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Spagnola: Already Next Man Up For Indispensability


IRVING, Texas – This was going to be a layup, maybe the easiest Mr. Indispensable to identify in this the ninth year of awarding the distinguished designation that comes with little more than additional ammo when negotiating a new contract, right. Well, maybe.

Like only one of the previous nine winners still is on the team, that being Dez Bryant, last year's Mr. Indispensable, and we've tried hard not to have repeat winners, along with foregoing the easy way out by selecting a quarterback, who if worthy of his dollars certainly would make yearly sense.

Think about it: No DeMarcus Ware to consider. No Jason Hatcher, who after last season's career year certainly would have been a top consideration. Of course no Miles Austin, the 2010 season winner, and remember the strike-interrupted 2011 off-season went without a choice. And long gone have been the previous winners Felix Jones (2009), Terrell Owens (2008), Flozell Adams (2007), Terence Newman (2006) and the original Mr. Indispensable from 2005, Greg Ellis.

So before the Cowboys even stepped onto the field for their first OTA session back on May 27, man, I had the guy, and judging what's happened since that date, his would have been the prime choice:

Sean Lee.

Solid, without a doubt, right?

Why when you looked at the Cowboys projected front seven at that time Lee at middle linebacker had to be the most proven and talented player the Cowboys had not returning from some sort of 2013 season-ending injury. A legitimate Pro Bowl candidate who was on his way to earning that designation in 2013 before suffering the severe neck injury that ended his season in the third quarter of Game 13.

He already had won the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October and the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in the win over Philadelphia (Oct. 20). At the time, even after missing two previous games with a hamstring strain, he was leading the team in tackles (123) and interceptions (four) and tied for the lead in tackles for losses (5).

Plus, if Lee went down, who would take his place, a major consideration for being indispensable?

Well, here we are, just less than two weeks from the start of training camp and one of the Cowboys' top priorities over those 3½ weeks in Oxnard, Calif., and four preseason games is to figure out just who is the starting middle linebacker. In fact, they are so unsure of the three candidates working there in the OTAs and minicamp – veteran Justin Durant little to no experience in the middle, second-year DeVonte Holloman playing the position for the first time in the final two games last year and rookie Anthony Hitchens never having played there – they took a flier last week trading (and not much if anything) to Baltimore for the rights to fourth-year veteran Rolando McClain, who hasn't played since 2012 and since has retired and now unretired twice.

The Cowboys are virtually taking a free-look at the Raiders former middle linebacker, the eighth pick in the 2010 draft, for a minimum base of $680,000, no signing bonus and even a split contract, meaning they would owe him like roughly half if he makes the team but ends up on injured reserve. So they must find out as quickly as possible if he's in shape, if his skills haven't retarded after a year away and, maybe most of all, does he really, really want to play again. The last thing the Cowboys need to do is waste practice snaps on a guy who might up and leave again.

So again, to me, Lee would have been a no brainer.

But of course suggesting so at this time certainly would defeat the purpose and end the suspense since the team's defensive leader already has been place on injured reserve following surgery to repair that torn anterior cruciate ligament. We shall see if my initial choice was accurate once the Cowboys begin their first training camp practice on July 24.

As for now, we must forge forward, and after thinking long and hard during a vacation drive into the mountains of Colorado and revisiting the Cowboys off-season landscape I have no other choice than to renege on my long-standing exception on quarterbacks:

It's Tony Romo, hands down.

Not just because he's the quarterback, and as I've stated, could be chosen every year. And not because he's still one of the Top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL. Or because he's thrown for more than 4,000 yards four times in his career and would have thrown for that many a fifth if not for the back surgery keeping him from playing the final game of the 2013 season (3,828 yards).

But let's also consider what happens if Romo goes down. That always is a player in coming up with Mr. Indispensable. Lose the guy, and just who is taking his place? And especially this year with Romo coming off back surgery to repair that herniated disk.

Well, just 13 days before that first training camp practice in Oxnard, Calif., we're still not totally sure who is taking Romo's place. The Cowboys still believe that guy will be Kyle Orton, who comforted them the past two years as the veteran backup with extensive starting experience in the league.

Plus, in his only appearance of consequence during those two season's he did an admirable job in that final game of 2013 until getting intercepted on that final throw, trailing Philadelphia by only two, 24-22, with just 1:49 to go. I mean he had thrown for 358 yards, two touchdowns and an interception before that final-possession, drive-killing, season-ending interception.

But Orton did not attend one off-season workout this year. Not a strength and conditioning session at The Ranch, not an OTA nor any of the three mandatory minicamp practices, being assessed a fine for that one. The Cowboys insist he will report to training camp. Well, we'll see. [embedded_ad]

If he doesn't, that means the backup job will be Brandon Weeden's to lose, and face it, while he showed great improvement over the course of the off-season workouts, it's not as if he's some grizzled veteran NFL QB. He's entering just his third NFL season and remember started just two years in college before getting the starting gig in Cleveland. Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett is encouraged over Weeden's backup potential, but seems to always conclude his evaluation comments with "he just hasn't played much football."

Currently behind Weeden on the 90-man roster are Caleb Hanie and rookie free agent Dustin Vaughan.

So yeah, Romo.

 Consider this, too: Since the start of the 2006 season, when Romo broke into the starting lineup in Game 7, here is the breakdown with and without Romo starting and finishing at least half the games: With Romo the Cowboys are 63-45, winning 59 percent of their games.

Without Romo, and remarkably just 21 games considering the beatings he's taken (this includes the first six of the 2006 season he didn't start), the Cowboys are 9-12, winning just 43 percent of their games.

So no matter what you think of Romo, how good he is or how bad he's been, the Cowboys have not played .500 ball without him. And speaking of remarkable, sure hate to think where the Cowboys would have been last year without Romo, having gone 8-7 with him despite playing with the worst defense in the NFL and Cowboys history, those ribs in need of a pregame pain-killing shot in the 17-16 loss to Kansas City in Game 2 and through a back in need of eventual surgery in the 24-23 come-from-behind victory in Game 15 over Washington.

Man, losing the odds-on favorite Mr. Indispensable in the off-season is bad enough. Losing the next Mr. Indispensable after bending the rules a bit, especially knowing his backup is sort of in no-man's land at this point, would seem devastating.

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