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Spagnola: Bitter reminder this journey is long


FRISCO, Texas – Oh, my gosh, optimism has been flowing over these Dallas Cowboys with Niagara Falls intensity after but two games of this 2023 season.

And for a darn good reason.

They are 2-0 for just the third time since the 2008 season.

They have beaten their first two opponents by a combined score of 70-10.

They are the NFL's No. 1 ranked defense.

The No. 1 ranked pass defense.

No. 1 in points scored.

No. 1 in fewest points allowed.

No. 1 in takeaways with seven, and thus No. 1 in turnover differential at plus-seven.

Tied for No. 1 in sacks.

And when coming to those most-popular website league survey summaries, like pinpointing each team's biggest weakness so far, and since claiming none is never an option, most have chosen to resort to scrutinizing the Cowboys' depth on the offensive line or goal-to-go efficiency.

Yep, these Cowboys have been so spectacular heading toward Game 3 on Sunday afternoon against the 0-2 Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz.. And with the 0-2 Patriots after that, there has been anticipation of a 4-0 Cowboys meeting with the expected 4-0 San Francisco 49ers in Game 5.

Yes siree, prematurely being billed as the NFC Championship preview with Super Bowl sugar plums floating overhead.

Just so much frightening low-hanging cheese out there.

Uh, until about roughly one o'clock at The Star on Thursday afternoon.

Until a typical NFL reset occurred, reminding one and all there still is 15 games to play, a long journey. And as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones likes to say, there has been a lot of wagons burned on the way out West.

Until the Cowboys watched two-time Pro Bowl and recently well-paid cornerback Trevon Diggs depart practice on crutches with a knee injury before going across the street for an MRI – and goodness knows it's never a good sign when crutches, knee and MRI are all in the same sentence.

And predictably, the Cowboys suffered their first dagger to the heart of this 2023 season when, yes, Diggs suffered a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament and has been lost for the entire season.

Ugh, creates this sort of pit in your stomach. Or as Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy called it Friday "a gut punch," knowing in just two games Diggs had recorded six tackles, one interception, one forced fumble the Cowboys recovered and three passes broken up – one of those turning into teammate DaRon Bland's interception return for a touchdown.

Why, in a moment of levity, someone asked Diggs on Wednesday, his 25th birthday, if he knew the opposing quarterback rating when throwing the ball his way, and the fourth-year corner said, "No, what is it?"

"It's one-point-zero," he's told.

"Damn," he said, eliciting laughter.

Now that four-letter word with a hyphenated "it" after is being uttered all over The Star and Cowboysland.

Just when things seemed so perfect …

Instead, now we have Micah Parsons "Xing" out:

"I am my brother's keeper!

"I got you 7! No more need to be said."

McCarthy always reminds during a season how it takes a village to persevere through an NFL season. Or the answer Bill Parcells would always caution with when asked about the quality of his teams, saying, "Check with me after Thanksgiving."

Both for good reason. These are long seasons, not a darn thing determined after but two games.

Thus, leaving Cowboys COO Stephen Jones Thursday on a San Antonio radio station to say the proverbial, "We do have good men on this roster. We can really say, 'Next man up.'"

Now, of course McCarthy doesn't want to issue a scouting report to the Cardinals, who by the way have recently put their star safety Budda Baker on injured reserve and already have starting quarterback Kyler Murray on PUP following his torn ACL from last year.

But if we are to apply some common sense and historical precedence, the Cowboys will move the current nickel corner Bland to Diggs' right cornerback spot and return Jourdan Lewis to his former starting nickel cornerback position he vacated last year when suffering that season-ending Lisfranc injury. And how fortuitous Lewis returned this past Sunday – his first game since suffering the injury while making an interception against Detroit on Oct. 23 – to play 10 snaps in the 30-10 beatdown of the Jets.

Please remember, Bland did go into the slot replacing Lewis last season and then when the Cowboys lost starting left corner Anthony Brown to a torn Achilles, Bland shifted outside, starting in place of the veteran in four games, including both in the playoffs. How fortunate to have a guy who can play cornerback outside and inside.

Speaking of fortuitous, that crucial offseason trade for Stephon Gilmore looks even better than it already had, along with that Aug. 29 trade of Kelvin Joseph, who had been playing in the slot, for Miami's outside cornerback Noah Igbinoghene. That and keeping sixth-round draft choice Eric Scott Jr. on the 53 will now represent cornerback depth on the roster. Both were game-day inactives this past Sunday, but now one of the two, if not both, will be needed on Sunday's game-day 48.

Look, this is the NFL, and if nothing else this lightening jolt will help keep these players grounded, if they hadn't been already. And for the most part didn't seem as if they were sniffing themselves after this somewhat historic start to a season with the 60-point point differential in the opening two games – the franchise's second highest, only the plus-67 points in 1968 higher. Or not having committed a turnover in the first two games for the only time in the franchise's 64-year history.

You know, on and on and on with accolades.

"You know, there's always more. You got to keep your humility and faith going. Just got to stay as grounded as you can and walk with God, man," Parsons said of the mere 2-0 start. "Stay where you're at, in the moment, and don't look too far ahead. And don't say, 'Oh, we've done this.' Just a reminder, we're 2-0 because of execution and how we prepare. That's why we are 2-0. We're not 2-0 because of anything else."

Not just Parsons' perspective.

So, Dak, what about now playing an 0-2 team?

"Hell, it's the NFL. You should never really look at records," Dak said. "You can't look at the records. For us, it's about being confident in who we are, simple as that, and understanding that we've got to grow and build on these first two games and ultimately get to 3-0."

Or you CeeDee Lamb?

"It's 2-0, man," he said. "We ain't done anything yet. Got to step on the gas, head down and got to reach the end goal."

This team might be young, but there seems to be this maturity in place. Still that sting of the past two 12-5 seasons, the Cowboys first two consecutive double-digit win seasons since six straight from 1991-96 – yep, that long ago – hanging overhead.

Not sure this team is old enough to know such history but going 1-2 in the playoffs these past two 12-win seasons is quite sobering. Unfinished business, you know. There seems to be this constant talk of the "end goal."

"When you've had good success the last couple of years and don't get to where you want to go," the veteran sage DeMarcus Lawrence said, "you don't get satisfied with 2-0."

Remember, Lawrence arrived here in 2014. He knows the sting of playoff defeats, having gone 3-5 during his now 10-year career, never advancing past the second round, including these past two years when qualifying for back-to-back playoffs in consecutive seasons. He knows there has been a lot of meat left on the bone.

He also knows 2-0 is just that, and that this season is about consistency for 18 weeks, right "Tank"?

And as if these players needed a reminder about not getting too full or too far ahead of themselves, Thursday becomes the cruel punch in the gut.

Why, it was just the other day when Diggs was saying of the defense's torrid start, "I just feel like everyone is in-tune with our plan and where we are trying to go this season. I feel like everyone is locked in on every play and taking it one play at a time. That's working for us and working in our favor."

True that.

But just like that, Diggs is now gone for the rest of the season, his words now even further prophetic.

Indeed, the journey is long.

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