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Spagnola: Long season running back on track


FRISCO, Texas – Warning: Please proceed reading with caution.

Especially those who subscribe religiously to power rankings or those quarterback rankings or any of those weekly projections fluctuating like the stock market, causing the hairs to stand on the back of your neck.

This will not be what you want to hear, not after the Cowboys' miserable 28-16 loss to the previously winless Arizona Cardinals this past Sunday. Not those convinced already the sky is falling on this 2023 season.

Why, just the other day heard this "What if?": What if the Cowboys lose Sunday to the New England Patriots, then lose at San Francisco and at the Chargers in the next two games, falling to 2-4 – a three game losing streak? This from the team having won its first two games by a combined score of 70-10 that was headed to the Super Bowl? Playing with a defense ready to become Doomsday III?

Stop! That was yesterday, and so was Arizona.

Stop, this is not some Golden Bachelor contrived reality TV show. This is the truest reality there is on TV, the next installment with these 2-1 Dallas Cowboys set for 3:25 p.m. Sunday from AT&T Stadium on FOX, facing the 1-2 New England Patriots.

This is the NFL, where making hasty conclusions after two games is reckless. Same with making lasting conclusions after a team suffering a despicable loss. Heck, what do you think is going on in Green Bay today after the beloved Packers are wiped out, 34-20, by the Lions of Detroit? Those Dan Campbells apparently not the same Lions who last won a playoff game back in January of 1992, beating, uh, the Dallas Cowboys in that thing called the Silverdome.

Too soon. The NFL is week to week, game to game. Heck, in some places half to half.

Look, totally get it. Most of you are not happy with that loss to the Cardinals, by the way, their seventh in the last eight meetings to that franchise. But guess what? No one in the Cowboys front office, on the coaching staff or any player in this locker room is happy with that first loss of the season, no matter laced with severe extenuating circumstances.

Thursday night was another Prime example of what happens when playing with a replacement-challenged offensive line, especially when a coaching staff does not make game-plan concessions as the Cowboys tried to do at Arizona's State Farm Stadium. I mean, for the Love of football, the Packers couldn't protect their QB.

Still, this was Thursday out here at The Star, four days after falling to 2-1 and into a tie for second place in the NFC East, a full game behind Philadelphia. The quarterback, the ultimate competitor, Dak Prescott, was still seething.

"Yeah, I was pissed off," Prescott said after Thursday's practice. "I'm always pissed off after a loss. I don't know if we can rate my different levels of pissed-off-ness, but yeah, it sucks, it really does. You don't do anything with the idea of losing or thinking you're going to lose until that last second. It's not even a reality in your head.

"Yeah, we're pissed off."

So was Jayron Kearse, claiming he just has to play better. Why, veteran safety Malik Hooker spent a good 10 minutes on Thursday lamenting to a few of us about the number of missed assignments, the impetus to all those big plays the Cardinals struck this thought-to-be-invincible defense with that had been No. 1 in total defense, pass defense, points-allowed, takeaways and sacks just a week ago.

If this makes any of you feel better, over the previous two seasons, 2021-22, the Cowboys are 9-1 after losing a game, the lone back-to-back losses occurring in 2021 on the Sunday-Thanksgiving Thursday double at Kansas City on the road, 19-9, and then Las Vegas at AT&T, 36-33, in overtime. That's it. The Cowboys outscored their opponents after those 10 losses over two seasons by an average of 32.9 to 17.3.

So stand down … for now.

Just think, if it's juicy storylines you want for this Sunday, Dallas Cowboys 2023 Season, Episode 4, here are the juiciest:

Of course, this will be the return of Ezekiel Elliott, the guy who spent seven seasons with the Cowboys before getting released. And how ironic the guy who scored nine rushing touchdowns from the 1-yard line last season just happens to be showing up right when his former team has been struggling these past two weeks to score touchdowns in the red zone, going three for 11 in their last two games.

There will be a lot of hugs, smiles and a video tribute before the game to one of the best Cowboys teammates a locker room can have, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones just saying on Friday he was laying in the woods to re-sign Zeke if another team didn't come calling with an offer they couldn't match, but knew Zeke was a goner the minute Pats head coach Bill Belichick called asking questions.

There then will be this next opportunity for the Cowboys defense to show it is not a sieve against the run, having allowed the Cardinals 222 yards rushing this past Sunday, including that untouched 45-yard touchdown jaunt by Rondale Moore. Try mixing in some setting of the edges a time or 10 instead of always rushing the QB with hair on fire.

Plus, let's cut down on those quarterbacks running for big gains, the first three totaling 34 percent of the 394 yards rushing the Cowboys have yielded, and that includes the 44-yarder from Cards QB Joshua Dobbs this past Sunday.

"But I think one of the things that probably felt like five fingers across the face was, 'Man, you guys didn't look like your defense,'" defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said the day after the loss. "The reason it probably hit me was because I felt that was right. We didn't play to the standards that we've seen and what our 'excellent' looks like."

Now then, with the likelihood of guard Zack Martin and center Tyler Biadasz returning from injury – both are listed as questionable but have practiced on a limited basis the past two days – that should minimize the extenuating circumstances facing this offense this past Sunday, opening up the playbook maybe for the first time this season, since there isn't going to be any rain (Giants), nor an incapable opponent trailing (Jets), nor simplifying the offense for three backup offensive linemen having to start (Cardinals).

Just play ball now in this one, though against a sturdy Patriots defense giving up no more than 20 points a game, and just 24 to Miami, 46 fewer than the Dolphins just scored on Denver. Open up that playbook, stretch the field, especially since Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy knows the value of big plays. Use that speed this team possesses, especially inside the 10, where the Cowboys have scored just five touchdowns on 12 possessions, three of those in the season opener against the Giants.

Then there is the Belichick Factor, owning a 6-2 record against the Cowboys as a head coach with Cleveland (1-1) and New England (5-1), that lone victory over his Pats in 2021 a 35-29 OT win. Belichick has this knack for causing special team problems, simply see the blocked punt leading to the only touchdown of the game in the Cowboys' 13-9 rain-drenched loss to the Patriots back in 2019.

Plus, as a defensive wizard, CeeDee Lamb says, "He'll mix up the coverages and keep the offenses guessing," knowing this offense must turn all these long drives into touchdowns, not relying on rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey (undrafted) to continue on this 10-for-10 torrid hot streak to start a career. Aubrey is tied for the NFL scoring lead among kickers with 36 points, by the way with fellow Niners rookie kicker Jake Moody (third round), who has been perfect, making every kick he's attempted in his young career, nine field goals and nine extra points. And by the way, the Patriots, too, are going with a rookie kicker, Chad Ryland, drafted in the fourth round.

And for goodness sakes, Cowboys, behave. Keep your hands to yourselves. No jumping the snap counts or being caught trespassing prematurely into do not enter zones, thus maybe cutting in half those 13 penalties costing 107 yards last Sunday.
This game will be a truer test of where this team is – for now – facing a team ranked fifth in total defense and 13th in total offense, the highest of any of the three previous Cowboys opponents going into Week 4. And afterward, there will be no, "Well, it was just the Patriots," if they win, or "How could you?" if they lose, however the game turns out.

"I wouldn't necessarily hang our hat on the past success because it doesn't necessarily carry over," Lamb said when asked about the 9-1 record the past two seasons after a loss. "We got to go out there and handle our business and do what we got to do on Sunday as the Dallas Cowboys of the 2023 season, you know. Take full pride into it, own it, own everything we've done last week. Because, I mean, it comes with it.

"You go into a game thinking you're not going to get hit in the month, that you're invincible, I mean, the other team got another thing coming."

Yep, so here we go, the next thing coming. For this week.

And as Bill Parcells was known to say when asked about the quality of his Cowboys teams during the first half of a season, "Check with me after Thanksgiving."

Let's let this thing play out.

Wonder if The Golden Bachelor is doing the same?

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