadium – during that 2016 season playoff game, 34-31, on the walk-off field goal, and then the 2017 regular-season nail-bitter, 35-31.

But noooo, this is 2020, a year unlike any other most of us have lived through, no matter if we are talking 30, 40, 50 and even 60 years or 70.

My gosh, I've lived through the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, the attempt on Ronald Reagan, the killing of John Lennon, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Watts, Charles Manson, the Branch Davidians, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina.

All singular devastating events.

But nothing like this.

A worldwide pandemic paralyzing this country, the outbreak gaining speed the first of March and the death toll in the United States reaching 182,000 and counting, interrupting our everyday lives, including putting a huge pause on our sports world.

The police shooting of George Floyd on May 25, a nation erupting in wide-spread protests numbering 140, with the National Guard activated in 21 states.

Social injustice entering our everyday vocabulary.

Then, too, political unrest heightening during this election year.

Now the police shooting Jacob Blake seven times, another Black man, once again hitting the pause button on the NBA, NHL, MLB and extending into the training camps of the NFL.

And don't forget Hurricane Laura.

Good gosh, and it's not even September yet.

Have mercy on us all.

Welcome back to the NFL, Mike McCarthy.

"I think every time you turn the corner, it's something different," McCarthy said on Friday, trying to juggle getting his team ready for a Sept. 13 season opener with the emotional devastation caused by yet another police killing of a Black man this week. "I think it's really our life in general. It is more about what's going on in our society, and frankly I think if you just – if you are able to navigate and function from just doing things the right way the best you can, I think it definitely carries over to your professional life as far as getting a team ready for a football season.

"It's an understatement to say it's not been different, but at the end of the day it's what everybody is going through right now. … These are unprecedented times, so there is nothing to compare to these particular times."

So with no practice on Wednesday, instead of maybe a financial seminar for players, there was a voting seminar. Instead of talking on Thursday of training camp winding down, McCarthy spent his entire press conference talking social injustice and the effect on his players and the protests taking place in other sports, along with which NFL teams were not practicing (nine of them) and what stance the Cowboys might take.

We are talking bubbles and masks and swabs and temperature checks. Talking practice at Ford Center instead of the River Ridge Sports Complex. Talking practicing indoors instead of two fine grass fields in Oxnard, Calif., and pointing out a fungus growing on the only grass field out here being ripped up and in need of resodding. Ramping up practice to compensate for no offseason conditioning or OTAs or minicamps and the delayed start to training camp.

Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones during his Friday morning conversation on 105.3 The Fan, dealing very little with football, saying at one point, "I really want to say our hearts as an organization go out to the individuals and family members who have been affected by these disheartening times that we've all seen on television."

Or this from cornerback Anthony Brown, instead of being questioned about his potential starting role at cornerback, more than willing to explain how the Cowboys want to address the social injustice and racism being exposed by saying, "We want to use our platform because we feel we are the biggest franchise. We want to use our platform to make things better, so we're trying to come up with a solution. We don't have the solution yet, but we're working on that."

As if anyone has an overnight solution.

You know, when Jerry Jones previously was being asked about the national anthem and kneeling, he talked of "having grace" in his decisions. Used the word grace 17 times during the discussion.

Well, guarantee you, once this season begins there will be no grace period being given McCarthy, new head coach or not. New staff or not. None for these Cowboys players, either. All of these real-life high hurdles will be knocked over for wins and losses. Fans or no fans inside stadiums won't matter. There will be debates waged once games begin on if Dak is earning his $31.4 million – gamely.

No excuses, and guarantee you if some team has a COVID-19 outbreak, the NFL won't be in the business of postponements, citing the creation of now 16-member practice squads, one with no experience limitations. The NFL must answer to TV. The season does not exist in a bubble, with time on its side like these other sports. There are no doubleheaders in football.

Dak was not exaggerating when pointing out earlier that the healthiest teams will be the most successful teams.

That opener is drawing near. Two weeks from Sunday. Friday was the last early morning training camp practice for the Cowboys. By Wednesday they will be on a regular-season practice schedule. Cards will be coming out on the practice field, meaning one side of the ball or the other will be giving looks of what the Rams normally do. Except the new normal with no preseason games comes down to this everlasting refrain this year: We'll see.

This is not meant to be callous, but it's time to go. McCarthy knows that, even as he's showing compassion for his players and concentrating on their emotional well-being.

As veteran Tyron Smith said, a man of few but meaningful words, "We do pay attention to everything that's going on in the outside world, but when we come to work, we come to work."

A tough balancing act for sure for a coach, having these meaningful conversations with his players but preparing his team at the same time for a season.

"The ability to separate is important, but the actual practice was of high quality, a lot of good work there yesterday," McCarthy said of Thursday's practice with all that is swirling around. "I was pleased with the work. But when we say we had a conversation, it didn't start and end. This is a continuing conversation, and it started in the spring and now it's obviously heightened with the latest events. But we're just trying to get direction to facilitate support and make sure we're on the same page here."

With one eye on compassion and the other on a result-oriented business, where compassion does not exist.