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Spagnola: Next Quarterback Up Is No Joke


FRISCO, Texas – No time for the Dallas Cowboys to exhale.

Like going, whew, thank goodness we've got this Tom Brady behind us. The one who threw 50 passes and put up 31 points in the nick of time to spoil what nearly was a grand season opener for the Cowboys a week ago Thursday.

No, siree.

Justin Herbert is waiting for you at 3:25 p.m. (CT) Sunday at SoFi Stadium. Like, as owner Jerry Jones says, "A mile-and-a-half from the house I was born in." And this kid is no joke.

"This is a guy who can really rip the ball," says Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

"He can do it all," says cornerback Trevon Diggs.

"Very impressed with him," says head coach Mike McCarthy.

"The quarterback really exceeded expectations last year," Jones says.

And believe me, this is not your normal pat-your-opponent-on-the-head babble. This is for real. And there is good reason.

We are talking about the 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, just the 10th quarterback to ever win that award, Kyler Murray in 2019 and Dak Prescott in 2016 the previous two.

We are talking about the guy tied for third all-time in NFL history with nine, 300-yard passing performances in his first two seasons, just one behind leaders Patrick Mahomes and Dan Marino. And to think he's just one game into that second season.

With his season-opening performance against what's supposed to still be that staunch Washington defense, Herbert threw for 357 yards, joining Mahomes as the only players to ever total at least 4,500 yards passing in their first 16 starts to a career and the first ever to complete at least 400 passes.

This Herbert cat needs just 327 more yards to become only the second quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in his first 17 NFL games (Mahomes did so in 16 games).

Got your attention yet?

Oh wait, there is more.

Owns the NFL rookie record for most passing touchdowns at 31.

His three consecutive game-winning drives in 2020 ties Vince Young and Ben Roethlisberger for most by an NFL rookie quarterback since 1970.

Since the start of the 2020 season, Herbert's 15 third-down passing touchdowns ties Brady for the most in the NFL, and his 85 third-down passing completions for first downs leads the NFL.

The 6-6, 236-pounder also converted 12 third-down passes into first downs in that Washington opener, the most in a single game since Andrew Luck in 2012.

And as a team, the Chargers 14 of 19 third-down conversions in the opener was the most in the NFL since 2011.

Catch my drift?

And now the Cowboys defense must face this 23-year-old sharpshooter knowing there is a darn good chance they will be playing Sunday without their most valuable defensive player, starting left defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence after surgery to repair the fractured fifth metatarsal of his right foot, and most likely without starting right defensive end Randy Gregory, still in COVID-19 protocol.

Good luck with all that.

When asked about that task, Tarell Basham, expected to be one of the next starting two defensive ends if indeed Gregory is still on Reserve/COVID-19, said succinctly, "We've got a plan."

Well, they had better.

And you know what? This Herbert phenomena is not unexpected, having been the sixth pick in last year's draft, quarterbacks Joe Burrow (first) and Tua Tagovailoa (fifth) taken ahead of him. Look what Pro Football Hall of Famer Gil Brandt had to say when scouting Herbert in 2018, but a junior at the University of Oregon then, while guesting on our _Cowboys Legends_ radio show with myself and co-host Bill Jones:

"I'll tell you what. The best quarterback I've ever seen is a junior at Oregon by the name of Herbert. And the interesting thing about it, he went to school – he was not recruited by anybody except Mountain West (schools). His father went to Oregon State. His mother went to Oregon State. But his grandfather went to Oregon. His grandfather's name was Schwab, I remember him. This guy, I think, is going to be unbelievable. Justin Herbert. Justin Herbert. He's like 6-5, about 240 pounds and he runs 4.6."

Oh, that Gil Brandt scouting eye. Not to mention his memory, since indeed Herbert's grandfather went to Oregon, Rich Schwab, a wide receiver. And indeed the only other school recruiting Herbert was Nevada, somewhat of an unknown mostly because he broke his femur during his junior year in high school.

And we should add, Herbert became the first true freshman quarterback to start at Oregon since 1983 and was a winner of the Campbell Trophy while playing for the Ducks, often referred to as the "Academic Heisman" after earning a 4.01 GPA. He also eschewed millions when deciding to stay for his senior season at Oregon in order to play that one year with his in-coming freshman brother.

So as you can readily see, the Cowboys will have their hands full in SoCal on Sunday.

"Outside the pocket, this is a player who can really create on the move, much like Dak does, where he gets outside and how he can rip the ball downfield," Quinn says. "So when you have a player who can do that, it's almost like defending two plays.

"Defenders must prime themselves to counter both a designed call and on-the-run movement for five, six, seven seconds. We've got to defend plays longer when you're defending a quarterback like that."

Have mercy, especially when the Cowboys might be missing their best two pass rushers.

"Defending longer" is one thing. But getting pressure on Herbert is essential. And that has been a Cowboys defensive problem. Last year the Cowboys totaled only 31 sacks, matching their second fewest since the 24 of 2002.

In the opener, the Cowboys were sackless in Tampa, one of just two teams with no sacks in Week 1. My goodness, Arizona's Chandler Jones had five all by his lonesome. Not only no sacks of Brady, but only two QB hits. And of the six pressures, three of those belonged to Lawrence (2) and Gregory (1) while Brady completed 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards and four touchdowns.

"We can be better," McCarthy says of manufacturing pressure.

Chances are, if Gregory also can't play, and there seems to be a slim chance he does now, next _men_ up likely are Basham and Dorance Armstrong. Then Quinn can rotate in the likes of Bradlee Anea, Chauncey Golston, Azur Kamara and maybe even Brett Urban.

But with a plethora of linebackers, Quinn just might be able to become creative with pressures. We know the Cowboys have dabbled with rookie Micah Parsons in some pass-rush situations.

"Micah's position flexibility is a benefit," McCarthy would concede.

Maybe Quinn starts playing some hybrid defenses since he can also use Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith in various schemes. Not only in standard linebacker packages but some changeup looks as well.

More blitzes, too?

"Definitely a five-man (rush) you have to have every week," McCarthy allows when it comes to rushing Herbert.

Look, blitzing Brady is not something you want to do much. And one time when they did with safety Donovan Wilson, Brady found an uncovered Rob Gronkowski in the vacated area for a short touchdown pass. But maybe blitzing a second-year quarterback who hasn't seen as much is more likely.

Whatever they choose, the Cowboys just need to get pressure on Herbert and contained pressure. Because as Quinn says, even though Herbert can escape the pocket, he does so with his eyes still downfield, wanting to throw ball instead of running.

On top of that, with the size of those Chargers receivers, Mike Williams at 6-4 and Keenan Allen 6-2, and their two tight ends, Jared Cook 6-4 and Donald Parham Jr. 6-8, "We're focusing on the 50-50 balls," McCarthy says. "With the size of their receivers, they are never covered."

Also problematic, Wilson (groin) has not practiced yet this week and the other starting safety, Demontae Kazee (thigh), was limited in Thursday's practice. Both are being listed as questionable with Saturday's practice to go. Veteran Malik Hooker, signed early in training camp and recovering from last year's season-ending ruptured Achilles, is likely to take on a larger role after being one of the inactive players against Tampa Bay.

"We got our work cut out for us," Jones says.

So here we go, Game 2, and no one wants to start off a season 0-2. But here we are still talking Cowboys defense. Talked about it all last year, right, the Cowboys giving up a franchise record 473 points. Talked about it all offseason, calling Quinn one of the most important offseason acquisitions.

Persisting right from the start of training camp and during preseason, the focus has been on the Cowboys defense, emphasizing the personnel additions, especially that of Parsons, Keanu Neal and having used eight of their 11 draft choices on defenders.

And here we are, Game 2, and this Cowboys defense very well could be the difference between 1-1 and this team feeling good about itself with three consecutive home games coming up, or 0-2 and still trying to dash the memories of last year's 6-10 season.

The decisive factor in all this being how well these Cowboys deal with Herbert.

"Really impressive the way he plays," McCarthy says. "He's not checking the ball down all day. He's coming off his back foot and ripping vertical throws."

Brady one game. Herbert the next.

It don't come easy.

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