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Spagnola: About To Solve The Puzzling Mystery


FRISCO, Texas – This is crazy, and maybe what is so maddening about these Dallas Cowboys, not to be confused with last year's Dallas Cowboys or the guys from 2016.

Because when this season started, there were so many questions, even after we spent nearly four weeks in training camp and watched four preseason games. There were many missing parts, and as many moving parts. Not to mention new parts not here long enough to show their true colors. And I'm not just talking players. New coaches, too.

So, I remember clear as day two days before the Sept. 9 start to the season at Carolina, this was my season-opening take:

Like, Who are these Cowboys?

Well, a funny thing has happened along the way to Charlotte, N.C., Sunday for the 3:25 p.m. season opener against the Carolina Panthers:

We still don't know for sure.

Now there is a whole bunch out there convinced they now know, that this team is trash, the coaching staff is trash and it is already time to give up on this season. Like hey, 3-5 is 3-5. Like the Cowboys should never be losing back-to-back games, which they hadn't since the first three games of last year's start to the second half of the season. Like, good gosh, the Cowboys are two games below .500, which they hadn't been since the disastrous 2015 Romo-less season, uh, 4-12 for those with short memories or newborns.

And have mercy, they even have lost to the Tennessee Titans. The Titans, now, a team they had beaten three of the last four times going back to the 2002 season and was on a three-game losing streak.

But, and I'm thinking you think a lot of the Philadelphia Eagles, the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, guess what? The Eagles are 4-4 heading into Sunday's night's game with the Cowboys at The Linc, getting no quarter for just being the defending champs. That's just one game better than the "moribund Cowboys," as one Philly columnist labeled these guys. The nerve, right? And guess what again? The Eagles lost to the Titans, too, if you are looking for some sort of consolation.

The three teams the Cowboys have beaten (Giants, Lions, Jaguars) have a combined winning percentage of .292. The four teams the Eagles have beaten (Falcons, Colts Giants and Jaguars) have a combined winning percentage of .344. Neither is anything to write home about.

And the weird thing about these Cowboys, here we are halfway through the season, and guess what:

We still don't know, like, Who are these Cowboys?

Are they the Cowboys who one week beats Jacksonville, 40-7?

Or are they the Cowboys beaten solidly, and at home at that, 28-14, by those now 4-4 Titans even coming off a bye?

Are they the team that can come from behind in the final seconds to beat Detroit, 26-24, on a last-second field goal?

Or are they the Cowboys who will hit a last-second field goal off the upright in a 20-17 loss to the Redskins and lose on an overtime field goal, 19-16, to the now 6-3 Texans?

And also, at this halfway point, suddenly that season-opening eight-point loss to Carolina, 16-8, doesn't look as bad since the Panthers are sitting 6-3 after Thursday night's shellacking administered by the Steelers (5-2-1), now going into Sunday 1½ games behind the South-leading Saints (7-1).

Want me to continue with this perplexing bunch?

Are the Cowboys the team with the No. 3-ranked defense in the NFL and the No. 2-ranked scoring defense they were after seven games, or are they the team giving up a season-high 28 points to the offensively-challenged Titans this past Monday night?

Are they the team that put 40 on the then league's No. 2-ranked defense, Jacksonville, or are they the team that limped home with just 14 points against the Titans, and now have scored no more than 17 points in the five games they've lost?

For sure, a shrugging-your-shoulders mystery.

So here is their deal, and what they must fight through starting 7:20 p.m. Sunday in the City of Brotherly Shove:

Don't let the Tennessee game define you.

"Nobody wanted to come in here 3-5," Dak Prescott said, "but we know all we can do is take what is in front of us and the day we have now."

The worst part about 3-5 is the two three-point losses, both highly winnable games that would have flipped their record.

The next worst thing about 3-5 is for the next few weeks the Cowboys will be playing without linebacker Sean Lee, without defensive tackle David Irving, without starting left guard Connor Williams, probably still without wide receiver Tavon Austin and backup linebacker Joe Thomas, without Taco Charlton (shoulder) this Sunday and for sure still without Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick.

That's an extensive list of withouts.

But if they are to climb out of this hole, and it won't be easy, though it's never over until it's over, the defense can't have another poor performance. What took place against Tennessee, giving up that season-high 28 points and allowing a season-high 11 of 14 third-down conversions, must be a mere blip on the radar.

Prior to this Tennessee game, the Cowboys were giving up just 17.7 points a game. That's winning football. But they might have been forced to dip too deep into their depth against the Titans, playing the majority of the game without Lee, then without Charlton, and totally without Irving, Thomas and Randy Gregory. No excuses. Just fact. That's encompassing the defensive co-captain and arguably three of their top five pass rushers.

Then there is the offense. The addition of Amari Cooper gives them hope. The threat of Ezekiel Elliott still is there. Rookie Michael Gallup continues to improve. Nothing wrong with Cole Beasley, and looks as if tight end Geoff Swaim (knee) might return for this game.

Now it comes down to if the Cowboys can put the worms back into the open container. And you know where I'm going by now: That offensive line must play better, but now without two starters, Frederick and then Williams for the time being. What for the better part of four seasons had been this team's great strength, now has become the team's biggest albatross. Even Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach pointed out that glaring shortcoming during a radio interview Friday morning, and all he's doing is watching from the couch.

See, there still are all those narratives out there for what's wrong with the Cowboys' offense, and you know them. The quarterback. The play caller. The head coach.

And now two more have developed. The Cowboys' running game is struggling, producing just 244 yards in their last three losses. That's just 81.3 yards a game. But a win is sandwiched in there, 206 versus Jacksonville. See what I mean, what gives?

Then also, Prescott is no longer taking care of the football, turning the ball over six times in the past four games – three interceptions and three lost fumbles.

But why is he fumbling? Because he is carrying the football like a loaf of bread as they used to say? Or is he getting hit and harassed by unblocked defenders? Why is he getting intercepted? Making bad reads? Horribly bad throws? Or is he operating under too much distress?

"I just need to know when to go and make a play," said Prescott, realizing when things are breaking down discretion is the better part of valor.

Or maybe they can use the helmet communication system to tell him just when to duck.

The Cowboys better hope for their own good new offensive line coach Marc Colombo and sidekick Hudson Houck can turn this group around, and in a hurry. Because all these offensive struggles just can't land at the feet of Dak and Zeke.

I mean, this next stuff is scarier than your worst nightmare. In the past four games Prescott has been sacked 14 times. In the last four games opponents have registered 22 tackles for losses, so many that I actually double-checked the count. And . . . and . . . Dak has been hit, hit now, 26 times while attempting to pass.

No wonder they've gone 1-3 in those four games.

Who would have blamed Dak while sitting fully dressed at his locker late Monday night just staring at the ground for an unusually prolonged period of time if he was thinking, what in the world have I gotten myself into?

OK, OK, you're supposed to laugh.

"I mean it was a tough one, I mean I don't like to lose, to be 3-5, I don't know if I ever had a record like that in my career, ever," Dak said on Thursday. "So it's not something I'm used to, it's not something I plan to ever get used to.

"So it's just about taking all that in, and I think that's what that moment was. It's about moving forward, being positive, knowing it's still the team we got, the offense we got and where we're going to go."

At this point, there are two Parcells-isms in play. Big Bill always would say you are who your record says you are. No arguments there, the Cowboys are a 3-5 team.

But he'd also say when asked where he thought his team was, "Ask me after Thanksgiving."

Well the Cowboys are three games away from A.T. – After Thanksgiving – and they must play four games in 18 days starting Sunday night at 7:20 in the Link, facing Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington and New Orleans in that span, two of those four teams leading their divisions and the other two 4-4.

So, hold your horses.

Because after those 18 days, by time the calendar turns to December, we'll definitely know just who these Cowboys are.

For sure.