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Spagnola: A Tradition Of Picking Schedules Apart


FROM HOME, Texas – Under normal circumstances, and certainly there is nothing normal surrounding today's circumstances, most of us can begin planning out our lives for the year the day the NFL officially announces the season's schedule.

Like for the Cowboys, with five preseason games this year, starting with the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 6, in Canton, Ohio, we'd probably be departing for training camp in Oxnard, Calif., somewhere around July 22, and figure hanging out on the West Coast until the Cowboys return home for the third preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, sometime between Aug. 20-24 at AT&T Stadium.

We'd know we would be returning to Los Angeles for the season opener, the nationally-televised matchup with the Rams for the first NFL regular-season game to be played at the brand-spanking new SoFi Stadium.

"It's a privilege to bring those Cowboys in there to play those Rams to start things off," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said on NFL Network Thursday night during the schedule release show.

Then we traditionally look for Thanksgiving. It's Washington. Will be the 10th time the Cowboys have played the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day, third over these past five seasons, and certain to bring back stirring memories of that 1974 encounter when rookie quarterback Clint Longley took over for a concussed Roger Staubach to author a 24-23 come-from-behind victory over the Redskins on Turkey Day.

Then look for what's happening around Christmas. Good news, Christmas is on a Friday, and the NFL is sending the Vikings to New Orleans to play the Saints that day. So good the Cowboys are home Sunday, Dec. 27, against the Eagles, plus, over the previous 25 seasons, the Cowboys have lost three of the four times they've ever played a regular-season game on Christmas Day, last time, 27-26 in 2010 at Arizona.

Next, checking for how many cold-weather road games at roofless stadiums. Potentially three: At Baltimore Dec. 3, at Cincinnati Dec. 13 and at the Giants Jan. 3, which means no interruption for New Year's Eve, either.

Hey, all that is important, along with where the Cowboys will be playing night games. And of the five this year, three will be played on a coast, which makes for 4 to 5 a.m. arrivals back home, and that's Left or Right: The Rams opener, at Philly Nov. 1 and at Baltimore Dec. 3.

But as Jones said of playing the Ravens, a 14-2 team last season, "Baltimore gives us a good chance against a great team, and now if you want to sober up looking at our schedule, looking at playing them is real sobering."

But again, with COVID-19 reigning over our heads, who knows. We hope. The NFL, placing a positive foot forward, hopes. But we have to assume contingency plans for the start of the season are being made, and then more batted out for the end if there happens to be an interruption.

Just as the virtual juggling going on this offseason, the Cowboys three-day rookie minicamp starting today does so with the coaching staff hooking up the young players through streaming media, this new way to coach football.

"It's an exciting time," Mike McCarthy said on NFL Network, even if everything so far with the players has been streamed. "It's virtual. … It's been a challenge for everybody, but I've been very impressed with our coaches. We're making hay and taking the steps we need to do right now."

Funny how this one works, but you usually look for the biggest boobytrap before looking for the positive in how the games are spread out. And once again, for the fourth consecutive year, the NFL is seemingly punishing the Cowboys for playing host to the annual Thanksgiving Day game, forcing them to play three games during a 12-day span surrounding Thanksgiving.

This year the Cowboys will travel to Minnesota on Sunday, Nov. 22, then play the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day at AT&T Stadium and then once again must play the following Thursday, Dec. 3, at Baltimore before getting a 10-day break. Again, that's three games in 12 days when normally those three games are stretched over 21 days.

What happened to that notion of player safety?

Last year that three-game stretch turned a 6-4 team into a struggling 6-7 bunch, losing all three games, starting off with that physically-draining 13-9 loss at New England in a cold, pouring-down rainstorm. The team charter flight didn't get back to DFW until 1:30 a.m. Monday. By the time guys get their stuff, get home and then get to bed, it's probably 3 or 4 in the morning, and hello, got to get back to work Monday preparing for Thursday's game. So much for a day off, or more than one day of preparation for the next game.

Well, sure looked like the Cowboys ran out of gas the second half against the Bills, a crushing 26-15 loss. But no one feels sorry for you in this NFL, back at it on Sunday preparing for the Thursday game at Chicago. Lost that one, too, 31-24.

In 2018, the NFL placed a little mercy on the Cowboys having to do this three-game thing in 12 days. The Sunday game before Thanksgiving at least was an early afternoon game at Atlanta, a short charter flight back home, and then the following Thursday game after Thanksgiving was home against the Saints. Cowboys won all three, beating the Falcons, Eagles and squeaking by New Orleans, 13-10, during the midst of a five-game winning streak.

And how about this one: In 2014, the NFL had the Cowboys playing a Sunday night game at the Giants, a hard-fought game they won, 31-28, but again, with the long flight home probably didn't get to bed until 5 Monday morning. Not so shocking, they got wiped out by Philly, 33-10, on Thanksgiving and that during a 12-4 season when they beat the Eagles two and a half weeks later by 11 on the road.

So if you are looking for a bright spot in this triple-play over 12 days, at least the Sunday game before Thanksgiving is a 3:25 p.m. start at Minnesota, uh, indoors, too, and the flight home is only like two hours. And the Cowboys will be playing the Redskins, a team they already will have played earlier in the season. Easier preparation.

But after that, another trip halfway across the country to meet, of all teams, Baltimore the next Thursday.

As for those scheduling bright spots, well, the Cowboys will only play one game against a 2019 playoff team over the first seven of the season, that being at Seattle (11-5), one of just six. Also, they will not play an NFC East opponent until Game 5 against the Giants, Oct. 11, at AT&T Stadium.

"It's kind of nice not to have a division game until we can get started and find out where we are as a football team," said McCarthy, especially so since this is, uh, virtually (the other meaning) a completely new coaching staff, facing the real possibility of preparing a team without the benefit of a full offseason – again, who knows – and at this point merely hoping training camp starts on time.

Nothing comes easy in this NFL, especially when these schedule makers make the Cowboys pay a high price for playing at home on Thanksgiving Day for a 43rd consecutive season.

Ah, traditions. Some never easy to uphold.