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Spagnola: Have The Cowboys Gained Necessary Ground?


IRVING, Texas – One week away from leaving for training camp in Oxnard, Calif., and the timing couldn't be better since we've been blasted with 100-degree furnace-like days the past week.

          So what better time than now to ask the question, because for some reason there seems to be a cloud of doubt hanging over this Dallas Cowboys team as it is about to embark on the start to the 2013 season, as if going 8-8 last season was an abject failure even though 18 of the NFL's 32 teams finished with no better record and another just a game better:

         Is the current Cowboys personnel any worse than last year's, especially if we factor in by Week 17 the Cowboys starters included Dan Connor, Ernie Sims, Eric Frampton, Marcus Spears, Ryan Cook, Sean Lissemore, Brian Moorman, and on top of that, they were reduced to relying heavily on the likes of Charlie Peprah, Brady Poppinga, Michael Coe, Brian Schaeffering and Rob Callaway as they actually went 5-3 in the second half?

         The reason I ask is this, if you allow me to become a tad anal this weekend: The Cowboys were 14 inches away from finishing 10-6 – Dan Bailey's 51-yard field-goal attempt that sailed a foot wide as time ran out in the 31-29 loss at eventual Super Bowl champ Baltimore and the two inches of Dez Bryant fingertips landing out the back of the end zone in the final seconds of the 29-24 loss to New York that prevented a sweep of the Giants.

         Makes you cringe all over again at just the thought, doesn't it?

         But on the other hand, does that give you hope, even if taking into account all the ifs, ands or buts that generally can clean up a muddy scene?

         So let's do this, since the offseason seems to be littered with lists and polls – I see where on Kyle Orton is rated the No. 2 backup quarterback in the NFL, behind only Washington's Kirk Cousins, who has played in all of three NFL games and thrown a grand total of 48 NFL passes, and just two spots ahead of now Kansas City's Chase Daniel, who has yet to start an NFL game and has thrown a robust nine NFL passes. Let's first make a list of the Cowboys offseason personnel losses:

         RB Felix Jones, LB Dan Connor, DL Kenyon Coleman, DL Marcus Spears, S Gerald Sensabaugh, CB Mike Jenkins, OLB Victor Butler, NT Josh Brent, WR Kevin Ogletree, TE John Phillips and FB Lawrence Vickers, just released on Friday following offseason back surgery, but also picking up an extra $1.2 million in cap space and at this point likely meaning the Cowboys will keep four tight ends.

         Of those 11, honestly, the only guy the Cowboys would have liked back (and could have afforded) is Brent, who for obvious reasons – impending legal and league sanctions – won't be playing this year. I mean, they have now cut four of those guys – Connor, Spears, Sensabaugh and Vickers – and made little to no effort to sign the others who were free agents.

         As for the biggest losses of the bunch, I'd rank Jenkins and Brent one, two. And by the way, when it comes to Brent and everyone seemingly screaming for the Cowboys to release him since he supposedly has violated his bond by twice testing positive for THC, if that indeed is the case, then why in the world did Judge Robert Burns release him from jail this past Sunday morning if he's such a threat to society? (Hey, just asking.)

         Now then, that's the exit list. Here is a list of the most prominent additions since the start of free agency: LB Justin Durant, S Will Allen, OL Travis Frederick, TE Gavin Escobar, WR Terrance Williams, RB Joseph Randle, S J.J. Wilcox, CB B.W. Webb and LB DeVonte Holloman – so essentially replacing experience with youth. Oh, and we really should count players returning from injuries as additions to the roster, guys such as: LB Sean Lee, LB Bruce Carter, DT Jay Ratliff, S Barry Church, C Phil Costa, CB Orlando Scandrick, P Chris Jones, OG Kevin Kowalski and DT Ben Bass, none of whom played in that season finale.

         Look, of the additions, chances are three will be Day 1 starters: Frederick, Allen and Durant, and as you can see from the list of guys who finished out the season injured, six of those were starters, and Scandrick, the nickel back, might as well be considered one. Oh, and don't forget DeMarcus Ware playing with one healthy arm the final month of the season and quarterback Tony Romo through a broken rib in the season finale. This also means the Cowboys will be counting more heavily on youngsters such as Tyrone Crawford, Dwayne Harris, Kyle Wilber, Matt Johnson, Alex Albright, James Hanna and Lissemore, and watch out, maybe Ronald Leary, too.

         Now if you just have to worry, the Cowboys don't have a lot of experienced depth, unless of course for some reason guys like Durant, Allen, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau aren't starting, and there certainly is a chance of that taking place, at least during some point in the season. But maybe you counter those worries with the Cowboys roster growing younger, and that is a necessity if they are going to squeeze under the salary cap next year.

          Here are two other factors that must be considered when analyzing this team's possibilities: The change in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and sidekick Rod Marinelli taking over for Rob Ryan, and Bill Callahan becoming the principle offensive play-caller. Better or worse? To me, better on defense for sure. And really, I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about the transition to the 4-3, at least not as much as is being routinely suggested. My guess is the Cowboys were in the 4-3 when playing their nickel defense versus multiple-receiver sets at least 40 percent of the snaps last year.

         Here is another factor to consider if you want to put a smile on your face: This club has developed a very soulful, never-give-up personality over the two full years of Jason Garrett's reign, earning five fourth-quarter comeback wins last year and nine over the past two seasons. Remember, also wiping out that 23-0 deficit to the Giants last year, only to lose in the end by two fingertips.

         And while everyone is quick to bash Romo for faltering late in the Washington game last year – OK, you're right, he's not perfect – don't forget it was Romo who got this club in position to at least falter, turning a 21-10 fourth-quarter deficit into a 21-18 deficit with 3:33 left to play thanks to a touchdown strike and a two-point conversion pass.

         Also saw this stat thanks to Cold Hard Football Facts *research: *While the Cowboys are 9-10 over the past two seasons when presented with winning-drive opportunities, the Cowboys were either leading or tied in the fourth quarter in eight of the 10 losses, and that Romo's nine fourth-quarter comeback wins over the past two seasons rank second to only Eli Manning's 10. [embedded_ad]

         But because he didn't earn the 10th, because the Cowboys didn't finish better than 8-8 a second consecutive season, because the Cowboys have failed to qualify for the playoffs the past three seasons, seems few want to realistically look at what the Cowboys really have going on.

         That's OK, though. None of this offseason business filled with lists and projections and rankings that seems to have created this pervasive pessimism means a hoot. Only pay attention to what starts taking place a week from Sunday with a roster certainly no worse than what the Cowboys were playing with the final month of last season, and maybe even better.

         Hey, and possibly good enough to make up those missing 14 inches.

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