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Spagnola: Is This Really As Good As It's Going To Get

IRVING, Texas – Some eight years ago we all received this Football 401 lecture from Professor Bill, at least giving some of us credit for having passed the lower level courses after all these years.

During his four-year reign as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Bill Parcells' teams would get off to 5-2, 3-4, 4-3 and 4-3 starts, causing most everyone to eagerly want to know in each of those seasons if the Cowboys were a playoff-caliber team.

And each year Parcells would deliver the same lecture, cautioning over premature speculation, insisting a seven-game body of work lacked sufficient evidence.

Then, right on cue, as if some sort of edict coming down from on high scribbled on stone tablets, he would bark, "Check with me after Thanksgiving. By then you are what you are."

Well, in this 2012 season of NFL football, the 53rd for your Dallas Cowboys, this just happens to be the day after Thanksgiving, and out here at The Ranch, Black Friday has more to do with the deafening silence following Thursday's colossal failure than anything to do with gigantic sales.

And if we are to be black and white, though seasons are always loaded with pastels, here is what the Cowboys are:

  • 5-6.
  • Tied with the Washington Redskins for second place in the NFC East.
  • 1.5 games behind the division-leading New York Giants, who must play the 7-3 Green Bay Packers this Sunday night, trying with all of their might to break a two-game losing streak that only Dez Bryant's fingertips prevented from being three.
  • Possibly just one game behind the Giants in the East if the Packers should win, or two games back with five games remaining if the Giants prevail.
  • And once again facing a must-win situation next Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium against the Philadelphia Eagles, the second time in one month they have plummeted into this same pickle against the very same team.

Soooo, Prof. Bill, with 69 percent of the precincts reporting this day after the Thanksgiving line of demarcation in the 16-game schedule, your Dallas Cowboys indeed are who their record says they are:

A maddeningly inconsistent team. One capable of winning two of the first three games, losing four of the next five games, winning consecutive games for the first time since last November and then laying a big fat egg to the erstwhile 4-6 Redskins with 90,000 crowded into Cowboys Stadium thoroughly convinced the team would stretch their all-time record over their hated rivals on Thanksgiving Day to 7-0.

Instead, in a historically dastardly performance, the Cowboys get skinned alive by Texas' prodigal son, RGIII (and with his holiday performance on national television there really is no need any longer to make reference to the former Baylor quarterback's lengthy legal name).

Redskins 38, Cowboys 31, the final score only putting gobs of mascara on ugly, simply highlighting a season seemingly on this loop of constantly going up the down staircase, eliciting this equally ugly word mediocre, defined by Webster as* of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or *performance**: **ordinary*, *so-so*. Or as my Italian-born grandfather who came over to this country on the boat would say, *menza menza, with his hand quivering.

In short, a team steaming toward a .500 finish, certainly no barometer for a division title or playoff invitation. Even Mr. Optimistic, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones now understands the score.

"All I can do is sit here and look at the numbers," Jones said, understandably down in the dumps following the third home loss in five games. "I can't enthusiastically talk about our odds because I don't know what New York's going to do.

"It looks like our best opportunity would be to end up with the best record in the NFC East. I don't know if 8-8 will get it there or not, and I sure don't know if we're going to be 8-8. I'm not trying to be negative, but we've got to play these guys again."

As Jerry is wont to say, that's fair, especially after what he had just witnessed on what, by all odds, figured to be a joyous Thanksgiving Day, the Cowboys and The Salvation Army kicking off the annual Red Kettle Campaign with a Kenny Chesney halftime extravaganza and their own drive toward first place in the NFC East by winning their third straight game.

Instead, here is what I had scribbled down with halftime nearing to a merciful close, and no josh, the paper is sitting right here on my desk:

Just awful.

In fact, embarrassing – embarrassing on offense and especially on defense.

There have been two Cowboys turnovers already, a lost fumble and an interception.

There have been three RGIII touchdown passes, and four total Washington touchdowns against a defense so lost in coverage I wonder if these guys will ever find the locker room at halftime. And time running out is the only reason this Washington second-quarter blitz will ever cease.

Thanksgiving? Ha, and too bad for Kenny Chesney having to play the halftime show before a less than appreciative crowd …

Gosh almighty, what else would you have written after witnessing the absolute worst quarter of football in the Cowboys' 53-season history? That's right, absolute worst.

Only twice previously had the Cowboys given up as many as 28 points in a single quarter as they did in this second frame against the Redskins, and coincidently both instances occurred in a second quarter as well: Philadelphia scoring 28 in a 2004 game and Green Bay scoring 28 in a 2010 game. But at least in those horrendous quarters the Cowboys actually scored some points of their own.

But on this Turkey Day, the Cowboys were shut out, those aforementioned self-inflicted wounds – two turnovers – occurring in the second quarter, hastening the laying of this goose egg. That's right beaten 28-0 … in one quarter.

Ya know, the last time the Cowboys gave up 28 points in a second quarter, going on to a deflating 45-7 loss in Green Bay, the defensive coordinator who happened to be the head coach was fired two days later, Jason Garrett then becoming the interim head coach as Wade Phillips unceremoniously cleared out his office.

So hail to the second half, the Cowboys picking themselves up from under the carpet to outscore the Redskins 25-10, regaining some self-respect and scoring enough points with this show of heart and fight to provoke what remained of this home-game crowd onto its feet after they drew within seven twice, first at 35-28 with 8:18 to go and then again at 38-31 with a mere 18 seconds left.

But the NFL does not accept brownie points, the Cowboys now playing the part of Jack in the Beanstalk chasing their own Giants with five games remaining and the resurgent Redskins an overly-stuff backpack on their shoulders.

 "We got a long way to go and a short time to do it," tight end Jason Witten said. "We have the right guys to do it. I think Tony did a phenomenal job keeping things alive. Dez has really come on and become a special elite player. Not only the big plays but the underneath throws as well.

"But all that means nothing if we're not winning. It's that time. We have to start doing it. We have to start playing well early in games so you can stay within the game plan. You can't play football and try to win in those situations."

Now worse than all that, winning in the NFL is even far more challenging when finishing a game, as the Cowboys did Thursday, missing 12 of your opening day starters. That's half if you count nickel back Orlando Scandrick and punter Chris Jones. The list is exhausting: All three starting defensive linemen; both starting inside linebackers; one starting and the third wide receiver; top two centers; starting left offensive tackle; starting running back with the backup playing on two bad knees; starting safety with the backup playing on a bad hip that kept him out of practice all week, and even his backup missing practice because of concussion-like symptoms.

My gosh, there was a point in the second half I thought I was watching the third quarter of the second preseason game: Lance Dunbar running; Romo throwing to the likes of Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and Andre Holmes; Jermey Parnell at left tackle, Derrick Dockery at right guard and emergency center Mackenzy Bernadeau with his hand on the ball; backups Marcus Spears, Josh Brent and Tyrone Crawford the defensive front backed by Dan Connor and Ernie "Off My Couch" Sims at inside linebacker; with Mike Jenkins playing slot corner for the first time and equally off-the-couch Charlie Peprah at one of the safety spots.

Kidding me?

This is no excuse, but certainly reasonable fact, especially now in no-man's land with the status of Bruce Carter (needing surgery for dislocated elbow), Orlando Scandrick (surgery already for spiral fracture of a hand bone), Jason Hatcher (dinged), Miles Austin (hip strain), Jay Ratliff (groin), DeMarco Murray (sprained foot – still), Tyron Smith (ankle), Phil Costa (ankle), Ryan Cook (knee), Sean Lissemore (ankle) and Kevin Ogletree (concussion).

Sure the Cowboys have a lot to fix and not much time to do it, but as Danny McCray told me after the game with a wry smile, having played for the first time in his career without having practiced because of injury and knowing the extent of the team's injury predicament, "That's one thing you can't say we can get fixed."

Just play on, then see if you are more in the end as the Giants were last year than who you are the day after Thanksgiving at the 11/16ths pole.

Or is this really as good as it gets, right Bill?

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