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Spagnola: Baby Bull Just What Doctor Ordered


FRISCO, Texas – Here we go again. That's right, again.

Just when it seems we are about to bury the memory of 2020, that 6-10 season ruptured by injury after injury after injury, this kick in the backside is rearing its ugly head once again.

Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, in quiet, private moments, must scream, "Why?! Why?!"

Look, last year was about as bad as it gets. The Cowboys starting two offensive tackles, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, missing 30 of 32 possible starts. Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin missing six games and parts of two others. Travis Frederick retires, and between his two center replacements, Joe Looney and Tyler Biadasz, they missed seven games.

And worse than having an offensive line ripped apart by injuries, quarterback Dak Prescott, off to a red-hot start, is lost in the third quarter of the fifth game for the entire season, and his immediate backup, Andy Dalton, misses two more starts and part of another.

Cobra bit.

Yeah, well, here the Cowboys go again.

With expectations soaring, thanks to Dak back good as new, Smith and Collins good to go after having surgeries, Martin returning in top form and the defense showing signs of a resurgence during training camp and preseason, why within two weeks of the regular season while heading into Monday night's NFC East collision with the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium, I'll be darned, the Cowboys are battling that cobra again.

Come on, man.

Let's see, Collins is one game into his five-game suspension for, from his agent's point of view, a debatable violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy.

The best, most experienced defensive player, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, was pedaling down the practice field sideline Thursday on one of those kneel-down scooters wearing a huge rehab boot following surgery to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal of the right foot.

OK, now the third of their top three defensive ends, Dorance Armstrong, has a high ankle sprain and will miss the first of several games Monday.

Starting defensive tackle Carlos Watkins will now miss at least Monday's game, and probably more, with a sprained knee, while their other projected starting defensive tackle, Neville Gallimore, was placed on injured reserve before the season even began with a dislocated right elbow

If you are counting at home, that's now missing three-fourths of the starting defensive line, and mercifully not all four since the other starting defensive end, Randy Gregory, has returned from his one-game absence after being placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list last week.

Oh, and don't forget another starting-caliber defensive tackle, Trysten Hill, never even made it into training camp, placed on PUP following last year's surgery to repair a torn ACL, meaning he will now miss the third of a mandatory six games.

Enough already? Ha, kidding me. Absolutely not.

Michael Gallup, one of the Cowboys' top three wide receivers, will miss his second game of an expected several with a severely strained calf muscle.

Starting safety Donovan Wilson has been nursing a sore groin and appears out for this game.

The guy who was expected to be the backup swing tackle, Ty Nsekhe, was taken to the hospital last week for overnight observations after suffering an extreme case of heat exhaustion after practice a week ago Thursday and already has been ruled out for the Eagles game.

Leading wide receiver Amari Cooper has a small crack to a rib, limiting him in practice on Thursday but fully participating on Friday. Cooper insists he's playing against the Eagles, though with the aid of a flak jacket. How many snaps to be determined.

And … and … if all that were not bad enough, Martin already has missed the season opener landing on Reserve/COVID-19, and while he returned for the Chargers game, Gregory landed on Reserve/COVID-19 for that game and now starting nickel linebacker Keanu Neal is residing there for a close-contact protocol violation, leaving his status for this NFC East showdown questionable.

And, oh wait, here is another late Reserve/COVID-19 addition: On Friday, defensive end Bradlee Anae was placed on the reserve list, too. That now leaves the Cowboys down three defensive ends and three defensive tackles for this game.

Not even going to ask what's next because with this ongoing health history, next is right around the block from The Star.

Now, to McCarthy's credit, he maintains a protruding stiff jaw, but come on, there are only so many times you can get tagged on the kisser.

"There are more opportunities, you know, playing different combinations," he defiantly says.

And says Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to the roster's credit, "I've seen resiliency, our ability to use our young people. … It's consistently showing up in the first two games."

The Cowboys must pray they have not hit a point of diminishing returns, though maybe feeling fortunate having previously only lost to the Buccaneers on a walk-off field goal and beat the Chargers on one of their own.

But of all the injuries, here is where matters become most complicated this week, having to dip into their depth while becoming somewhat creative to cover their bruises:

Losing Armstrong, Anae and possibly Neal.

Can't play rookie sensation Micah Parsons in both spots at once – linebacker and defensive end – but according to him, for sure both spots during the same game.

"I think as the season goes on you might see me at linebacker for two downs, then third down as a rusher, then third down going to cover somebody," Parsons says with great confidence. "As the season goes on, you'll see me doing a lot of back and forth. It's something I can handle."

Might be something the Cowboys desperately need him to handle.

As we know, Parsons handled his 39 snaps at defensive end on Sunday against the Chargers just fine, playing the position mostly as a pass rusher for the first time since high school, adding a third position to his rookie résumé to go along with strongside linebacker in the Cowboys' 4-3 base defense and then middle linebacker in the 4-2 nickel alignment.

According to the Cowboys stats, during the first two games he has played 90 snaps, 51 in the opener at linebacker and then 39 this past Sunday at defensive end. According to this energizer bunny, that's not enough. He wants more.

Well, buckle up that chin strap youngin'. They're coming.

With Lawrence and now Armstrong and Anae out, there is a good chance the under-sized Parsons gets snaps at defensive end again, along with rookie defensive end Chauncey Golston for the first time in his NFL career. Maybe even a few go to Azur Kamara. But with the possibility of Neal missing the game – he has a chance to play since his stay on COVID-19 reserve is for a close contact – Parsons is also needed at nickel linebacker.

For competitive reasons, the Cowboys aren't saying, and no sense giving the Eagles a scouting report unless they are willing to take off those sophomoric "Beat Dallas" T-shirts they're wearing around their complex, though far less offensive than the ones long ago that the fans of the erstwhile Washington Football Team used to wear, boldly stating on the front "Dallas Sucks."

In practice this week, in the portion we get to watch at the beginning, Parsons has been with the linebackers during individual drills and then has moved over with the defensive ends. As special teams coordinator John Fassel playfully said of the kid's enthusiasm and versatility, "He thinks he can do everything. He really wants to return kickoffs. He wants to be the backup punter. Probably wants to play quarterback. He is just a really fun kid.

"I wouldn't put anything past him. (If) we put him back to return a kickoff he'd probably do a pretty damn good job."

No arguments here.

Now, it would seem reasonable that if the Cowboys line up Parsons at defensive end they might flip sides with Gregory play to play to keep him on the weakside, away from tight end double-teams in the running game. And in this game, he'll be going up against at least one upgraded offensive tackle from last week, veteran Lane Johnson since the 6-8, 365-pound behemoth Jordan Mailata isn't expected to play with a knee injury. But don't think for one minute Parsons will shrink from any challenge presented him.

Great, but then again, who better on nickel downs to possibly spy from a linebacker spot versatile Philly quarterback Jalen Hurts, not only the Eagles leading passer, of course, but also topping the club with 144 yards rushing. You either have to keep this guy in the pocket or you better have someone to run him down, and Parsons with his 4.39 speed probably can do both.

"He can run and hit like you know what," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn says with no reservations. "That's his superpower. And he's got rare speed, and physicality to do that."

Want to, too.

Parsons seemed almost offended the other day when asked if the coaches need to "pace" him during a game. Like, not asking him to do too much or too many different things. Hey, this kid, he knows only one pace – full steam ahead.

"Nah, I don't need pace," Parsons said. "When you've got a wild bull, you don't just let him pace. You let him run.

"So, you know, I'm just out there running. If I'm tired, I'll tell them I'm tired. But if I'm out there, I just want to play, go 100 percent. If I can't give 100 percent then I don't want to be out there playing."

Well, in the realm of this current injury-riddled state, the Cowboys need Parsons out there almost all the time and going full blast from wherever he might be.

Especially if they are going to "Beat Eagles."

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