Spagnola: Great Start, But Mighty Long Way To Go


FRISCO, Texas – Great the Cowboys are 6-2 at the unofficial halfway point of 2022.

Great they are resting up on a two-game winning streak.

Great they have won six of the last seven games, and going back to 2021, then 11 of the past 14 regular-season games.

Great they have moved into second place in the NFC East.

Great they have Dak Prescott back, and are hopeful Ezekiel Elliott will be, too, once they resume next Sunday in Green Bay, with Tyron Smith on the December horizon.

And really, not to be a Debbie Downer, but there still are nine games to play, the next two games on the road, at Green Bay and at Minnesota, before returning home to AT&T Stadium for the annual Red Kettle Thanksgiving game, this one against the equally 6-2 Giants, meaning two of the next three games against teams with winning records.

And with excitement building, thought it might be a good idea to throw out the yellow caution flag when hearing all this talk outside the building about the Cowboys being capable of going 15-2, like winning the rest of their games, all this coming a long way since 0-1 and no Dak.

So thought it was a good idea to impart a little Bill Parcells wisdom at a time like this, when he prematurely would be asked for assessments of his Cowboys teams, saying, "Ask me after Thanksgiving," the elderly football sage figuring by then, "you are who you are," a greater sample to judge by.

As Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn stated after the 49-29 victory over the Bears this past Sunday, "The first chapter of the season does close," meaning 6-2 is only the first of several chapters that go into a season's book. Not the final chapter.

"The best way to have sustained success is to keep improving and find these constant improving spots," Quinn said when talking about a defense that really, until the Chicago game, hadn't experienced a hiccup. "Sometimes it's a player, might be a little bit of the scheme. … Comes down to that belief of keep pushing it higher to see where we can take it."

Now that's a good perspective.

In my book, then here are a few facets of the game the Cowboys must improve on going forward. Answers we need, maybe having a better indication of what they are capable of by 7 p.m. Nov. 24 after the Giants game.

First, can this Dak Prescott offense become consistent. It's one thing to score 42 points against the Bears. But was this a flash in the pan or are these guys capable of upping the seven-game scoring average of 19 into the upper 20s? Closer to the 31 points a game the Cowboys averaged during the 12-5 season of last year?

Certainly, scoring six offensive touchdowns against the Bears is encouraging, especially since that was just Dak's second game back after missing the previous five. And it wasn't all him, either. The Cowboys ran the ball effectively, if not electrifyingly, too. That means the offensive line must have been playing well.

Plus, at some point they will have Zeke back, possibly as early as the Green Bay game. They will add James Washington, too, maybe ready for the Minnesota game. And the Cowboys are dead serious about Smith's return, possibly by early to mid-December.

Now then, the defense, having given up just 12 touchdowns in eight games but seven of them in two games, three in the loss to the Eagles and then serious leakage against the Bears yielding four. That, more than the 240 yards rushing, is what created Quinn's ire.

When asked about giving up a season high of rushing yards to Chicago, Quinn said, "More importantly is allowing the touchdowns, probably more than anything. There's yards and that, but it comes down to touchdowns. That's what it's about to me. Top of the pile it's points allowed."

You bet, 29, a season high, the most his Cowboys defense has given up in the past 14 games, going back to the 36 the Raiders scored in overtime back on Thanksgiving of last year. But those 240 yards rushing had a lot to do with the Bears scoring four touchdowns.

Consider the Khalil Herbert's 36-yard run, finishing with 99 on 16 carries. There was his 12-yard touchdown run. Then the Bears running for 60 of the 75-yard scoring drive for their fourth touchdown. And while the 240 yards rushing was an outlier of sorts, that meant the Cowboys defense has given up at least 117 rushing yards in six of the eight games, somewhat concerning, right?

Consider also in the two losses, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia combined for 288 yards rushing.

"That's definitely something I'm hopeful we'll attack," Quinn said of shoring up their run fits.

And that is one reason the Cowboys made the trade prior to the trade season expiring, bringing in veteran defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, all 330 pounds of him, to clog up the middle and to keep offensive linemen off their linebackers in the run game.

Ranking 25th against the run, opponents averaging 135.1 yards a game, won't cut it. Plus, with this Cowboys fearsome pass rush, their 33 sacks leading the NFL – five more than San Francisco's 26 – means opposing offenses would rather run the ball in order to stay away from that pass rush.

Head coach Mike McCarthy remarked several times that if he was an offensive coordinator playing the Cowboys he'd rather run the ball than throw it. And if he senses that, you darn well know those opposing offensive coordinators know, too, that sort of pressure lending a helping hand with the Cowboys seven interceptions in eight games.

As Quinn reiterated, "Scoring is No. 1 but you want to be rock solid in every single way."

So no qualms about being 6-2, and as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said when asked if after the loss to Tampa Bay and that of Dak in the opener, would he have taken 6-2 if offered at the bye, "I would have walked to Chicago for that."

Well, the Cowboys are 6-2 on their own and we'll know a heckuva lot more about this team after the next three games, by the time evening falls on Thanksgiving.

"I think it's just like anything. You've got to know who you are," McCarthy says. "You've got to know who you are and know how they are going to come at you. I think we've done an excellent job of that because it gives us a chance to grow as we go into the third quarter of the season."

Third quarter now.

Meaning the Cowboys are only halfway there.

So, hold your horses.