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Spagnola: Defense Will Tell The Story At Training Camp

IRVING, Texas – Let's go, time to get this thing started.

Yep, time to load the Big Bird on Saturday and head to Oxnard, Calif., where the Dallas Cowboys will reside for the next 21 days during the franchise's 53rd training camp and mercifully where there are two fine grass practice fields with temperatures currently in the high 60s during the day and high 50s at night.

A football Camelot.

But as with any NFL team, nothing is ever perfect, and the Cowboys do not go west with their young men without, not worries, right Jason Garrett, but concerns as they begin serious preparations for the 2012 season – his second full season as head coach but only his first with a normal, unlocked offseason.

So you bet, we'll be keeping a close eye on the competition for the third wide receiver position, trying to detect just which one of about a half-dozen candidates will be that guy or if that guy even exits on the current 90-man roster loading onto Saturday's charter flight. And especially so in light of the on-going investigation into Dez Bryant's arrest for alleged domestic violence against his mother, but know he is fully expected to be on the team flight Saturday afternoon.

Much attention will be paid to the interior of the Cowboys offensive line, one suffering far too many quakes last year, quarterback Tony Romo consequently getting sacked a career-high 36 times, along with having a lung punctured and a rib fractured. Who is the starting right guard? Will Phil Costa hang onto the starting center job? The answers will come in training camp.

Then there is the health of the two top running backs: DeMarco Murray, who appears fine after season-ending ankle surgery, and Felix Jones, recently cleared to start practicing come Monday afternoon following successful postseason rotator cuff surgery.

All offseason the Cowboys were counting on first-year punter Chris Jones to handle those chores, and now with the Philadelphia Eagles financially convincing veteran Mat McBriar to take the free-agent money and punt for them, the Cowboys do so without the safety net they were hoping for all along.

And there will be other position competitions, like Bruce Carter vs. Dan Connor for the other inside linebacker spot; a three-way battle between Brodney Pool, Barry Church and the Cowboys hope a rehabbing rookie Matt Johnson (hamstring) for the starting free safety job; and likely Kenyon Coleman trying to hold off all-comers at the starting left defensive spot, which should include Marcus Spears and Sean Lissemore.

But for my money, for this particular training camp, the big story is, well, let's put it this way, it's not about if Tony Romo is an elite NFL quarterback or if the window is closing on this team or if there is more pressure to win now than ever before, which to me is laughable because there is pressure on any team with the blue star on the helmet, no matter what year it is or who the head coach or quarterback is.

No to me, the story is this:


That's right, can this Cowboys defense play consistently well through a 16-game season, and as importantly, through

four quarters, eliminating those late fades that cost this team dearly far too many times last year. And really, while many are pointing a finger right at defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, this defensive slide has been a two-year ordeal, 10 times getting nicked for at least 27 points in that preposterous 6-10 season of 2010. That defensive coordinator who just happened to be the head coach got fired.

Say what you want about your offensive concerns from last year, the interior of the offensive line, Bryant's alleged inconsistent play, injury to Miles Austin, injuries to the top two running backs, the inability to run the ball into the end zone (franchise-low five rushing touchdowns), the Cowboys still averaged 23 points a game – only 1.5 points less a game than the NFC East, er, Super Bowl champion Giants.

So to me, if a defense that gave up at least 31 points in four of the team's eight losses improves then this team improves, and so does that disappointing 8-8 record of last year which was only a tad better than the 6-10 of the previous season.

As pointed out previously, look how the Giants went on that six-game winning streak to close out their Super Bowl title march – final two regular-season games and four playoff games. They gave up an average of 14 points a contest, and that included playing four of the NFL's top 11 offenses in that span, three of the NFL's top four rated quarterbacks – Aaron Rodgers (1), Tom Brady (3) and Romo (4) – and two more in the top nine – Matt Ryan (8) and Alex Smith (9).

Only once during that span did the Giants have to score more than 20 points to win a game, and that came in a second-round matchup against the Packers high-flying, third-ranked offense. The Giants also held the league's second-ranked offense from New England to just 17 points while claiming their second Super Bowl title in five seasons.

Piece of cake, right?

Maybe some of you have forgotten or might not be old enough to remember, but the Cowboys defenses in the '90s when they were winning three Super Bowls in four seasons and going to four consecutive NFC title games were ranked, in order from 1992-95, first, 10th, first and ninth. The most points they gave up during any of those four seasons was the 291 of 1995 (18.1/game).

The NFL considers 17 points a reasonable defensive goal, meaning you should have a very good chance of winning when giving up no more than 17 points. And look it here, the Cowboys won all five games last season when giving up no more than 17 points, although I suppose we could put an asterisk on one game when they lost 19-13 to Arizona since those final six points were scored in overtime.

Remember, too, the Giants' offense only scored 19 points and just two touchdowns in the 21-17 Super Bowl victory over New England, but that was enough. And in the 20-17 NFC title victory over San Francisco, the Giants' final 10 points, including the winning field goal in overtime, were set up on fumbled punt recoveries at the 49ers' 29 and 24.

See what I mean?

So yeah, let's keep a close eye on this Cowboys defense, exactly what Jerry Jones et al did this offseason if you consider how they spent their resources. Let's see, committed $50 million over six years to cornerback Brandon Carr; $25 million over five years to safety Gerald Sensabaugh; a first- and second-round draft choice and $16 million over four years to cornerback Morris Claiborne; $8.8 million over one year to retain the rights of outside linebacker Anthony Spencer; a $2.7 million signing bonus on inside linebacker Dan Connor as a two-year insurance policy against Bruce Carter not being ready for starting duty; a third-round draft choice on defensive end Tyrone Crawford; a fourth-round draft choice on outside linebacker Kyler Wilber; a fourth-rounder on safety Matt Johnson; and a seventh-rounder on inside linebacker/special teamer Caleb McSurdy.

Not to mention bringing in new secondary coaches Jerome Henderson and Joe Baker, plus committing to Leon Lett as a paid assistant to help Brian Baker on the defensive line.

So ask me what the big story of training camp will be, and, yeah, I'm saying ... D-E-F-E-N-S-E.

You with me?

The Pacific Ocean awaits.

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