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Spagnola: Don't Be Afraid To Learn This Team


FRISCO, Texas – Seems as if yesterday we were leaving for training camp in sunny Oxnard, Calif. That was July 24th. A whole 46 days ago.

That was before we knew Randy Gregory just might be Randy Gregory again. Before we knew anything about Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Before we knew who Antwaun Woods was, or more precisely, that he was even on the 90-man roster.

That was before Jaylon Smith laid a big I-told-you-so on everyone who was wondering if the middle linebacker would be any better this year than he was last year. That was before Tavon Austin impressed and Jihad Ward disappeared. That was before "Jumbo Joe" turned into Joe Looney and Cameron Fleming continues leaving us scratch our heads.

That was way before we even thought of taking (sorry, I paused to look up his first name again) Brett Maher seriously or Dan Bailey's distant look would scare the Cowboys into releasing the all-time best kicker in franchise history – second most accurate in NFL history.

And that was before we once again were in the presence of the Zeke we once knew before the 2017 season came crashing down on his enlarged pumpkin.

We just didn't know much about these 2018 Cowboys then, what with the retirement of Jason Witten, the release of Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick, and the free-agent defections of Anthony Hitchens, Brice Butler, Jonathan Cooper, Keith Smith and Kyle Wilber, along with the trade of Ryan Switzer. And then all the changes on the coaching staff to boot.

Like, Who are these Cowboys?

Well, a funny thing has happened along the way to Charlotte, N.C., Sunday for the 3:25 p.m. season opener against the Carolina Panthers:

We still don't know for sure.

Oh, we have signs. Good ones. Bad ones. Some like those when you run up on a T-intersection. Can go either way.

By now, most of us want everything perfect on our teams. No problems. All those aches and pains healed. Every concern heading into training camp turning up roses.

But you know what? This isn't Camelot. This is the NFL. Every team out there has its share of problems. We just don't know them as intimately as we know our own.

You think Philadelphia is happy Nick Foles started Thursday night instead of Carson Wentz? Or missing Alshon Jeffrey the first couple of games and having to place fellow wide receiver Mack Hollins on IR?

You think the Giants still aren't concerned about their offensive line?

You think Pittsburgh thinks, eh, no big deal Le'Veon Bell isn't here?

You think the Chargers are sloughing off the possible season-opening absence of Joey Bosa?

This is the NFL.

Sure, the Cowboys are concerned over the absence of Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick. And they'd love to have David Irving here for these first four games. Or Xavier Woods healthy enough for Sunday's season opener.

Again, it's the NFL. And don't think if Irving gets back, no matter how long it might take for Frederick to get back or when Xavier Woods gets back, maybe as early as next Sunday, that there won't be more problems to encounter.

The NFL is like playing that state fair game Whack-A-Mole. Knock one of those suckers back in the ground, and four more heads pop up.

But what you want to know, and probably need to know right now, is this:

How good are these Cowboys?

Sorry to say, your answer might not be immediate.

Remember, this is a young team. Extremely young. With Bailey gone, just two guys on the team are at least 30 years old. And how about this: Like half the players on this 53-man roster (27) are entering no more than their third NFL season. Let that sink in.

This team has a chance to grow, and right before your very eyes if you are willing to keep them wide open. Now if you want the Cowboys to march off to a 5-0 start, probably not going to happen. Think also about this: The Cowboys will have 11 new starters, although some returning starters but in different locations.

So, if you want instant gratification, you just might be highly disappointed.

But none of this means it's time to throw your arms up in resignation.

Remember a couple of things.

Start with the defense. This has the makings of one of the best the Cowboys have fielded in quite some time. Especially if Gregory continues to improve on what he's put out there already. Sean Lee is healthy. And Jaylon Smith, oh my, he is looking closer and closer to the player that should have been a top 5 pick in the 2016 draft.

That should be a good start to getting yourself geeked for this meeting with Carolina.

As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones somewhat excitedly said, "We get to see right off the bat where our defense is."

You say you have defensive tackle concerns?

Well, Maliek Collins is back ready to go. If Gregory and Taco Charlton can do their deal on the outside, Tyrone Crawford is freed up to play inside, with Antwaun Woods. Not bad. Plus, beware The Tank on the other side.

And look, I know Xavier Woods will miss the opener. But it's one game, maybe two. Jeff Heath is ballin' back there and the corners look strong, especially Chidobe Awuzie. Not every teams starts the season with a perfect lineup.

See what I mean about this defense. What's not to like.

Then there is the Zeke Factor. He's back. Boy, is he back. And all you need to remember is what the Cowboys did in those first eight games of the season last year with Zeke on the field and what happened those six games he wasn't, especially those first three when a 5-3 Cowboys team suddenly was 5-6.

I know the worries about the offensive line with Travis Frederick sidelined. And I keep hearing about how the Cowboys better keep an eye on rookie starter Connor Williams. But hey, it wasn't as if the combination of Chaz Green early and Jonathan Cooper the rest of the way was setting the earth on fire last year at left guard. And oh, let's not let any of that minimize the strength of having 77, 70 and 71.

Then there's Zeke. Oh, sorry, said that already.

Wide receiver and tight end are worth paying attention, to, but as you do, remember Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson have caught balls in this league. Michael Gallup eventually might end up starting. Yep, he's that good. And Austin is going to bring a dimension to this team that once Dak hooks up with him, this talk of eight- and nine-man fronts will be muted.

"I want to see how Dak and our receivers, our passing game, coordinates," Jones said of that still somewhat unknown.

And as for tight ends, yep, no Witten, but keep an eye on Geoff Swaim.

And don't write off the others just because they have yet to catch the NFL pass. Good reason for that. They have yet to be thrown an NFL pass.
Then there is Zeke.

OK, don't mean to be redundant, but does that not excite? Zeke and Dak back together again. The same two guys who led the Cowboys to that magical13-3 season in 2016 . . . as rookies. The same two guys who had this team 5-3 with one of the top offenses in the league at the halfway point last year.

And don't forget the Cowboys did go 9-7 through all those trials and tribulations last season.

They eventually just might be better this season. Like 10-6 for sure. And as for all this business about the Eagles dynasty? Chill. No NFC East champ has repeated since the Eagles in 2004, a 13-year chasm. And that includes those 2016 Cowboys darlings.

So, as for the 2018 Cowboys?

No matter what you think, you just don't know yet for sure.

But there are signs of goodness if you are willing to look.