Spagnola: Jumbo Joe Now Center Of Attention

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FRISCO, Texas – Maybe the Cowboys are just living right.

        Look, I get it. Nothing in the game of football is perfect. As my camp roomie Brad Sham likes to say, "We go to training camp to find out who is going to get hurt."

        Happens every summer. Happens to every team. We just think it's the Cowboys' bad luck since we intimately know about every strained hammy or groin.

        And I get it, the Cowboys are now down three starters: Starting free safety Xavier Woods has a strained hamstring, and is in a race against the clock to be ready for the Sept. 9 season opener at Carolina. He's trailing badly at this point.

        Starting three technique defensive tackle David Irving currently is in no-man's land with his football career and his life. We do know he's suspended for the first four games of the season, and who knows where this current self-imposed suspension is taking him after that.

        Then there is Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, out indefinitely while undergoing treatment for Guillian Barre Syndrome, an anti-immune disease most of us, and that's includes me, never heard of before Wednesday when Frederick revealed doctors' findings for why he has been experiencing what he thought were reoccurring "stingers" in the shoulder area.

Frederick could be out a month. Could be out three months. Could be out the entire season, though he seems encouraged after his first few rounds of immunoglobulin injections to combat the neurological disease.

Now it's one thing to lose your second-year free safety.

 It's another thing to lose your defensive lineman to yet another suspension, since trust has been an issue and why a guy deserving of a long-term deal based on talent only received a restricted free-agent, one-year qualifying offer instead.

But now arguably the best center in the NFL to a rare disease?

        That there is some bad luck.

        But here is where these Cowboys are somewhat fortunate:

For whatever reason we can to come up with, dumb luck, divine intervention or, uh, the living right thing, the Cowboys just might be getting the best version of Joe Looney there ever has been.

That's right Looney, better known as "Jumbo Joe," not necessarily for his size but more so for his role on the Cowboys' "Jumbo" package when he comes in on short-yardage or goal-line situations as the blocking third tight end now the starting center until further notice.

See, if this were 8th grade, Joe would be known as the class clown, the fun-loving kid who doesn't take himself very seriously at all, not opposed to pulling gags at practice or dance to the music during team stretch. The guy who makes everyone laugh, and you guys, we all know one of these dudes is needed on every team to break up the monotony of football practice.

At times, it seems, Joe, in his third year with the Cowboys – seventh in the NFL – has been just glad to be here. What a role. Backup swing center/guard. Active on game day. Only called upon in a game-day emergency. And since he's been here, there never has been an emergency at center, since Frederick during his five years with the Cowboys, has started all 80 games. And the Cowboys always seemed to have a backup guard, maybe not active on game day, but ready to start if the starter went down for a lengthy period of time, guys like Ron Leary or Jonathan Cooper.

Think of Joe as the bandage until the doctor shows up. Why in his two seasons with the Cowboys, beginning in 2016, Looney has started three games – twice as the extra tight end and once, Jan. 1, 2017, the final game of the 2016 season in Philadelphia at guard when the 13-2 Cowboys rested the majority of their starters in the meaningless game.

In fact, Looney's last NFL start at center was the final game of the 2015 season, Jan. 3, 2016, when he was with Tennessee. Started six games that year, three at guard and three at center. That's it, making it 13 official starts during his previous six NFL seasons, the other four in 2014 with San Francisco, the Niners drafting Looney in the fourth round of 2012.

But come Sept. 9, odds are Looney will be making his next start at center, and how fortunate for the Cowboys we were saying this at training camp before any of this Frederick stuff came up:

Man, Jumbo Joe looks stronger this summer. He is moving better. Looks like he's in better shape. This is the best we've seen him play. Look at Joe hold up in these one-on-one pass-rush drills.

And this after missing all off-season practices, recovering from wrist surgery to repair a fractured bone. He spent those couple of months doing a lot of cardio off to the side with the weight and conditioning coaches while his teammates were practicing in OTAs and the minicamp.

"I was just working hard with Coach (Mike) Woicik and the weight room staff," Looney says of his off-season program. "Great credit to them."

Looney said Woicik even devised some sort of strap to support his wrist so he could continue lifting while still recovering from the surgery.

Also, Joe might have sensed a threat to his job as the swing center/guard when the Cowboys signed veteran Marcus Martin in free agency. Martin's calling card was having played guard and center, starting 24 games between both positions during his three seasons with San Francisco, including 14 during the 2015 season.

Little extra motivation never hurt anyone.

Neither did more snaps with the first-team offense, especially when Frederick began taking a day off here and there, starting on Aug. 5. Which means working not only with the other first-team offensive linemen, but against the first-team defensive linemen.

"When you work against the best, you have no choice but to get better," Looney reasons of this sort of performance renaissance.

Looney understands he has some big shoes to fill stepping in for Frederick. But those on the offensive line will insist Looney knows the calls. He knows the adjustments he needs to make at the line of scrimmage. And quarterback Dak Prescott reminds he's quite comfortable working with Looney, his center during his rookie training camp while playing on the second and third teams before injuries beset Kellen Moore and then Tony Romo.

"Listen, you are never going to replace a Pro Bowl center like that, and someone with the football IQ he has and the energy he brings," Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin says of Frederick, the guy he has taken every one of his NFL snaps next to during his three-year NFL career. "But luckily, we have Joe Looney, who has taken a lot of reps. He's done a great job for us in there, and he's very ready and prepared for this opportunity."

Or says tight end Geoff Swaim, "We have no lack of confidence in Joe."

At this point, Looney has to be ready and prepared. After placing Marcus Martin on injured reserve (big toe in need of surgery), the Cowboys have no one else besides Looney who has taken an NFL snap at center, though at this point the emergency guy would be Zack Martin, who at times during the past two camps has put his hand on the ball. And finding a suitable backup for Looney will be a roster priority for the Cowboys over the next two weeks with Frederick's availability a great unknown.

But for now, and until further notice, as head coach Jason Garrett acknowledges, it's the Joe Looney show at center for the Cowboys.

"Oh yeah, he's talked to me," Looney says of his head coach. "He told me I've got to step up. But that's why I'm here, and like I said, I'm prepared for it, and luckily enough I still have Travis on my side to mentor to me.

"In my career, I've been a backup, and I prepare every week like I'm going to start, so I just take that approach to it. You know, you never want to see a guy get hurt, especially a guy like Travis. But I'm just going to do what I can to help the team."

And maybe become known for being more than just "Jumbo Joe."

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