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Spagnola: Better Get To Know Their Names


ARLINGTON, Texas – Maybe, just maybe, 2020 is dead and gone.

"Last year is not a very good comparable," head coach Mike McCarthy said after the Cowboys slaughtered the Philadelphia Eagles, 41-21, here on _Monday Night Football_ for a nation and 93,267 folks at AT&T Stadium raising the roof to witness.

Yep, new year.

New team.

New players.

"We are a better team," McCarthy declared, and not just based on sending the Eagles (1-2) back to Philadelphia with their fourth consecutive loss at AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys averaging 36 points in these four games.

Dallas absolutely dominated this Eagles team. And if not for that end zone fumble that Philly recovered for a touchdown, and this officiating crew having no clue Dak Prescott scored a fourth-and-a-foot touchdown on a QB sneak, actually placing the ball like an inch from the goal line for the Eagles to take over, this game very well could have been 48-14.

Like, the Cowboys were the only ones to basically stop this Cowboys offense. Even on one drive, as hard as they tried, they overcame two holding penalties totaling 20 yards to drive 65 yards, but really 85 yards, to score the touchdown to take a 20-7 lead midway through the second quarter.

But to me, this game was about more than Dak Prescott returning to the scene for the first time since Oct. 11, 2020 – when he suffered that season-ending compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle – to put up a 143.3 QB rating, fueled by three touchdown passes while completing 80 percent of his attempts. About more than Ezekiel Elliott likely shutting up all those naysayers by rushing, no, really smashing his way to 95 yards on 17 carries (5.6 average) and two touchdowns.

And this was about more than the Cowboys moving to 2-1 and into first place in the NFC East with another two home games coming up in the next two weeks.

This was about what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had to say prior to this NFC East beatdown Friday on 105.3 The Fan, pointing out he was most excited over "our ability to use young people, new people – the numbers of players we are using."

So stand down. Better get to know these guys.

Dalton Schultz, picking up where he left off last year. The tight end led the Cowboys with six catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns. And we aren't just talking these little 5-yard, turnaround deals in the end zone. We're talking a 19-yarder and a 22-yard weave, and if not for a big hit at the goal line knocking the ball loose, he would have put up a 34-yarder, too.

Travon Diggs, the second-year cornerback with not only an interception in each of the first three games, but returning this one Monday night 59 yards to the house, not to mention three other pass breakups. How rare are these picks for a Dallas corner? Not since Everson Walls in 1985 has a Cowboys player intercepted a pass in each of the first three games in a season. My gosh, that was 36 years ago. And not since 2017 had a Cowboys player (Byron Jones) returned a pick for a touchdown.

Oh, one more. Diggs' three interceptions already is the most by a Cowboys player since linebacker Bruce Carter had five in the 2014 season. And it was the most by a Cowboys cornerback since Terence Newman had four in 2011. Come on, that's 10 years ago.

How 'bout this rookie Osa Odighizuwa, the defensive tackle starting just his third NFL game in place of presumed starter Neville Gallimore (dislocated elbow). He registered four tackles, the first 1.5 sacks of his career, one tackle for loss and one QB hit.

That rookie, Micah Man. You know, Micah Parsons, once again starting at defensive end, this time in place of Dorance Armstrong (high ankle sprain), who would have been starting in place of DeMarcus Lawrence (IR, fractured fifth metatarsal). As an undersized defensive end, Parsons checks in with four tackles, a half sack, one TFL, one QB hit one deflected pass and just a pain in the Eagles backsides. Oh, and induced one holding penalty from the Eagles' veteran tackle, Lane Johnson.

Running back Tony Pollard with another 60 yards rushing on 11 carries, the one-two punch of Elliott-Pollard combining for 155 of the Cowboys 160 yards rushing.

Once again, second-year tackle Terence Steele holding down the right side of the line in place of the suspended La'el Collins, doing a good job not only of keeping the pocket clean from his side of the field but also run blocking effectively. He has become the backup swing tackle the Cowboys have been searching for the past five seasons.

Newcomer Jayron Kearse playing in the big nickel, leading the team with five more tackles and a pass breakup, giving him now 20 tackles in three games. And that before the coaches officially grade the game.

Oh, plus the Cowboys found a role for third-year backup guard Connor McGovern, coming in for the first time as a blocking tight end and also lining up at fullback, where he cleared the way for Zeke's 1-yard touchdown run.

And not to overlook the contributions of other youngsters/newcomers like Tarell Basham, Brent Urban, Demontae Kazee, Malik Hooker, Chauncey Golston, Quinton Bohanna and CeeDee Lamb – his 44-yard, acrobatic reception at the 1-yard line set up the Cowboys' opening-drive touchdown, the second time that's happened in two weeks.

And with Keanu Neal missing at linebacker and Parsons being moved to defensive end, the Cowboys relied on old hands Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith to hold down the linebacker position. The Eagles ran for just 64 yards.

Look, here is the deal: The Cowboys played this game without seven starters, Collins, Lawrence, Gallimore, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins – thus three-fourths of the presumptive starting defensive line – Neal, safety Donovan Wilson and wide receiver Michael Gallup, along with potential backup starters Armstrong and offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe.

In fact, the Cowboys played every one of those 48 active players, two of them, Golston and Nick Ralston, making their NFL debuts.

Yet despite this adversity, they won this game. Won this game decisively.

"What I'm most excited about is how young we are, how our young guys are getting opportunities. These guys are stepping up. And the vets are doing a great job playing along, so I'm hopeful this will pay dividends as we move forward," McCarthy said.

No matter the missing in action, the Cowboys still scored 41 points. And the defense, while getting a tad loose in the second half, did hold the Eagles to just 14 offensive points, meaning in the past two games the Cowboys defense – not counting that offensive turnover for a TD – has held opponents to just 31 points.

Heck, after three games last year the Cowboys were giving up 32.3 points a game, already 97 total and on the way to the franchise ignominious record-high of 473. Remember, too, only twice last year did the Cowboys hold an opponent to no more than 20 points, the Eagles the second time around to 17 and Cincinnati to just seven.

And now two more takeaways, both interceptions, with Anthony Brown picking off Jalen Hurts trying to catch the Cowboys napping with a deep ball on their third offensive play from 33 yards out. Why, that is the Cowboys' eighth takeaway and sixth interception. Why, they only had 10 picks in 16 games last year. And it's the 10th consecutive game with a takeaway.

"It's a lot different, totally different defense," Diggs says of the defense from last season. "You can take that whole year last year and just throw it away. It's a whole new defense. We've got some young guys that are ready to compete, and we are ready, too."

Music to McCarthy's ears.

Because in his world, he has buried 2020. Dead and gone. And well he should have, saying once again, "Last year's just not a very good comparable for us to really get a lot of good information out of."

Excuse me then, Mike. Just for reference, the Cowboys didn't win two consecutive games until Game 14 of last season when they went on to win three consecutive games. And now 2-1 and in first place in the NFC East, they never had a winning record at any point during 2020. The best that can be said, the Cowboys were 1-1 after two games, never again to even reach .500.

"Once again, played a lot of young guys tonight," McCarthy said. "We're getting better, we've got a lot of room to grow, and that's what's exciting."

Exciting enough to move former head coach Jimmy Johnson, while receiving his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring at halftime, to exclaim, "How 'bout them Cowboys?!"

Yeah, how 'bout it?

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