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Spagnola: Grinding Away To Sustain Success


ARLINGTON, Texas – Sometimes you've just got to grind away in this NFL for a win.

Grind against a desperate opponent just needing to win.

Grind because of shooting yourself in both feet repeatedly at times.

Grind because of playing a second game in five days when annually playing host on Thanksgiving Day.

And grind through illness, missing three prominent players out with the flu bug, and several more who played through that bug, having missed practices early in the week, the spreading infection so bad Zoom calls already will be back in order next week.

But no matter what, Dak Prescott intercepted twice, the offense failing to pick up a fourth-and-1 in its own territory, the team committing a season-high 13 penalties and trailing 13-7 at halftime, this is the only thing relevant on this Thanksgiving Day at AT&T Stadium:

Cowboys 28, Giants 20, and really it was not even that close, a garbage-time touchdown and two gifted field goals leaving the Cowboys needing to recover an onside kick with eight seconds left to seal the victory.

"It was a win. It was a win against a division opponent, and sometimes all that matters is the win," Dak said knowingly. "Ugly first half, sure, but the defense gave us a chance. What, 13-7 the first half, right? Yeah, to just hold them to that, allowing us to have some mistakes, to have some troubles, but to continue to be there for us, have each other's back, complimentary football in that sense."

Here are the next most important numbers.

Eight and three. That's the Cowboys' record, having won four of their past five games with Dak back in the saddle and now in sole possession of second place in the NFC East, the Giants at 7-4 and technically two games behind the Cowboys, having lost both matchups to them and winless in division games (0-2) while the Cowboys are 3-1 in the division with six games overall to play – the next two at home against the Colts and Texans.

And think about how close the Cowboys are to being just one game behind the NFC-leading Eagles (9-1) facing the Packers Sunday night in Philadelphia, blowing that 14-point second half 28-14 lead to Green Bay, losing by three in overtime.

And the apple pie of this Thanksgiving feast is not having to play another game for 10 days, and right here where 93,568 folks Thursday continued a season of homefield advantage, rising to a fevered pitch and possibly incurring sore arms from all that towel waving.

There just might be something brewing, the Cowboys 20-8 under head coach Mike McCarthy since the start of the 2021 season, with the Eagles close behind during that same time period at 18-9.

"I feel real good where we are," said McCarthy, who subscribes to the theory of needing 11 wins to assure yourself of a playoff spot. "I think the one thing you do know here in this league, there's so much football that's left. I think to the earlier question about Green Bay, Minnesota and then here, the disappointment of not winning definitely is gut wrenching, but you do know in one week's time or in seven days or 11 days you know things can flip pretty quickly.

"There's a lot of football to be played. The nice part about where we are is you know we control our own destiny."

Especially when it comes to the A.T. part of the season: After Thanksgiving.

Darn right. Just go ask Bill Parcells, the architect of the philosophy that you are who you are once reaching Thanksgiving. Well, here we are, the Cowboys having won those four games of the past five since Dak returned from his thumb surgery.

This is an offense that can erupt at any moment, evidenced by outscoring the Giants 21-7 in the second half, and a team having averaged 33.8 points since Dak has returned, 24 the fewest and that was in his first game back but scoring 18 in the second half.

This is a team that can run the ball. Go ask the Giants, the Cowboys, uh, stuffing 169 yards down their throats, and this time it was Ezekiel Elliott leading the way with a season high 92 yards, averaging 5.8 a carry and scoring one touchdown. Too bad the TD came in the second quarter, otherwise that might have been him celebrating by jumping in The Salvation Army Red Kettle. (More on that in a bit.)

The Cowboys have now rushed for more than 100 yards in nine of 10 games, six of those at least 150 yards and four in the past four games. Plus, who you going to stall? Zeke or Tony Pollard, who leads the team with 761 rushing yards.

Then there is Prescott. Despite those two picks Thursday afternoon, he threw for 261 yards and two touchdowns, four consecutive games now with at least 250 yards passing and totaling nine touchdowns.

Is he throwing to CeeDee Lamb, six for 106 in this game, to go with the 11 for 150 and two TDs against Green Bay, so two 100-yarders in three games? Or now to the emerging Michael Gallup, big in the first half, finishing with five catches for 63 yards, giving him 16 catches in the past four games for 188 yards? Maybe even toss a few to Pollard, exploding for six for 109 and two touchdowns this past Sunday at Minnesota?

Or now these tight ends? Kellen Moore and McCarthy exhibited here Thursday just why they've had four tight ends active for the past five games. Why, against the Giants the tight ends – Dalton Schultz and Jake Ferguson – put up seven catches for 88 yards, two of Schultz' grabs going for touchdowns. And then there was rookie Peyton Hendershot and the end-round 2-yard touchdown with all four (including Sean McKeon) spread out on the line of scrimmage to give the Cowboys that commanding 28-13 lead with 8:53 to play.

That also led to some comedic relief and free pub (we think) for The Salvation Army's Red Kettle Christmas fund-raising campaign, when three of those guys – Schultz, Ferguson and McKeon – stuffed themselves into the Red Kettle behind the end zone, Hendershot earning the honor of playing Whack-A-Mole with the other three alternately bobbing their heads up out of the Kettle and Hendershot popping Ferguson over his helmet with the TD ball to knock him back down.

No penalty this time, though if the No Fun League fines all four as they did Zeke his rookie year, Dak stepped up to say, "The guys told me about it earlier in the week. They were worried about getting fined or getting a penalty. We said make sure you are up two touchdowns. We have a couple of guys who can help with the fines, so go for it.

"We've got to continue to get them involved."

And with all these guys involved, the Cowboys put up another 400-yard offensive performance, their fourth straight since Dak's return – 442, 421, 458 and now 430 – despite those early drive-killing interceptions, the fourth-down failure and eight of the 13 penalties the Cowboys suffered for minus-55 yards, plus minus the 18 yards they would have gained – five false starts and three holds – no telling how many yards they might have totaled.

"We got off of our own feet," Dak said of the second-half difference. "We stopped stepping on our own toes and making self-inflicted mistakes. We didn't turn the ball over and were able to get in that rhythm. Our standard and expectation, of scoring on almost every drive, except the last one and then going out there and kneeling is what we are capable of doing when we are high in our focus, executing between the whistle and just finishing. That is our standard and that's what we are going to hold each other to. And when we are not doing that in the first half, it's tough."

Well, the Cowboys did score on their first seven possessions this past Sunday against the Vikings, piling up 37 points. And in this one, they scored on their first three possessions of the second half and would have been four straight if not for Brett Maher missing a 46-yard field goal, his first miss of the season less than 59 yards and third overall.

And even with all this offensive output, a big deal continues to be made of the Cowboys going after free-agent wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and it's been reported the Cowboys want to talk with him on Dec. 5, the Monday after the Colts game. But even at that, how much would the Cowboys be willing to pay if Beckham needs a two week ramp up, meaning at the most there would be four regular-season games remaining. Then there is chemistry this offense is building by the quarter to consider.

And when Dak was asked about if he would continue to recruit OBJ from afar after Jerry Jones said he had spoken to Beckham, he hesitated, before saying, "Uh, he talked to him today? He's not stopping, which is good," then hesitating again, wanting to make sure this OBJ talk doesn't belittle what the Cowboys already have established offensively.

"I'm sure Jerry did a good job of it … but I'm confident in the guys we have, and I'm sure it would help us. We have some great players in that locker room."

So here the Cowboys are, with the exception of that second-half slip up against the Packers, this team is playing consistent football, offense, defense and special teams, basically answering Zeke's call this week for "sustainable" performances the rest of the way.

And for sure, even after the slow start, the Cowboys were quite _sustainable_ here Thanksgiving Day.

"As I told you all earlier in the week, it doesn't matter who says anything about what they believe in, I know what this team is capable of, especially with this defense that we have," Dak said of that group holding the Giants to 300 yards, and but 140 in the second half, considering 87 of those 300 yards came on three of the Giants' 59 plays.

"We've just got to continue to keep our heads down and take it one day at a time, one game at a time. As I said, we control everything we have right in front of us."

And just keep grinding away.

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