Spagnola: Defensive Questions Keep Us All Clueless

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IRVING, Texas – It's time, right? Time not only for the Dallas Cowboys to start the 2014 season, but time for every Tom, Dick and Mickey to have some preconceived opinion of who these Cowboys are, what they are and just what they will do.

Based on …

What? Preseason, with Tony Romo playing like three of 16 quarters? Same for the likes of DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant?


Based on how they finished last year? Meaning playing that final winner-take-the-East game against Philadelphia with the likes of Everette Brown, Jarius Wynn, Edgar Jones and Frank Kearse rotating on the defensive front, and also having to start rookie free agent Jeff Heath at safety, DeVonte Holloman at middle linebacker for the second time in his life and former defensive end Kyle Wilbur at strong-side linebacker?

Based on last year's defense being the worst in Cowboys' history, third worst in NFL history and needless to say ranked 32nd in the league, basically playing the final month of the season with no real replacement for Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware playing with one arm and on a bad hammy, Justin Durant, the guy who was supposed to replace Lee, also suffering a season-ending injury, no Anthony Spencer, no Jay Ratliff and Morris Claiborne with a shoulder in need of immediate surgery following the season?

Based on this defense's preseason performance, one the projected starting-11for Sunday's opener against the San Francisco 49ers at AT&T Stadium not having played one, single snap together in any of the four games the Cowboys lost?

And please, help yourself, don't base any of this on the fact the Cowboys went 0-4 in the preseason. Why, I remember back to 1986, one of those preseasons the Cowboys went winless, in fact, 0-5 that year, yet getting off to a 6-2 start, tied with the Giants for first in the NFC East and leading the league in offense until quarterback Danny White broke his wrist in Game 9 vs. the Giants, the Cowboys only winning one more with the untested Steve Pelluer taking his place.

Or 1989 when the new-regime Cowboys defeated the Houston Oilers on a last-second field goal, 30-28, to finish the first preseason under Jimmy Johnson at 3-1, and then proceeding to get coldcocked by New Orleans in the opener, 28-0, with things going downhill from there to 1-15. Or what about the 0-5 preseason of 1998 that turned into a 10-6 season, or the 3-1 preseason of 2004 in Bill Parcells' second year turning into a 6-10 regular season.

Be careful what you subscribe to.

See, the strange deal about trying to predict these 2014 Cowboys requires a flashback, taking us to July 18, five days before the Cowboys took off for training camp in Oxnard, Calif., back to my very words that day on DallasCowboys.com on what training camp would be all about:

*         Defense … defense … defense.*

*         That will be the Dallas Cowboys battle cry when they land Tuesday at Naval Air Station Point Mugu in Southern California.*

*         Defense … defense … defense.*

*         That will be the Dallas Cowboys overriding priority during their upcoming three-and-a-half week training camp stay at the River Ridge Playing Fields in Oxnard, Calif., starting with the first practice on Thursday preparing for the 2014 NFL season.*

*         And for good reason.*

Right?

And darn it, after all those OTA practices, the two minicamps, every one of those training camp practices and four preseason games, here it is, two days before the season opener and we really have no clue about this Cowboys defense. None. Not you. Not me. Not them.

The preseason suggests the Cowboys will be just as bad, if not worse on defense, and all those glaring numbers have been incessantly thrown at you, probably beating you into submission. Now, I am not suggesting this defense will be better or even good enough to absolve this offense from having to score more than 30 points a game to give the Cowboys a chance to win. Not at all.

But I am here to tell you, we just don't know.

This next point can be equally encouraging and at the same time discouraging: The Cowboys' projected defensive starting 11 will be playing all together for the first time, and first time not just in the regular season, but the first time period, including those four preseason games. No snaps all together in the spots they're presently in.

Same with this: The Cowboys will have new starters manning eight different positions from where they left off in the season finale against Philadelphia, the only holdovers being George Selvie, that is if the strong-side defensive end listed as questionable with a sprained shoulder indeed starts; cornerback Brandon Carr, who played sparingly in only two of those preseason games; and newly elected defensive co-captain safety Barry Church.

Or this: After a summer of mixing and matching at the linebacker position, the Cowboys finally have settled on Rolando McClain in the middle, Durant on the weak side and Bruce Carter on the strong side, though the threesome has yet to take one single snap in more than practice together.

Oh, and this: Rod Marinelli moves from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator, which appears will bring a much more aggressive approach, a good thing since sitting back last year absolutely did not work, even a series of backup quarterbacks all seemingly named Matt and Josh ripping them apart.

So again how would we know?

Or as Durant says, reasoning, "you want to get as many reps together as possible, but it is what it is," yet admitting when it comes to knowing exactly how this new-look, no-name defense will perform for the first time all together, "We're all going to see on Sunday."

That we will, Justin, the genesis at this point for a whole lot of high anxiety and low expectations for sure.

Just don't know.

Don't know for sure if Henry Melton can return to playing at his Pro Bowl level of 2012 with Chicago before tearing his ACL in Game 3 of last year.

Don't know for sure if McClain, after two retirements and not having played in a real game since Nov. 25, 2012, can man the middle at the level he once did in Oakland.

Just don't know if Claiborne, he, along with Melton, not having taken one preseason snap this summer, can return to the playing level he exhibited during the first few weeks of training camp, before tweaking a knee and then a shoulder.

Just don't know if Selvie was but a one-hit wonder last season.

Just don't know if the Cowboys have anyone to pressure the quarterback.

Just don't know if the Cowboys can overcome the free-agency/salary-cap losses of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, the season-ending injury to Lee and the suspension to Orlando Scandrick.

Just don't know if Tyrone Crawford, returning from last year' season-ending torn Achilles, is ready to become more than merely a shadow of himself. [embedded_ad]

Don't know if Anthony Spencer can eventually return, and same for rookie pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, both direly needed to provide a respectable pass rush in Ware's absence. [embedded_ad]

Don't really know if Sterling Moore can handle the slot in Scandrick's suspended four-game absence.

And sure don't know if the recently-signed Michael Sam can work his way from the practice squad to becoming a pass-rush specialist with a real defensive end's number on his back instead of the practice squad's 46.

That's a lot of ifs needing affirmative answers for this all to work.

If the Cowboys win a majority of these ifs, then 9-7 is not out of the question, maybe even better with this offense.

If not, if they can't even break even on those many ifs, then there will be no more than seven wins, maybe even fewer despite this projected offense's goodness.

So as you can see, this whole thing will come down to the defense going from just awful last year to at least average this year, same place we were when training camp began.

But unfortunately, we really just don't know … yet.

Thanks goodness the seeing vividly begins on Sunday.

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