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Spagnola: Needing To Get That Line Straight


FRISCO, Texas – Let's get right to the root of that 20-17 season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

And look, first, let's work past all that mess after the first game of the season, the notion of no motion, not throwing the ball down the field, no-imagination offense, Kellen Moore doesn't know what he is doing and Mike McCarthy hasn't put a stamp on this offense … yet.

Instead of buying in to perceptions, let's zero in why the Cowboys scored just 17 points, but three less than the mighty, imaginative Rams offense. Why the Cowboys were only able to convert three of 12 third-down opportunities. Why the Cowboys only scored three points in the second half. Why they went oh-fer-2 scoring touchdowns that second half in the red zone.

Well, let me introduce you to that Cowboys offensive line, not to be confused with your preschool child's offensive line. Starting right tackle La'el Collins, who had a helluva season last year, has been placed on injured reserve with a hip injury, and will miss his second of a mandatory three games Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

Also on injured reserve is the presumptive backup swing tackle Cam Erving with the knee he sprained playing special teams in the loss to the Rams, and will be missing four to six weeks with the MCL tear.

So meet undrafted rookie free agent Terence Steele of Texas Tech, coming out of nowhere to beat out Erving for the starting job, the guy who will start his second NFL game in his second NFL game.

You are familiar with Zack Martin at right guard. All good there.

Moving right to left, at center is Joe Looney. Yep, the same backup center replacing Travis Frederick that 2018 season, but having only played a handful of snaps at center last year, and when he did play it was at guard. His backup is rookie Tyler Biadiasz.

Next, left guard is Connor Williams. Certainly we're familiar with his work, although his second season was cut short when he tore his ACL in the 11th game last year, and now just nine months removed from reconstructive knee surgery. His backup, Biadasz or maybe Connor McGovern.

And, of course, at left tackle is perennial Pro Bowler Tyron Smith, although the Cowboys can only hope at this point since a stiff neck caused him to leave Thursday's practice after individual drills. He then did not participate in Friday's walk-through and seemed doubtful to go through Saturday's light practice.

Smith is being listed as "questionable" for Sunday's game, and while Mike McCarthy seemed rather certain Amari Cooper (foot) and Aldon Smith (tooth) will play Sunday, when it came to his seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle, the most encouraging thing he could offer on Friday for the noon start at AT&T Stadium is "we'll see," the rejoinder for nearly everything we say in this pandemic-infected 2020 year.

"That's a part of the game," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said on Friday of the injuries piling up, "and we're certainly getting a mouthful of it."

Look, great you've got this, as I've been known to inject malaprops, "Sky Wars" offense, with the likes of Cooper, Michael Gallup and now CeeDee Lamb at wide receiver, along with Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott.

But if you can't protect Dak Prescott any better than the Cowboys protected him this past Sunday – three sacks, seven QB hits, undo pressure at other times – then why is it such a mystery that the team only scored 17 points in the season opener, losing a seventh time in the past eight games decided by one score when they won eight of 11 one-score games the previous season?

There is a tangible reason for converting just one of eight second-half, third-down attempts, with the other two third-down conversions coming thanks to Zeke and Dak runs that first half.

It's called Pass Pro.

Because no Pro, no Go.

Take the controversial fourth-and-3 from the Rams' 11-yard line, Cowboys trailing 20-17, still 11:46 to play. Go back and look at it. Pressure was in Dak's face. He couldn't step up. Throwing flat-footed, the ball, instead of being out in front of the crossing Lamb so he would catch it on the run, was right at him, causing the rookie to twist his body back toward the line of scrimmage, losing any momentum to turn up field. Two-yard gain. Rams ball.

Or take the previous play, third-and-6. Looney doesn't get a scrape block to his right to help Martin with Aaron Donald, who steps into the hole, causing Zeke to veer off, only picking up 3 yards.

Or go back into the third quarter, third-and-4 at the L.A. 39-yard line. While no one was really open, as Williams stepped back in pass protection, he trips over Looney's left foot, and down goes Dak for an 8-yard loss.

Or this one, third-and-9 at the Cowboys' 38. With Looney and Martin doubling Donald, Brockers simply side-swipes both off their blocks, and Donald hits Dak as he's throwing. Incomplete to Gallup.

Or how about third-and-6 at the L.A. 15, the Rams sending six, but one of those, Brockers, attacks Looney from the far left, the pocket collapsing up the middle. With all that muck in his face, Dak comes up short to Cooper, all resulting in a Greg Zuerlein field goal to pull the Cowboys to within the lasting three-point margin.

And that just accounts for the second-half problems.

No amount of motion or creativity would have slowed down the Rams' pass rush, all leaving McCarthy saying, "We could have executed better," by no means thinking along the same lines as former Tampa Bay head coach John McKay when asked about the Bucs' "execution" after the new franchise lost its first 26 games back in 1976-77, saying, "I'm in favor of it."

As for Dak's part, he's been far more diplomatic this week when asked about his protection, saying, "Getting the ball out of my hands. Those guys are fighting it, fighting their tails off, and I always tell them we work together, right? Some of the plays I'm going to need them to block a little bit longer and some of the plays I'm going to have to do my job and help them out and just get the ball out fast.

"We've just got to work hand-in-hand with one another. Obviously, they know some plays I can keep alive with my feet. We've just got to be in it together."

Just what the quarterback is supposed to say. Can't alienate your first and last line of protection.

Sure, he might need to speed up his internal clock in the pocket. And maybe the Cowboys need to rely on some running back screens and smoke screens to wide receivers to slow down that Falcons' pass rush. Maybe more bootlegs, although one of those they tried against the Rams no one bothered to block Brockers, forcing Dak to just unload the ball out of bounds to avoid getting belted. Maybe some reverses to counter a predictably overly aggressive Falcons front and their linebacker blitzes. Not only did the Falcons sack Seattle's Russell Wilson three times this past Sunday, they also registered 10 QB hits.

Right there is real-life holey-moley!

Bottom line, the Cowboys sorely need Tyron Smith to play, even causing owner Jerry Jones to pull out the _we'll see,_ when asked his thoughts on Smith being ready at noon Sunday, saying, "We'll see at game time what we've got."

If it's a no-go, then the likely tackles might be Steele to the right and to the left Brandon Knight, who started one game as a rookie last season but missed a good portion of training camp with an injury. There also is Alex Light, the Cowboys signing the third-year player who had played 16 games with the Packers over the past two seasons. Plus, as Stephen Jones pointed out, the Cowboys continue to visit with tackle candidates, as many as two this week, with talks continuing into next week.

Not a pretty picture if Tyron can't go, but that's life in the NFL, leaving McCarthy saying, "I know he wants to go, he's a pro. We'll see."

Yes, we will come noon Sunday with an expected 25 percent capacity (like 22,000) at AT&T Stadium. We indeed will see, and do yourself a favor. Keep an eye on oh-that-line.

Could very well be the bottom _line_ between winning and losing, with no need to conjure up some superfluous perceptions.


Don't miss the chance to see the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium when they take on the Atlanta Falcons in the first regular season home game of the 2020 season on Sunday, Sept. 20th. Click HERE to buy your tickets now!

Details on all of the health and safety procedures you can expect at AT&T Stadium this season can be viewed at

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