Spagnola: Let's Not Jump To Such Hasty Conclusions

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OXNARD, Calif. – Rumor has it the Cowboys have actually returned here from San Diego for the final week of training camp practice despite that 27-7 beating they absorbed in the first preseason game in San Diego Thursday night.

         And two sourcestell me the Cowboys will actually go out there on Saturday to practice, and then again on Sunday. Plus, from what I'm told they have not cancelled the two practices scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday against the Oakland Raiders out here at the River Ridge Practice Fields.


          Oh, and someone very close to Cowboys COO Stephen Jones insists he hasn't thrown in the towel on the 2014 season. He's adamant the show must go on.

         How's that for some intrepid reporting on just 4.5 hours sleep?

         My, oh my, it's been a while since a loss in the first preseason game of a new season has sparked such overall skepticism and cynicism as that deal taking place at Qualcomm Stadium against a Chargers team that, by the way, qualified for the playoffs last year. Oh, the handwringing over this defense, questionable at best coming into training camp but now … now … already is being thrown overboard.

         Come on, stifle. Can we wait until at least maybe the second preseason game to throw so many arms up in despair?

         Just as Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett was saying afterward, "When you play games like this you have to be careful not saying everything is great or everything is terrible."

         By no stretch of the imagination was the Cowboys defense great against the Chargers. But we knew heading into training camp the biggest question facing Dallas was if the NFL's and franchise's worst defense in 2013 could improve enough to take some pressure off an offense that figures to be pretty darn good.

         And everyone is right: That Cowboys defense wasn't all that good Thursday night, giving up 395 total yards; allowing the Chargers quarterbacks to complete their first 12 passes of the game before suffering an incompletion; allowing the Chargers to convert 50 percent of their third-downs; their quarterbacks to throw for 243 yards on just 16 attempts; and for the Chargers running backs to churn out 152 yards rushing.

         No bones about it, not good, and stop me if any or all of that sounds vaguely familiar to last season.

         Or as a disappointed defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli termed it, "We've just got to get better."

         Of course, but let's add a little perspective to the night. That was Philip Rivers, Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd, Danny Woodhead, Eddie Royal and some guy named Antonio Gates, along with Ladarius Green and Ryan Mathews versus …

         Terrance Mitchell and B.W. Webb on the corners, and since the Chargers were almost exclusively running three- and four-receiver sets, that was safety Jeff Heath jumping into the slot where he certainly would never play if this counted, and seventh-round draft choice Ahmad Dixon joining J.J. Wilcox at safety.

         That was maybe half the Cowboys starting defensive line trying to get pressure up front, meaning Tyrone Crawford was at one defensive end, playing in his first football game since December of 2012, and rookie free agent Davon Coleman at one defensive tackle, while the other defensive end, Jeremy Mincey, was fixin' to get beat out of that starting job had rookie DeMarcus Lawrence not broken the fifth metatarsal in his right foot.

         Oh, and by the way, that was veteran Justin Durant starting at middle linebacker for like the second time in his career. Geesh, Bruce Carter was the old grizzled veteran out there, and this is just his third full year in the league.

         Might as well been taking on a .20 gauge with a Swiss Army knife.

         Here, just for grins, just in case you didn't get a chance to watch the game or if you did weren't informed of who wasn't playing, and there were 24 of those for the Cowboys for various reasons – injuries, caution, mother's funeral and coaches decision – let's make a list from the official National Football League Game Summary:

         Top four cornerbacks Orlando Scandrick, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Sterling Moore, along with youngster Tyler Patmon, and just having released Dashaun Phillips injured for need of healthy DBs to play in the game. No safeties Barry Church, Jakar Hamilton and Matt Johnson. Then no defensive linemen Henry Melton and George Selvie, along with Terrell McClain, Ben Bass, Ben Gardner and still no Anthony Spencer, in addition to Lawrence, of course, up front. No linebackers Rolando McClain and Will Smith.

         Gosh almighty, just the facts.

         So it would stand to reason an already questionable defense would struggle as this one did. Or that maybe cornerback Korey Lindsey, signed Tuesday night, rode a train on Wednesday and played on Thursday, might get lit up on a 70-yard touchdown pass. Or that this patchwork defense just couldn't hold down the fort from its own seven after the Chargers recorded a sack, strip, fumble recovery on third quarterback Caleb Hanie for what turned into a gimme touchdown two plays later.

         But the weird thing was this:

         Until those two plays about one minute apart, the score of the game was 10-7 with 8:35 left in the third quarter. Until those two plays, this defense short on experience and long on effort already had staged two goal-line stands, the first resulting in Mitchell's fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchback and the other based on two consecutive run stops initially from the 1-yard line for losses on tackles by rookie Anthony Hitchens and first-year lineman Caesar Rayford to force a field goal. [embedded_ad]

         So I'm just sayin' … dem are the facts, and might help diffuse some of that postgame depression.

         Plus, my guess is the majority of these missing defenders should return to practice either this weekend or by the Raiders appearance next week. And my further guess is if this had been Sept. 7, guys such as Scandrick, Carr, Claiborne, Moore, Church, Melton, Selvie and maybe even Rolando McClain – assuming he makes the team – would have definitely been out there playing the 49ers.

         Plus, the snaps these young guys got Thursday night are invaluable, ones they likely wouldn't have been afforded if all those veterans were playing. You know, just like when maybe a first-round pick struggles as a rookie doesn't mean the guy is automatically a bust, nothing says this work-in-progress defense can't improve just because of this performance.

         I see where Seattle gave up 21 points to Denver in a loss, Cincinnati 41 to Kansas City in a loss, while the Chiefs gave up 39 of their own and San Francisco 23 in a loss, all teams considered to have high-quality defenses.

         Now who knows, maybe a month into the season you might be saying the same thing about this Cowboys defense as legendary coach John McKay said of his 1976 expansion Tampa Bay squad during that 0-14 season when asked about his team's execution, exclaiming, "I'm all for it."

         But for now, might hold off on convicting these Cowboys defenders before giving them a fair trial.

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