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Spagnola: High time to start seizing everything


FRISCO, Texas – It's time, sure is about time, once again finding out about these Dallas Cowboys for the franchise's 64th time.

Cowboys-Giants, 7:20 p.m. Sunday, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. Season opener. NBC prime time. An expected 82,500 blued-out capacity crowd.

Pretty delicious way to start the 2023 season and, of course, laced with the usual breath-holding anxiety. Because even though you think you know about these teams coming out of training camp, you never really know until you know.

My guess is you guys aren't much different than Jerry Jones, starting his 35th season of ownership, saying on Friday, "In a way, I can't wait. In a way, I'm just so really curious, excited about what we're going to see."

Ol' Jerry knows darn well what you guys want to see, and it's no different than what he wants to see and an entire team of coaches and players yearn to see – wishing for a team going 12-5 and 12-5 in these past two seasons to take that next step, still a hollow pit in their collective stomachs from going 1-2 in the playoffs following those first back-to-back, double-digit win seasons since 1995-96 and the first back-to-back playoff seasons since 2006-07.

For sure that next step including the third consecutive double-digit win total for the first time since, well, having to go all the way back to the glorious 1990s when the Cowboys from 1991-96 strung together wins totals of 11, 13, 12, 12, 12 and 10.

And for sure you know darn well what follows after that, starting with advancing to the NFC title game for the first time since the 1995 season and, if you dare, allowing these two words to cross your lips, the Cowboys' first Super Bowl appearance since winning those three in four years from 1992-95.

Plus, the quarterback entering his eighth season, Dak Prescott, doesn't shy away from that ultimate goal.

"I know where we want to go," Prescott said just the other day. "I keep that in the forefront of my mind, whether it's the playlist that I play on my phone to name something to remind me. I've got a lot of just little different reminders that reminds me of Vegas, reminds me of where I want to be at the end of this year.

"But at the same sense, it's about being present and capturing each day. I know there's no way I can get there unless I give each day my all, and that's more of the focus than (the Super Bowl) is. But at times, when it is tough, when you are sacrificing, when the days are long, you want (those) reminders, so I have those things placed here and there."

Realistic? Why not? To those closely observing over these three-plus decades, this might be the Cowboys' most-talented roster since the turn of the century, and the incentive to win big this season is high, from head coach Mike McCarthy to Dak to several players on the final years of their contracts.

Great expectations, all that, but the Cowboys can't get ahead of themselves. Just because they went 12-5 last year and won a first-round playoff game doesn't grandfather them back into this year's playoffs. They must earn it all over again, game by game during this 17-game season, this year with nine of those on the road and eight of those 17 against playoff teams from last year.

It don't come easy.

Can they do it, at least reach the playoffs three consecutive seasons, demonstrate some sustainability, for the first time since 1994-96?

Well, they began answering some pertinent questions facing them from the minute they set foot in Oxnard, Calif., for training camp on July 24. Like these, and the skies are mostly blue:

Would newly minted starting running back Tony Pollard be ready to start the season following his leg/ankle injury in the San Francisco playoff loss back in January and ensuing significant surgery?

Yes, Pollard is 100 percent healthy and ready to prove he can sustain the pounding a No. 1 running back must endure, something he's never been burdened with previously in college or his first four seasons in the NFL. Maybe his carries go from last year's 193 to 250 this year, but the Cowboys not wanting to do anything significantly more to potentially dimmish the threat of his speed.

Would starting right tackle Terence Steele recover in time to start the season after suffering that torn ACL in early December of last year?

Yes, Steele has. The fourth-year offensive tackle, considered one of the starting five's best run blockers, is so ready the Cowboys just rewarded him with a five-year contract.

Would the Cowboys be able to find a suitable placekicker after moving on from Brett Maher, who converted 90 percent of his field goal attempts last year, including making nine of 11 from 50-plus yards?

Though unproven at the NFL level, sure looks like they have with rookie Brandon Aubrey, the 28-year-old former soccer player who didn't take up football kicking until 2018. This guy has the leg and talent. Now he must replicate in the NFL what he did in the past two USFL seasons, kicking competitively for the first time, when making 92 percent of his field goal attempts this spring. And he'd sure like to get off to a good start Sunday night with a nation paying strict attention during his NFL debut, thus trying to become the ninth Cowboys rookie kicker to nail a field goal in an NFL debut, the last being Dan Bailey against the Jets on 9/11 of 2011 right there in MetLife Stadium.

Now then, there is this: Is the soon to be 30-year-old Brandin Cooks, in his 10th NFL season, the real deal at wide receiver?

You bet. Just what the doctor ordered, already showing signs of a guy who had 1,000 receiving yards in six of his last eight seasons, one of those two he didn't coming this past year playing for the quarterback-challenged Texans.

And this: Does cornerback Stephon Gilmore, at age 33, still have it?

Bet on this, too, yes, his acquisition solidifying a Cowboys defense destined for elite status.

Can Tyron Smith, slated to resume starting at left tackle in his 13th NFL season, remain healthy?

Well, he did roll his ankle midweek in practice, listed slightly questionable for Sunday's game, but let Jones answer this one for you: "I'd rather have him as a starter and backing him up, than not to have him. … He's worth his roster spot."

OK now, does this team have enough proven depth on the offensive line?

No, but unlikely anyone else in the NFL does either. And that depth could be tested right off the bat if the Smiths, Tyron and Tyler (tight hamstring), aren't ready for Sunday night. Tyron is being listed as questionable and Tyler doubtful. The top two choices if needed would be veteran Chuma Edoga, at either guard and/or tackle, fifth-round draft choice Asim Richards at either and guard T.J. Bass. As for a backup center, the Cowboys will have to activate one off the practice squad on game day.

What about who lines up next to Leighton Vander Esch at linebacker?

Meet Damone Clark. Might be even better in the middle than last year's pairing with Anthony Barr. Sideline to sideline, it's Damone, and he's a load filling the gaps against the run.

Just a few more, like is this defense ready to take the next step to elite?

Ask all-everything defender Micah Parsons and he'll tell you these guys are ready to join him in the "deep water." Solid across the board, with nine of 11 starters returning and Gilmore taking the place of one of the two missing.

And finally, this offense. What's the deal with McCarthy running the show and what about Dak?

Could be even better than last year's version. And look, aside from the brown out in the 19-12 second-round playoff loss to the Niners, this bunch could be, might be, even better than last year's pretty enigmatic bunch helping the Cowboys to score 467 points, matching the third highest total in franchise history, though in that extra 17th game.

And that total included five and a quarter games without Dak and 10 straight once he returned averaging 35 a game.

Put this all together, and McCarthy's theme for 2023, "carpe omnia," might be quite fitting if this team can go 13-4 and win the NFC East again and then go on beyond.

Hey, why not seize everything, right?

And it's high time to start the seizing.

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