Spagnola: Complementary Is A Compliment

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IRVING, Texas – So many times these days everyone wants to deal in absolutes with a minimal amount of evidence.

Am I right?

After the first game of the season, the Cowboys, their own worst enemy in that 28-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, were being dumped on. Called the worst team in the NFL, and not just nationally, but by, well, you should have seen some of the Tweets I received. The mouths on some people.

After the second game of the season, suddenly the Cowboys were the best thing since Italian bread was brought to this country, a 26-10 victory over favored Tennessee in Nashville causing a 180. And once again these absolute conclusions were being drawn.

Why, the Cowboys have changed their image. They are a running team now. Why, the defense, now ranked 12th, 20 spots higher than last year's historically poor 32nd finish, was experiencing a renaissance. And the quarterback was being tagged as a complementary piece, even called a blasphemous bus driver.

After two games. Two games … but 1/8th of a season's body of work.

I mean, I saw DeMarco Murray's two-game rushing total of a league-leading 285 yards being factored out over a 16-game season, pointing out he is on an NFL single-season, record-setting pace. And just because the Cowboys ran the ball 43 times against Tennessee, these would be the physical, pounding Cowboys, signally a change in philosophy.

No one bothered to point out that 17 of those 43 runs came after the Cowboys went up 23-10 and then 26-10.

Man, at ease. Can we tap the breaks just a tad, maybe wait until like, well, maybe three games until coming to these hard, absolute conclusions? Good thing our legal system doesn't have such an enthusiastic rush to judgment, you know, sort of like the court of public opinion.

So there sat Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo in front of his locker on Wednesday, those red flags running up the panic pole after he took a Romo day from practice, being asked if he was no more than a complementary quarterback, as if he had been reduced to some Quincy Carter or Steve Pelluer. Even though Romo kept his composure, bet the hairs stood up on the back of his neck.

But you never would have known, Romo patiently giving a very insightful answer to the question, nearly acting as if he didn't thoroughly understand the question was solely about him:

"That's what a really good team is; everyone is complementary of each other. I'm all for going out and having games like we just had and playing the way Seattle has the last few years and just having those style of games. It makes everyone's job easier. If we continue to do that I think we'll have a great chance to be where we want to be at the end of the year."

He means:

If you run the ball effectively, as the Cowboys did against Tennessee, gaining 220 yards while averaging 5.1 a carry, you can continue to run the ball and eat up the clock.

If you are getting off the field on defense, coming up with five, three-and-out series, limiting the Titans to but two-of-10 third-down conversions, just two first-half first downs and totaling two takeaways, then you are not forced to pass, pass, pass just to keep up as they've had to far too many times over the past few years.

And then throw in a heavy dose of specials teams, your kicker (Dan Bailey) making all four field-goal attempts, raising his streak now to 26 straight, your ace (Dwayne Harris) returning a punt 15 yards and your coverage teams pinning the opposition inside the 14-yard line three times and allowing it no further than the 20 five other times, chances are you are winning the third phase, as the Cowboys did.

Meaning all three phases complementing each other, allowing each to operate efficiently not desperately.

"When you have a well-rounded team you have to be good in all three phases," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said.

Said head coach Jason Garret, "When you execute in all three phases those things complement each other. We kept the ball over 40 minutes in the game, and while that is not an objective of ours, our objective is to drive the ball, execute and score points.

"It's a nice thing to have, and the by-product is the defense stays off the field. But the other part of that time of possession thing is how well we played on third down … and then the other part of that thing is special teams."

See, there is this perception that with Emmitt Smith winning rushing title in the 1990s all the Cowboys did was pound, pound, pound. Not so. Teams would understandably stack the box to stop Emmitt. So all the Cowboys did was loosen defenses up, take advantage of Troy Aikman's Pro Football Hall of Fame talent throwing to single-covered receivers such as Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper and Jay Novacek. And when that caused defenses to back off, ah-ha, just hand the rock to Emmitt.

What a formula, right? And makes sense.

And here is what was lost in the victory over Tennessee. When the Titans pulled to 16-3 early in the third quarter, the Cowboys stuck with the run on the next possession. But with the Titans saying, no you won't, Murray ran for 3 yards, no yards and Romo was sacked on third down. Punt.

Then the Titans in three plays pulled to 16-10, and after dominating the game, in less than eight minutes the Cowboys found themselves one defensive possession away from trailing.

So what did the Cowboys do? Did they, as everyone seems to love, stick with the run?

You decide. On their 12-play, 80-yard ensuing touchdown drive, giving them a 23-10 lead, Romo completed six of nine passes for 65 of those yards. The Cowboys picked up nine more on a pass interference call. And on first-and-10 at the Tennessee 11, the Cowboys then completed two of three passes, Romo hitting Dez Bryant for the 10th time in the game on third down for the 3-yard score when facing single coverage.

Didn't hear anyone screaming why didn't they run the ball?, as was screamed from the high heavens the previous week. How come? Well, remember as Bill Parcells would say over and over, whatever works is right.

Boy, ain't that the truth. Just nice to have several alternatives that work.

Just ask John Elway, who didn't win a Super Bowl until he reached the ages of 37 and 38 … until running back Terrell Davis showed up, complementing Elway's arm those two seasons with 1,750 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns in 1997 and then 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1998.

So that brings us to Sunday, Cowboys-Rams, in St. Louis. Both teams 1-1, the Cowboys but a one-point favorite. Yet there seems to be this perception that all the Cowboys have to do is pound Murray, as they have the previous two times they've played the Rams when Murray totaled 253 and 175 yards rushing, and they'll return home 2-1.

But consider the Rams aren't the same team and don't have the same defensive coordinator. Remember the head coach is a proponent of crowding the line of scrimmage with that Bear 46 front. And if you were the Rams, what would you do facing a team coming off a 220-yard rushing performance? Play it straight or stack the line of scrimmage, forcing 'em to beat you someway else? [embedded_ad]

Sure, the Cowboys would like to run right over the Rams, and maybe they can with this much-improved, much stronger offensive line, or as Jerry Jones said, taking a liking to how the Cowboys beat up on the Titans, "Being physical, being tough." But after two games, if it were me, I wouldn't just be assuming anything, or that winning anywhere on the road against anyone will be just that easy.

Remember, this NFL stuff is a week-to-week proposition, and identities aren't forged in two weeks … or even three. What happens if this defense is really what you feared more than what has transpired over the past six quarters? What if the likely chance of not having Rolando McClain (groin) playing, and starting rookie Anthony Hitchers for the first time at middle linebacker and then Kyle Wilber for the first time at weak-side linebacker doesn't go so well?

Then what? That's why all this goes hand-in-hand, with each phase needing to complement the other to be able to do just what you want to do. If not …

Well, we've seen a whole lot of the other side of that coin.

But if so, that would be quite a compliment for your entire team.

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