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Spagnola: Another Reason Why Sixteen Can Be So Sweet

IRVING, Texas – Tony Romo is a pretty black and white guy when it comes to this game of football. Seems to have very little use for pastels.

         When asked out here on Friday if he was frustrated with the offense of late so early in this 2012 season, he said matter-of-factly, "It's about winning and losing, that's what it comes down to, and all the other stuff is about getting better."

         So when the rest of us were tagging that Cowboys' 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay this past Sunday at Cowboys Stadium as "ugly," Romo was smiling, and while not trying to be a contrarian, saying, "It was a beautiful thing."

         Beautiful because the Cowboys won despite Romo getting sacked four times and harassed in the pocket countless more.

         Beautiful because the Cowboys pushed their record to 2-1, moving themselves into a three-way tie for first in the NFC East despite rushing for only 38 yards, converting just 31 percent of their 16 third-down opportunities, scoring just one touchdown now in each of the past two games and looking up to discover they rank next to last in scoring.

         Beautiful because the Cowboys managed to win their home opener despite committing nine offensive penalties and totaling 24 negative offensive plays when counting runs for zero or less yards, penalties, passes for minus yards, sacks and turnovers.

         They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in the Cowboys' case against the Buccaneers, and really for the most part these first three games of the season, beauty truly is in the eye of the defender in their case.

         As in the Cowboys defenders, who head into Monday night's game against Da Bears of Chicago at Cowboys Stadium with the No. 1-ranked defense in the National Football League, possibly budding Monsters of the State Fair of Texas Midway in their own right.

         That's right, the Cowboys are giving up an average of 250 yards a game, a far cry from the past two seasons when the defense far too many times came up butt-ugly. And again, only three games into the season but the usual culprit for these defensive lapses, the pass defense, is actually ranked second in the NFL, yielding just 137 yards a game.

         Granted, the last two games have been played against rookie quarterback Russell Wilson and a struggling Josh Freeman, although somehow, someway, Tampa Bay was able to score 34 points against the Giants the previous week. And let's not minimize holding Giants QB Eli Manning to just 213 yards passing in that opener – far less than the 332 he had been averaging the previous six times he played the Cowboys – and New York overall to just two offensive touchdowns, that against a team over those aforementioned six games that had been averaging 32.5 points an outing against the Cowboys.

         But heck, when is the last time a Cowboys defender has even whispered anything to the affect, "This is the best defense I've ever been on," as safety Gerald Sensabaugh declared this week? And he isn't one given to hyperbole.

         See, maybe Romo understood this better than most, since usually over the past several seasons if he didn't have exceptional performances, meaning putting a whole bunch of points on the board, the Cowboys rarely won. In fact, last Sunday's win was the Cowboys' first in the last seven times they scored no more than 16 points in a game.

         A rarity?

         Well, try this one on for size: Prior to that 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay, the Cowboys scored no more than 16 points 27 times since the start of the 2005 season. Guess how many they won? Four!

         Want another one? Since the start of the 2000 season, the Cowboys had scored no more than 16 points in a game 65 times. Know how many they won? Try nine, or at a 14-percent clip. Yeah, steak tartare rare.

         Let's also take into consideration the Cowboys have played these past three games without nose tackle Jay Ratliff. They have finished the past two contests without either of their starting safeties on the field, and now will be without safety Barry Church (IR, torn Achilles) for the rest of the season.

         Against Tampa Bay they were without defensive end Kenyon Coleman, and will still be without him Monday night; a sprained knee severely limited his normal backup, Marcus Spears; safety Gerald Sensabaugh (strained calf muscle) missed the Buccaneers game entirely, though will be back Monday night; and cornerback Brandon Carr ended up playing safety in nickel situations, with corner Mike Jenkins then taking his place quite ably in his first extended appearance since recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

         In fact, when Church went down against Tampa Bay, and for a short time Morris Claiborne was out with a hand injury, there the Cowboys were on the back end of their defense with Danny McCray, Mana Silva and LeQuan Lewis.

         Fact of the matter for Monday night, not too much will change, either. Neither Ratliff nor Coleman figure to be back until after the bye. Spears is pushing through his knee sprain. A strained pec has kept Anthony Spencer out of practice all week, yet he's expected to still play. DeMarcus Ware still is playing with that darn hamstring strain he suffered way back in Oxnard during camp. Church is done for the season and rookie safety Matt Johnson's campaign (back/hamstring) hasn't even begun.

         Yet, defense so far has been the lifeline to the Cowboys' 2-1 start, and who knows what might have taken place in Seattle had special teams blunders not spotted the Seahawks a 10-0 lead in the first few minutes of the game. Because remember, no matter the Seahawks scored on those two long second-half drives, the defense was responsible for only 17 points.

         So here comes Game 4 and the Bears (2-1), better known as the *Monsters of the Midway, *and judging from the previous performances of both defenses – the Bears rank sixth defensively – and offenses – the Cowboys scoring no more than one touchdown in each of the past two games and Chicago QB Jay Cutler ranking 31st in efficiency and quite possibly having an offense without running back Matt Forte (high ankle sprain) – this promises to be another one of those "ugly" games.

         Maybe first one to 20 wins.

         But at least so far, the Cowboys have been able to play that game, the defense giving up 17 to the Giants (three thanks to that interception return to the one); 20 to the Seahawks (three of those thanks to a fumbled opening kickoff) and 10 to the Bucs (seven of those set up on an interception return to the Dallas 29).

         And that my friends is a beautiful thing, especially when compared to last year when the Cowboys gave up at least 20 points nine times and barely less (19) twice, losing eight of those 11.

         Now you know why Romo thinks winning with a mere 16 points is so sweet.

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