Spagnola: Hitting The Pause Button While Hoping For The Best

IRVING, Texas – Well, that's that.

The Cowboys finished up their official offseason activity on Thursday here at The Ranch, holding the last of their three allowed mandatory minicamp practices with the heat index rising above 100 once again.

They are hoping that indeed was the final practice at The Ranch after nearly 31 years of practices, with the Dallas Cowboys football operation projected to move into their brand-spankin' new digs at The Star in Frisco when the team is scheduled to return from training camp in Oxnard, Calif., on Aug. 18.

Again, that's the hope, since there still is plenty of work to be done at the new facility, roughly 19 miles northwest of here, before being deemed fully operational.

And as usual this time of the NFL calendar year, and the Cowboys are no different, there is a lot of hoping going on.

Foremost, this is the time of year teams begin to hold their breath, knowing structured football activity at their facilities comes to a temporary halt, meaning nearly 2,900 players are on their own with the time of day on their hands for a good month to five weeks before camps crank up. Stuff happens.

Rest assured Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett gave the guys the speech. You just hope the guys were listening as they push pause.

So after nine OTA workouts, two minicamps, along with nearly two full months of strength and conditioning, the Cowboys certainly have many more hopes, knowing most must be realized if they are to turn the disastrous 4-12 season of a year gone by into something much more representative of the actual talent on this team or, closer to the 12-4 of 2014 before an erosion of offensive talent caused the Cowboys to score nearly 200 fewer points this past season.

They must hope cornerback Orlando Scandrick is full-go, not necessarily by the July 30 start to training camp practices, but at least by the third preseason game, which isn't until Aug. 25.

They must hope, knowing defensive end Randy Gregory will be suspended for the first four games, that fellow starting defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence's coinciding four-game suspension is cut in half since the appeal still is being considered.

They must hope defensive end Benson Mayowa, who had his right knee scoped this week to repair some loose cartilage, is ready for the start of training game and definitely for the start of the season. The restricted free agent was signed for his pass-rush upside.

They must hope third-round draft choice Maliek Collins' fractured fifth metatarsal of the right foot heals in time for the start of the season, or at least by Game 3, so that defensive line doesn't to continue to play short-handed. He initially figured to play a prominent role at defensive tackle.

They must hope linebacker Rolando McClain, who missed the entire offseason with the exception of this week's three-day minicamp, is in shape and not overly overweight, and has all his family issues resolved so he can be a full participant from the start of training camp. Of sound mind and body, McClain gives the Cowboys a unique dimension in the middle.

They must hope for the defensive return of Marinelli Magic. While the defense didn't give up that many more points or yards last year than it did in 2014, though took the brunt of blame for those 12 losses, third most in franchise history, they must somehow, some way figure out how to produce more than the franchise-low 11 takeaways, fewest in the NFL last season.

The Cowboys must hope they are able to rush for more than the measly eight touchdowns of last season, another reason why they selected Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick in the first round. And increased running room also should become a by-product of quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant being healthy and on the field together once again.

They must hope the time invested this offseason and expected to be invested during training camp and preseason in Kellen Moore pays off, that indeed he becomes a substantial backup quarterback, at least demonstrating he's a guy capable of saving a game or at least playing .500 ball if Romo goes down, unlike last year when the Cowboys went 1-11 without their starting quarterback. If he does not prove so over the next couple of months, they once again will be bringing in a veteran QB without working knowledge of the offense.

The Cowboys must hope, since they won't know for sure heading into training camp, one of these guys converting to fullback actually can play the position, either running back Rod Smith or linebacker Keith Smith, because if they can't, and they won't know for sure until the pads come on, they will find themselves scouring the likely limited free-agent alternatives at some point.

And this hope will be key: That some guys come out of the bushes to add some juice to this team. Someone like Brice Butler to add depth to that wide receiver corps. Someone like second-year veteran David Irving or fourth-round draft choice Charles Tapper or maybe even the ever-emerging – at least in shorts – first-year free agent Mike McAdoo to help upgrade an anemic pass rush, what is supposed to be defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's calling card. There has been visual evidence of the emphasis being placed on getting to the quarterback, Marinelli during that last minicamp practice screaming at no one in particular, "If they don't want to rush, get 'em out."

Hope that someone such as Lucky Whitehead, who had his moments during his rookie season, can step up his game, not only as a returner and on those jet sweeps of last season, but even more so as a receiver.

That's a lot of hoping instead of knowing just five weeks away from the start of training camp. But then you always have a whole lot of questions heading into any new season. You just hope the majority of the answers go your way . . . and that you stay healthy.

We'll see.

So as things are winding down at The Ranch over this next month, here is one last heart-felt hope, that dear friend of the franchise, Dr. Pepe Zamorano, better known as Dr. Z, has found an eternal resting place, passing away this week at the age of 82. The native of Havana, Cuba, who left his homeland in search of freedom with his family in 1961 to escape Fidel Castro's communist regime, has been one of the team's internists since back in 1972, spanning basically five decades with the team. Not only that, he was a team doctor for SMU at one time and in 1980 also joined the Dallas Mavericks medical staff.

His services were Thursday morning, and you understand what he meant to this team when the likes of Troy Aikman and Daryl Johnston and Russell Maryland and Chad Hennings pay their respects. You understand his reach when former Tom Landry starting center John Fitzgerald and wife are there, as well as former wide receiver Gordon Banks. His fellow team doctors and team trainers skipped out on practice to be there. And this just at the viewing a good hour before the mass ever began. More were to arrive.

And if you require additional evidence of the impact he made on this organization, really on so many people, just hear what Jason Garrett had to say of Dr. Z:

"A sad day for all of us. Dr. Z has been a big part of this Cowboys family for a long time. I got a chance to see him at the end of last week, and it was very emotional for me, just to walk into that room and see him. He's just a great, great man, and the impact he's had on so many people around this place, this organization – players, coaches, families , everybody – you can't even begin to describe how significant . . . how much he's made people's lives better.

"He was an amazing guy. He would walk into Valley Ranch and everybody would just, 'Hey Pepe . . . Dr. Z . . . Z how you doin.' And he had this way about him, just such a classy guy, an old-school guy. Had a great handshake, kinda grab your forearm, look you in the eye, he was always asking about your family, how everybody's doing. He did that with me, but he did that with everybody, and everybody felt like they had a really, really great relationship with him.

"Again, he made so many people's lives better over his time here. A special, special guy, we're certainly going to miss him."

So maybe our last hope this day should be that we, too, can make that kind of impact on so many people during our lives.

Salud, Pepe.

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