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Spagnola: Interceptions Can't Be A Novel Concept


FROM HOME, Texas – This will be a referendum on interceptions.

Does the Dallas Cowboys historic past, with the likes of Mel Renfro, Everson Walls, Herb Adderley, Cliff Harris, Charlie Waters, Darren Woodson, et all, unfairly diminish the meager, certainly anemic present-day numbers?

Or, does this decade's interception drought unfairly glorify those good old days that, if we're being realistic, were darn good, but for sure distant memories of a franchise having turned 60 years old?

Times change, we get that. The game changes, for sure, the quarterbacks more sophisticated in the passing game. Yet, with the advent of multiple-receiver sets becoming the rage, there, too, are more passes being thrown, thus more opportunities to, as they used to cheer on the sidelines when cheerleaders wore skirts, t_ake that ball away_.

The Cowboys, though, have been basically inept at that defensively-preached concept this past decade. They have totaled no more than 10 team interceptions in six of the last eight seasons with 18 being the most (2014) over the past 10 years.

Must make Everson Walls cringe.

Why, in his 1981 rookie season, Walls set an NFL single-season rookie record and Cowboys single-season record with 11 picks, still the most to lead the league over the past 39 years, with 10 the most since, done nine times.

Why, the most interceptions the Cowboys have totaled over the past five seasons – as a team – is 10, a number that in some corners of our athletic and beauty competition means perfection.

Not in this case. Especially not for the Cowboys, since interceptions have become a novel idea.

The Cowboys finished this past season with just seven interceptions, finishing in a three-way tie for dead last in the NFL with Arizona and Detroit. The Raiders' nine were the only other team not in double figures. The Patriots led with 25. Pittsburgh had 20.

The Cowboys' last three-year total of 26 just barely beats the Patriots output this past season. And over the past five seasons, the Cowboys have totaled 41 interceptions. From 1960 through 1987, 28 seasons, 13 interceptions had been the least in a single season. Heck, the 0-11-1 Cowboys in that inaugural 1960 season had 15. And that in the three-yard-and-a-cloud-of-dust NFL era.

Geesh, only twice since 2007 have the Cowboys totaled more than 15 picks in one season, with a high of 20 in 2010.

The most egregious offenders when it comes to interceptions would be the Cowboys cornerbacks. To be polite, it's been rather pathetic. Since corner Brandon Carr led the Cowboys with all of three interceptions in 2012, no other cornerback has led the Cowboys in interceptions outright during a season, Jourdan Lewis tying safety Xavier Woods this past year with two apiece. That's it. Two!

In fact, and this is the biggest indictment of the cornerback position, no Cowboys cornerback has intercepted more than two passes since Carr's three, and you'd have to go back to 2011 to find a higher total, when Terence Newman tied for the team lead with four. And on top of all that, and not to be piling on, the last Cowboys player to total more than Jeff Heath's three interceptions in 2017 – two has been tops the last two years – would be Bruce Carter with five in 2014. A linebacker. Then Sean Lee with four in 2013. A linebacker.

The most single-season interceptions over the past 16 seasons? That distinction goes to cornerback Anthony Henry's six in 2007. And that matches the most by a Cowboys player, any position, since – now get this, and you can look it up – our Mick Shots podcast partner Walls registered nine in 1985.

In fact, after his record-setting rookie season, Walls totaled seven in the strike-shortened 1982 season (nine games), five in the strike-shortened 1987 season (12 games) and finished his 14-year career – nine seasons with the Cowboys, two-plus with the Giants and 17 more games with Cleveland – with 57 interceptions, 44 of those with the Cowboys. Those 44 with the Cowboys ranks second all-time to Renfro's 52 during the regular season.

And you're telling me the guy can't get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

Not to inundate you with numbers – probably already did – but Walls in those three seasons with 11, nine and seven interceptions, totaling 27, had more interceptions in just three seasons than all but six Cowboys players had in their entire careers, and all that accomplished before Michael Downs (34) finished his career with the Cowboys in 1988. (Renfro 52, Charlie Waters 41, Dennis Thurman 36, Cornell Green 34 and Cliff Harris 29.) Of those six guys, only Renfro and Harris are in the Hall of Fame and Cowboys Ringer of Honor.

And to think the Cowboys have drafted 36 cornerbacks since 1990.

The final two arrived this year, Stefon Diggs in the second round and Reggie Robinson in the fourth. That will make nine corners heading into training camp since Maurice Canady is a COVID-19 opt-out and for now Savion Smith is on the COVID-19 reserve list.

Teams normally keep no more than six cornerbacks, and at this point, without even a helmet coming on, the top seven would be Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Jordan Lewis, Daryl Worley, Diggs, Robinson and C.J. Goodwin, with Chris Westry and Deante Burton rounding out the field.

Of those guys, Worley has logged the most NFL starts (49), then Awuzie (36) and Brown (33). And when Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was asked about this offseason perception that Awuzie would be moving to safety, he answered very vaguely, saying, "We definitely want flexibility back there. … The players, it's so important, you have to have at least two things that you do. If you're a corner, does he have the ability to play nickel, does he have the ability to be a primary player on special teams. That's just a common thread to how our approach is building our roster.

"Yes, we definitely want – if our corners have safety ability and vice versa, or whether you can play inside or outside … we cannot have enough perimeter players."

Again, vague at best.

In other words, let's put it this way: If the Cowboys move Awuzie to safety, are you taking a starting-quality cornerback and making him a backup safety, since at this points it stands to reason Woods and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are the starting safeties? Plus, Awuzie, a three-year starter at corner, hasn't played safety since he played every spot in the secondary at Colorado: cornerback mostly, nickel back, plus strong and free safety at times, along with at a hybrid linebacker spot.

Worley is another guy who has played safety, and at least some at the NFL level with the Raiders toward the end of last year. And really, might be hard to make a position change with no offseason to speak of and no preseason, but the rookie Robinson sure has the size to play safety, 6-1, 205, known as a hard hitter and special teams player. Plus, the Cowboys will so want to take a look at last year's sixth-round pick Donovan Wilson, and veteran Darian Thompson.

And if Awuzie is not a corner, are you starting raw rookie Diggs? Lewis on the outside since he's mainly played slot corner? Brown who has played inside and out?

This all will be worth watching once the Cowboys at least move into those OTA-like workouts the end of next week.

Two more things, though.

If you like a corner with Moxie, then you will like Diggs. When asked about his goals heading into training camp, the rookie professed, "I'm trying to compete every day. That's my goal, to compete for a starting job, to compete for a starting spot. I'm trying to compete and do everything I can to compete. I'm looking forward to the season."

And then there is this the other day from third-year linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, and this should be the defense's motto, maybe a T-shirt on the way: "This year, we have to stop talking about it and start doing it. It's as simple as that. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, just taking it a week at a time and getting everyone on the same page and getting lined up so we can play fast and so we can make an impact on the field and get the ball for our offense."

There you go again, take that ball away.

And to do so more frequently, well, interceptions, at least for the Cowboys of late, would be a novel idea to pursue.