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Spagnola: Don't Run Away From This Problem


FRISCO, Texas – Well, the Cowboys managed to do it again.

Yep, once again they have allowed one game to define their entire season. No matter what they might have done over 18 weeks of a season, no matter the record, the wins, winning two NFC East titles in three years and finishing second the other year, none of it matters.

It's all bad. All of it. Quarterbacks leads the NFL with 36 touchdown passes, but now he's not the answer. Wide receiver puts up unheard of franchise numbers, but now they need more help at wide receiver. Cornerback sets an NFL record for touchdown returns, but who remembers any of that. Pass rusher puts up a career high 14 sacks, a third consecutive season with at least 13, and now he's a problem.

Team overcomes crushing injuries, losing the likes of Trevon Diggs, Leighton Vander Esch, at times Tyron Smith, then Stephon Gilmore trying to play hurt, having to play the early part of the season without Jourdan Lewis, losing rookie linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, a third-round pick there were big plans for. As I've said, 10 Pro Bowlers, four first team All Pros.

But, by gosh, inexcusably lose that first round playoff game 48-32 to the Packers with a home path to the NFC championship game in hand, and now the frustrations boil over.

Nobody mentions the Cowboys have a cultural problem when winning 12 games a third consecutive season, but now "culture" has become a buzz word. No one mentions one word about culture when the Cowboys took the Eagles to the woodshed the second time around, beating the Birds brains out, 33-13.

Same the year before, after sending Tom Brady into retirement with a 31-14 whooping of Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs, but do the unthinkable of getting beat on the road in a short week 19-12 to San Francisco, possibly the best team in the NFC had they had at least a backup quarterback to play in the conference title game, and the team that put together a seven-game winning streak needed to be thrown out with the bathwater.

And in 2021, too. For shame losing a home playoff game to San Francisco, 23-17, and all any of this does is pile on the 28 years of history that is not fault of this current team. And especially now when there are no games to speak of. The start of free agency still two weeks away. The NFL Draft nearly two months away.

These are times warts seem to swell into headlines.

So, it's been with the Cowboys at the NFL Combine starting this week, Stephen and Jerry Jones having to answer questions more about culture and less about actual football, to the point Jerry Jones ended up on Friday having to ask rhetorically, "What is culture? What is your definition of culture?"

And then Jerry went to the nitty-gritty, a long way from the abstract and to a heart of the matter why the Cowboys this 2023 season struggled against the better competition.

"When we look at our team, we need to stop the run better and we need to be able to run the ball better," Jerry said while holding court in Indianapolis for nearly an hour. "If that's culture, then we've got a problem."

And that brought me to one of the actual football problems the Cowboys must address this offseason. Ability to run the football consistently. Effectively. Just didn't do it. In four of the five regular season loses the Cowboys failed to run for more than 97 yards. Needed Dak to run for 45 yards to surpass 100 in the playoff loss to Green Bay.

How come?

Here is another one that just struck me. Tony Pollard, the team's leading rusher with 1,005 yards, but needing 252 carries to do so, only averaged 4.0 yards per carry. This is only the 14th time in the Cowboys 64-season history the leading rusher averaged no more than 4.0 yards a carry, and one of those was in the inaugural 1960 season (3.5), one in the 1-15 season of 1989 (4.0), another in 2003 with Troy Hambrick the lead back (3.5) and the previous back in 2008 with Marion Barber (3.7).

Smoke this one in your pipe, too. The Cowboys only averaged 4.1 yards a carry as a team, and needed Dak Prescott's 242 yards rushing and KaVontae Turpin's 110 on a combined 66 carries (5.3) to reach the modest 4.1, lowest team total since 3.6 in 2012.

On top of that, the last time the Cowboys leading rusher did not score more than the six rushing touchdowns Pollard did this year goes back to 2015 when Darren McFadden led the way with just three rushing touchdowns (1,089 yards) in a season Tony Romo started just four games. Got to run the ball better, much better.

But here we go again with offseason problems. The Cowboys top two running backs in 2023, Pollard and Rico Dowdle (slashing 361 yards/4.1 avg/2 TDs) are unrestricted free agents. Who knows if they can re-sign both, either or if they even want to.

And while Jerry said when asked about Pollard, "I think Pollard played well," but went on to say this: "He's someone I would have thought looking back would have had more impact for us in the games we didn't play well in.

"But that running game is a product of not only the blocking but the complete offense."

So, while so much attention is being paid to Dak's contract, to stopping the run, to the need for cornerbacks, linebackers and bigger defensive tackles, make sure we circle the running game. Not near what it needs to be.

And that ain't culture, pal.

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