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Training Camp | 2021

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Spagnola: Bigger Worries Than If Dak Is Back


FRISCO, Texas – Three preseason games down, one to go, high noon Sunday at AT&T Stadium vs. Jacksonville, giving everyone a chance to catch a live look at Jags No. 1 draft choice Trevor Lawrence, expected to start.

Cuts to 53 come down on Tuesday, Aug. 31.

And as Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said the other day, and while this was in reference to if Dak Prescott will begin the season on a pitch count or if there will be limitations on any particular passes for him to throw or if they must ease him into the games, "We're going to go play ball. What that looks like, I don't know what the expectation is . . . we're just going to go play football."

No coordinator-imposed invisible red jersey on your starting QB.

Yep, and not meaning to minimize the final preseason game, basically reserved for a bunch of young guys to make a final impression on the coaching staff, but it's nearly time to go.

Dak got in another good, 11-on-11 compete practice Friday. Real good. Deep throws. Accurate throws. Throws on the run. He'll get at least three more practices heading into the season opener Sept. 9 against Tampa Bay, with the official Game 1 week starting next Friday for that Thursday night season opener.

Maybe I'm naïve. Or a tad too optimistic. After all, when he takes the field at Raymond James Stadium, his first real-game snap will be his first since first-and-10 at the Giants 27, with 6:46 left in the third quarter on Oct. 11, 2020. Not a one the next 11 games after suffering that gruesome compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle on that play. Not a one this preseason, having strained a latissimus muscle in his right shoulder and walking off the practice field on July 28, the first day in pads at training camp.

And understood, he'll be one month and two days shy of his last snap in a year.

But guess what? Dak did not take one live preseason snap before the start of the 2020 regular season. Not a one since Jan. 3, 2021, COVID upending the entire four-game preseason. And if you remember, even with not a single preseason snap, in those first five games of last season he had completed 151 of 222 passes (64.9 percent) for 2,170 yards, 14 touchdowns, eight interceptions, and this with starting offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins playing only a combined two games and starting tight end Blake Jarwin just a portion of the season opener.

Why still, the Cowboys were averaging 32 points a game during those first five. Only problem being the defense giving up 36 points a game those first five and precisely why they were sitting there with but a 2-3 record.

Here is the other part of some professed worry out there. If the Cowboys enter this opener or the second game of the season with Dak on a pitch count, or if they need to limit the type of plays they call for fear his arm is not strong enough, then shame on them for even playing Prescott under such circumstances. And knowing Dak, guarantee you he can't – and won't – play a game wearing a leash. Incapable of caution.

Come on, he's the guy who was trying to straighten out his dislocated ankle on the field by himself before the medical folks arrived. Get real, especially now that he feels 100 percent.

As Moore must have said at least three or four times on Thursday, "We're not looking at any limitations, we're just playing ball."

Soooo, if you just need something to worry about heading into this final preseason game, here you go, at your service, three things to keep an eye on.

Start with Cooper Rush. The backup quarterback job is at stake, and he's being given a chance to prove he's the guy instead of Garrett Gilbert thanks to his performance Saturday night against Houston when he raised his hand high in the air, like don't forget about me.

And don't dismiss the possibility of Cooper winning the job if he plays well. Remember, Rush served in backup duty from 2017-2019, but never having to start a game and only asked to throw all of three passes in the five NFL games he's played. The previous coaching staff did entrust him with the backup job.

To me, giving Rush this chance to prove himself suggests the coaching staff has a bit of pause handing the backup responsibility over to Gilbert and that the Cowboys will keep a keen eye on the waiver wire come 3 p.m. Tuesday if a more experienced backup-type comes available.

Then this: Backup swing tackle. This has been an ongoing concern since Chaz Green flopped in that 2015 game in Atlanta when Tyron Smith went down. That began a revolving door at that position. In 2016 it was Emmett Cleary. In 2017 it was Cleary/Green. In 2018-19 it was Cam Fleming. Last year it was Cam Erving.

And now, well heading into this final preseason game it's TBD – To Be Determined, and that might be determined by which guy has the best game Sunday afternoon, veteran Ty Nsekhe or last year's rookie-, 14-game starter Terence Steele. The Cowboys had made an effort to fortify that position by drafting Josh Ball in the fourth round. But he's missed the past several weeks with a high ankle sprain and at this point is an unlikely candidate.

The Cowboys began camp with Nsekhe backing up at left tackle and Steele at right. But over these past two weeks, Steele has gone left and Nsekhe right, suggesting the door is open for that very vital, game-day spot, the backup needing the capability of playing either side. Then again if neither gain the confidence of the coaching staff, there is always moving Zack Martin to either tackle spot and bringing on Connor McGovern to play guard.

And then there is backup center, and that became more problematic this week with top candidate Connor Williams going on Reserve/COVID-19 Wednesday. Williams, the starting left guard, had never played center in even a preseason game until this summer. And, depending on when he gets back in the lineup, the only other on-roster alternative would be seventh-round draft choice Matt Farniok, listed as a guard during the draft but immediately moved to center, where he had one start last year for Nebraska.

Rookie free agent Braylon Jones is the only other guy on the roster with center experience, with seven center starts for Houston over the past two seasons, but he's definitely a long shot to make the 53-man roster.

Say it ain't so Joe (Looney) that you signed with the Giants during training camp and retired four days later.

Assuming Williams is healthy enough to start the season and no one with more experience lands on the waiver wire come Tuesday, he's the likely backup. His only problem trying to make the transition from guard – he was a tackle in college – are inconsistent snaps at times. Otherwise, he seems to have picked up the other parts of playing the position. But as we've seen in a couple preseason appearances, a bad snap can ruin a possession.

So bottom line on Sunday, with head coach Mike McCarthy dead set on playing the young guys and giving Rush an audition for the backup job, we should get a good look at these problem areas. Rush at quarterback. Steele and Nsekhe at tackle. And Farniok at center.

Now if all this means the Cowboys biggest worries are backup positions, maybe they are in pretty good shape heading into the season opener. But as McCarthy likes to say, just might take as many as 69 guys – the 53-man roster and 16-man practice squad – to navigate through an NFL season.

At least, though, the most important position on a football team sure appears to be in good hands. On sturdy feet and broad shoulders.

Dak be back. Wait 'til you see.

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