Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: Just Enough Mac To Make You Smile

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FRISCO, Texas – Talk about making up for lost time.

Mike McCarthy sure covered a lot of ground out here at Ford Center on Thursday, speaking in person to a gathering of media members – socially distanced, of course – for nearly 50 minutes for the first time since, well, before pre-pandemic restrictions at the NFL Scouting Combine of last year.

Why, the Cowboys head coach even broke some news, though highly expected, that nine-year veteran defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford is retiring.

Then, contrary to popular belief, he classified the situation of unrestricted free agent Aldon Smith "as fluid," when most recent reports suggest the Cowboys are moving on from the defensive lineman's comeback after just one season.

There was Sean Lee, too. Is he retiring? Does the soon-to-be 35-year-old linebacker still want to play for the Cowboys? Are the Cowboys interested in re-signing the 11-year veteran? Mike parried all that, saying they were still in discussions with him.

There was his excitement over the signing of quarterback Dak Prescott, saying he was in Florida when the news broke and, tongue in cheek, claimed he began doing "cartwheels on the sand."

Let's see, there were his thoughts on the high possibility of training camp returning to Oxnard, Calif., that versatile free agent Keanu Neal, since he knows the safety position well, will begin working with "the linebackers" for starters and pointing out not to put too much significance on which Pro Days he attends and which he doesn't. On and on he went.

Someone even pried a tad too far, asking Mac if had received his COVID-19 vaccination shots, one that met with a very polite none-of-your-business response. Guessing if he had said yes, the follow-up naturally would have been, Pfizer or Moderna?

Very few stones were left unturned.

But to me, here are the underbellies that should make you smile the most, springing eternal 2021 offseason hope in the face of the 2020's 6-10 despair.

First, Dak. McCarthy entered the conference room after watching a little of Dak's on-field rehab. He saw what I happened to see, too.

"He's making progress, and he's on course," McCarthy said of Prescott's on-going recovery from surgery to repair the compound fracture and ankle dislocation. And to be honest, when watching his rehab drills, you have to ask yourself, Now, what was it? His right ankle or left ankle?

Right, right. That's good.

Then the elephant in the room. The defense. The one this past season giving up more points than any other Cowboys defense in the franchise's 61-year history, McCarthy saying, "But I think it's obvious my primary focus is the defense," and it darn well better be. And again, no matter the Cowboys have signed three free-agent safeties, three free-agent defensive linemen, re-signed cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and C.J. Goodwin and tendered Antwaun Woods, the biggest and best signing is Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator.

And sounds as if that was a no-brainer, McCarthy knowing exactly where he was going since the Falcons head coach was fired five games into the season. He knew him. Knew his track record. Knew he was available. And knew the guy who made his bones in the NFL as a defensive line/defensive coordinator was being sought after.

"We were fortunate to be able to get that done," said McCarthy, and as someone agreed with me, Quinn's hiring will be the Cowboys absolute best move in free agency.

Then this, and this is super key, when McCarthy was asked about the physical status of starting offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins:

"I mean, they look great."

Look, as bad as the Cowboys defense was last year, the offensive line, without Collins for the season, without Smith for 14 games and without Zack Martin for six games, was as bad. The run blocking was hit and mostly miss. Pass blocking was suspect at best, the 44 sacks given up the second most in the past 15 seasons. But then what would you expect with two rookies totaling 18 starts and starting two second-year players totaling just one previous NFL start for 17 games.

Tyron Smith is running, recovering nicely from surgery to repair that herniated disk in his neck. Collins, following hip surgery, basically is doing some of the same rehab drills as Dak. Moving well.

See, the thought by some last year had been the Cowboys offense would have to compensate for a leaky defense. Almost did in the first five games, averaging 32.6 points. Problem was, the Cowboys were giving up an average of 36 points a game in that 2-3 start. And after Dak went down in Game 5, the Cowboys scored 10, 3, 9 and 19 while losing the next four games.

So when McCarthy was asked if the offensive line needed to be revamped – and surely in his mind he must have been thinking, _revamped?_ when considering all the injuries the line suffered – he took the higher road than his inner thoughts, saying, "When you're starting offensive line lines up and plays 16 games in a row, you're a good football team. … Statistically, if you look up the health of the offensive line in accordance with the wins and losses of the team, they definitely reflect. They coincide.

"So to answer your question: We've just got to get healthy, frankly. Our veteran tackles look good. I'm looking forward to lining up and playing with those guys."

So are you. Just give me Smith, Conner Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Martin and Collins, and let's go play with Dak, Zeke & Co. And if one tackle goes down, and I know they just signed free-agent offensive line veteran Ty Nsekhe, but if one of those tackles go own, hey, Martin to tackle and McGovern to guard, and let's go play.

And lastly, in light of losing backup quarterback Andy Dalton, leaving the Cowboys with Cooper Rush, Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci – totaling a whole two career NFL starts between the three and 15 game appearances – good to hear the Cowboys apparently aren't just settling for one of those guys emerging as the backup.

"Well, that's a position we'll continue to look at," McCarthy said. "You definitely want – the most important position in football in my view is the quarterback – so you want as much competition, talent, young, veteran, we'll continue to watch that.

"There are definitely some veterans we've talked to who I'm sure would like the opportunity to be here."

That, too, must make you smile. Competition is good.

Now it's going to be a matter of what the Cowboys can afford, or maybe better yet, which one will play for what the Cowboys can afford. There is just not many, if any, Daltons out there, a recent long-time starting veteran now willing to serve in a backup role, other than Alex Smith. And remember, McCarthy was the San Francisco offensive coordinator when the Niners selected Smith with the first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

Plus, fasten your seatbelts for this draft, with teams already jockeying for position in the top 10, where one recent mock had five quarterbacks going among the first nine picks. That means another round of quarterbacks could become available even after the draft. And my guess is for teams not wanting to just outright release a quarterback, the asking price to trade for one will drop.

So there you have it. The Cowboys' state of the union according to McCarthy. And while free agency continues, suddenly the draft is just five weeks away. The NFL adding a 17th game to the season very well could take place at the upcoming owners meeting at the end of this month. Offseason conditioning, if agreed upon by the NFL and NFLPA, with some petitioning for another virtual round, would be right around the corner. Then likely after the draft, the 2021 season schedule reveal.

And for McCarthy, Year 2 with the Dallas Cowboys after that 2020 false start.

"It's a privilege to be back in the NFL, and I'm just enjoying it, you know," McCarthy said concluding this press conference. "When you had a chance to step away, I'm really savoring these moments. I missed it. There were points last year when I thought, What the hell did I come back to?

"But it's really just a privilege to stand here in front of you and get ready to build a team that can contend for a championship. It's just a privilege in the pressure.

"Thank you."

No Mike, thank you.

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