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Offseason | 2023

Spagnola: Chasing Away Some Mounting Fears


FRISCO, Texas – This is a strange time of year, this dead portion, when seemingly everyone wants to know about these 2023 Cowboys.

But we know relatively nothing. Those OTA practices and minicamp workouts only give clues of where the Cowboys are thinking of lining guys up and in what order. But really nothing about talent, and for sure very little about newcomers, draft choices, other undrafted rookies and those returning from injury.

As for the quality of the team, well, most everything is based on last year, and no more than projections for this upcoming season.

And if I've heard this once over the past week, seems have heard it at least 10 times, and maybe it's not you, but there are a lot of "yous" out there seemingly scared of this Cowboys team. And not because they are worried about the kicking situation, or how the Cowboys will line up on the offensive line or just who will play left guard or who will back up Tony Pollard or if the Cowboys will be a much-improved defense against the run.

Nope. They are scared of being all-in and being let down again in the playoffs, this dark cloud hovering over this franchise entering a third decade. Eliminated in the playoffs no further than the second round in 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009. Eliminated in the playoffs no further than the second round in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Eliminated in the playoffs no further than the second round in 2021 and 2022.

So, if you are scoring from home, the Cowboys have qualified for the playoffs nine times this century but have yet to reach the NFC Championship Game, let alone make the franchise's ninth Super Bowl appearance, lastly 28 seasons ago during the 1995 one. The nine playoff appearances this century ties them for 10th most in the NFL. So better than average.

Their 198-172 record, a 53.5 winning percentage comes in at 11th in the NFL. And look, I know this counts, but that number is somewhat distorted by the disastrous entry into this century, those first three seasons (2000-02) going 5-11, 5-11, 5-11, wandering through salary cap hell while searching for a quarterback. Eliminate that 15-33 from the total record, and the Cowboys have won 57 percent of the rest of those 322 games. That would rank them tied for the seventh-best winning percentage.

Yet scared. Even by most accounts the Cowboys have the sixth best chance to win Super Bowl LVIII, their previous history, and rightfully so, setting the bar sky high, seemingly only the Super Bowl or bust mentality mattering.

Now, not trying to grab those too scared to go all in off the ledge, but listen to a little of Dak Prescott, sure the franchise quarterback always outwardly optimistic. Bet Detroit's Jared Goff is too. But Dak is a straight shooter, no Pollyanna, and when asked about the prospects of 2023 during an interview from the SMU Forum last week on KTCK 96.7 The Ticket:

"Just the weapons, additions, bringing in Brandin Cooks alone, Stephon Gilmore on the defensive side, 1,000 percent feels different," Dak began. "You are able to take two 12-win seasons over into this one and build. First time in my career I can say I felt like consecutive seasons are building, where going back to '21 we've been able to build. We built that last year and now we can build again.

"That's the best real chance you have of making it. You've got to give it knocks, you've got to see what it feels like. And us having that now, you feel a lot more comfortable. You're excited about the details, the changes that we've had on the offense and just the team.

"And I'm looking forward to (the season) with a lot of excitement."

See there, no predictions, not bragging, no signs of overconfidence. Just pragmatic.

His point being, before these two 12-5 efforts when is the last time the Cowboys qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons? Well, 2006-07. When is the last time the Cowboys put together consecutive double-digit win seasons? Well, 1995-96, going 12-4 and 10-6, making it six straight double-digit win seasons from 1991-96, including five consecutive NFC East titles, and of course the three Super Bowl titles in four of those seasons (1992-95).

Been a while, though, hasn't it.

Then there is this notion the Philadelphia Eagles have widened the gap between themselves and the Cowboys. OK, they did win two more regular season games than the Cowboys, winning the East at 14-3. But the two teams split the season series, Eagles beating the Cowboys without Dak, 26-17, in a game that was 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter at the Linc, and the Cowboys beating the Eagles without Jalen Hurts, 40-34, at AT&T Stadium that was 34-34 with 5:49 left in the fourth.

Pretty even-Steven wouldn't you say?

Then there is this I just noticed. The two teams had identical 4-2 records in the East. The Cowboys had the higher strength of victory winning percentage, .485 to .460, and a higher strength of schedule, .507 to .474.

And this here is key too. The Eagles won the same East that the Cowboys did in 2021 and received the first-round bye in 2022. Sat at home while the Cowboys, a wild-card team, had to travel to Tampa, Fla., to wipe out the NFC South champ Buccaneers, 31-14. Then in the second round, the Eagles got the 9-7-1 Giants again, beating them a third time, while the Cowboys had to travel to the other coast, San Francisco, to face the 13-4, NFC West champion Niners, and at least facing third string quarterback Brock Purdy, losing 19-12.

But in the NFC title game, Purdy injures his elbow after throwing just four passes with 6:53 left in the first quarter and couldn't throw anymore, meaning fourth quarterback Josh Johnson, signed off the street during the first week of December, comes in only to suffer a game-ending concussion on the first possession of the third quarter in a 21-7 game, meaning Purdy returns to basically hand off the rest of the way in the 31-7 Eagles victory.

So as the British like to say, "Mind the gap."

And if you believe in the black-cat jinx, remember no NFC East team has won consecutive division titles since the Eagles from 2001-04, for what that's worth. Wonder if they are fretting that in Philly.

Now we wait another 24 days until the Cowboys descend on Oxnard, Calif., for the start of training camp when we will begin to actually learn about this team. Concrete stuff, not conjecture.

But in the meantime, in the infamous words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his March of 1933 first inauguration speech of an unprecedented four terms with the country wallowing in the Great Depression, "L_et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."_

Oh my, eventually worked out exactly 90 years ago.

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