Spagnola: Cowboys Celebrate Ulterior Benefits Of 7-1 At The Halfway Point

CLEVELAND – Trying to decide what the true meaning of 7-1 really is at the halfway point of the 2016 season.

For all practical purposes, 7-1 means the Cowboys are tied with the New England Patriots for the best record in the National Football League.

Means they have a two-game edge in the NFC East on the New York Giants (5-3).

Means they have at least a two-game edge on any other team in the NFC with Seattle (4-2-1) still to play Monday night, own a 4-0 record on the road, and at 5-1, own the best record in NFC games.

All this after blasting the winless Cleveland Browns, 35-10, here on the shores of Lake Erie Sunday afternoon, the Cowboys stretching their winning streak to seven. 

To head coach Jason Garrett, when posed for some deeper meaning to 7-1, he simply says, "Being in the moment is the goal. There are going to be some things that we like and there are going to be some things that aren't so good. We have to take that same approach and get back to work as coaches tomorrow morning. The players will be back in on Tuesday."

To Dak Prescott, 7-1 means that tangibly he becomes just the second NFL rookie quarterback along with Chicago's Johnny Lujack (1948) to win seven of their first eight NFL starts. And he's the first NFL quarterback to post a 100 passer rating in six of his first eight starts. But for deeper meaning, Prescott says, "We are just having fun. I think that is the way we approach every day throughout the week. Come in, have fun but knowing it's business first and taking care of our business with the right attitude. Then come out on Sunday and just let loose."

To Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, his perspective is a tad different on this 7-1 start to the 2016 season, a huge reason being he just has a hard time getting over the bad taste of 4-12 from 2015.

"I compare it to where we were this time last year, and the confidence we now have," Jones says. "It's the difference between daylight and dark."

Between heaven on earth and you know where.

Why, last year at this time the Cowboys were 2-6, stuck in a six-game losing streak that would reach seven in Game 9, and only interrupted from stretching to nine straight with that win over Miami on Tony Romo's return from fracturing his collarbone in Game 2.

Those were the pits, and at 2-7, the only unrealistic hope left for saving the season being Romo's return would rescue the sinking ship. But that lasted only one game, as Romo fractured the collarbone again the next game four days later on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys won only one more the rest of the way.

Ugh, what an enduring nightmare.

[embeddedad0]Then there also is this tucked into 7-1: The Cowboys are winning without Romo playing – yet – and Prescott is growing leaps and bounds while the Cowboys are going about their merry way. Good for now, of course, but stupendous for the future.

"The thing I'm most happy about," Jones was saying after the game, "is I can't believe Dak is getting these reps, eight full games."

Because Jones is realistic. He can say it, Romo can say it, this stuff about the 14th-year veteran playing five more years when really, if you look at the structure of Romo's contract, the owner was hoping dearly for him to play this year and next, from a salary cap standpoint after so much of his base salaries over the past couple of years have been turned into restructured bonus money that could be prorated over the remaining years of the contract.

But Jones realizes better than most, since the Cowboys were caught flat-footed as Troy Aikman's career ended after the 2000 season and the club did not have a first-round pick in 2001, that when it comes to quarterbacks, you had better keep an eye on the future, somehow, someway.

And after last year's catastrophe, the Cowboys' eyes were wide open, to the point of considering a trade up from the second round of this year's draft back into the first round to grab a quarterback. They considered trading up in the fourth to grab a quarterback, finally taking a deep breath and drafting Prescott with their fourth-round compensatory pick.

Sometimes you get lucky.

So here is where Jones is coming from: The Cowboys are playing winning football while finding out beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have found their quarterback for the future, or as some would insist, for the present also. And Prescott is gaining the experience he couldn't dream of having gained if Romo had stayed healthy. He would have been the backup quarterback, basically running the scout team. Or worse, had the Cowboys wooed free-agent quarterback Nick Foles into the fold as the veteran backup after Kellen Moore went down, Prescott would have been buried down on the depth chart as the third guy.

And had Romo stayed healthy this year, he undoubtedly would have been the starting quarterback next year, and Prescott would have been slow-tracking the way Romo did for the first three years of his career, sitting at first behind Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson, then Vinny Testaverde and Drew Henson and then Drew Bledsoe.

Poor guy didn't throw an NFL pass until Oct. 15, 2006, the fifth game of his fourth NFL season, going 2-of-2, one for a touchdown, against the Texans. Didn't start his first game until the 55th outing of his NFL career. Had just been buying his time running scout teams at best before assuming the backup duties in 2005 and the beginning of 2006.

No reps in games, not like Prescott. He has now taken 554 snaps as a rookie, 554 more in the first eight games of his NFL career than Romo had until taking his first live rep in the third game of his fourth season.

And the way things are going, Prescott will take another 60 to 70 this coming Sunday in Pittsburgh, and maybe another 140 or more the following two games since it would seem unreasonable the Cowboys would even dream of turning to Romo for the Nov. 20 game against Baltimore and then send him out there four days later on Thanksgiving against Washington.

If that's the case, that would be 11 games of reps for Prescott, and all the practice that goes along with those 11 starts. At that point, that would match the number of starts Troy Aikman had in his rookie year, and he was the first pick in that 1989 draft. There is nothing like on-the-job-training while at the same time the boss can peer into his crystal ball.

Talk about priceless. For both.

Because who knows what might have happened if the Cowboys did not get this good a look at Prescott this season, since not many teams would commit long term to a fourth-round draft choice as their quarterback of the future without some on-field proof. Heck, the Cowboys still might have been tempted next year to use a first-round pick on a quarterback, if available. Or maybe even a second, doubling down on the future vacancy.

That's unquestionably off the board now. The Dak-mobile is fast-tracking, his numbers rather unfathomable for a rookie quarterback: Completing 165-of-248 passes (66.5%) for 2,020 yards, 12 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, with a QB rating of 104.2.

Don't know if the Cowboys have run into The Age of Aquarius, but man, let the sunshine in.

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