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Spagnola: No Need To Overthink Any Of This


FRISCO, Texas – Jason Witten was fed up. He had his fill of these esoteric questions, you know the ones dealing in intangibles.

See, everyone is looking for reasons why a Cowboys team so much had been expected from, preseason favorites to go deep into the playoffs, maybe even as far as the Super Bowl, is sitting here with just three games to go at a mediocre 6-7.

Why they are saddled with a three-game losing streak this late in the season.

Why they have lost four of the past five games, with three of the four having been on the road.

Why they have lost seven of the past 10 since streaking at the start of the season to a 3-0 record.

Witten had heard it all, the talk, the reports, the presumptions, the crack narratives, the criticisms of the coaching staff, all those questions.

Is there something wrong with the team chemistry?

Something wrong with the leadership on this team?

Has the team lost its fight?

Has head coach Jason Garrett's message gone stagnant, falling on deaf ears?

Is the young offensive coordinator, though leading the No. 1 offense when it comes to total yards, in over his head?

Does this defense no longer want to tackle, tuning out Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard?

Come on Jason Witten, we need answers.

You know, all that, all this intangible gobbledygook.

Finally, somewhat exasperated, the 16-year veteran who probably has seen it all during his career, having played for three different head coaches and through 6-10s, 8-8s, a 13-3 and now this disappointing 6-7, cut to the chase:

"Look, you can't confuse losing with fight," Witten said. "You can't confuse losing with leadership. You can't confuse it when you win or when you lose you're in disarray.

"You've got to _play_ better.

"There are critical moments in the game you've got to play better, you've got to convert third downs, you've got to move the ball. Those things don't change. Work your tail off every day, believe you can do it. We don't overthink it."

For most, that's too simplistic. Too obvious. And darn sure not sexy enough.

Even DeMarcus Lawrence found himself being asked about "intensity," always a good fallback narrative when reasonable answers are too obvious.

"This coaching staff and the guys in the front office, they built this team off of intensity, each guy in this locker room has that intensity," he said. "It's not a secret, you know. It's about getting back to it, getting back to the fine details of it.

"Once you start feeding into all the B.S. in the media like no turnovers or the Dallas defense ain't that, then you're going to start trying to fill in the gaps or fill in the holes that everybody else is trying to say about us. The main focus is we're about us … getting back to the basics and doing us."

Oh, there are a few worries in this game "doing us," knowing the 8-5 Rams, once 6-5 just like the Cowboys, come into the game riding a two-game winning streak, and having won three of their last four. Knowing they eliminated the Cowboys from the playoffs last year, 30-22, mostly on the strength of a running game going for 273 yards and three touchdowns.

That can't happen again, or else.

The Cowboys also must worry about the tempo the Rams like to play with, and this was explained to me during the offseason, how Rams coach Sean McVay nurses his young quarterback Jared Goff along, making sure his offense gets to the line of scrimmage early so he can stay in his quarterback's ear for as long as possible before the coach-to-quarterback communication is turned off with 15 seconds left on the 40-second play clock.

Basically, see defense, read defense, and if need be, change play.

Key for the Cowboys?

"Ball's ready, we're ready," Garrett said. "So we have to be ready to play."

That goes for the defensive guys on the field and the coaches sending in the defensive calls.

As for this Cowboys offense, again leading the league averaging 430.8 yards a game, it's this little seven-letter word we've heard over and over, but oh, so true:

E-x-e-c-u-t-e. Execute.

And sure seems as if the way defenses have been playing the Cowboys of late, they are betting the Cowboys can't, meaning can't drive some 80 yards needing 14 plays. The bet is, the Cowboys will run out of downs before we run out of yards.

Seems teams are coming with pressure in the passing game but backing off in coverage, trying to keep everything underneath with some shell coverages. Trying to eliminate those chunk plays, forcing the Cowboys, as they did the first possession of the Chicago game, to drive 75 yards needing 17 plays, meaning needing to convert four third downs to keep the drive alive so Ezekiel Elliott could score from 2 yards out.

Here is some proof. Over the first 10 games the Cowboys compiled 47 big passing plays, considered 20-plus yards, so, nearly five a game. Why, in back-to-back games against Minnesota and Detroit, while scoring 24 and 35 points, respectively, the Cowboys totaled 16 pass plays of 20-plus yards.

But in the past three games against New England, Buffalo and Chicago, while scoring 9, 15 and 24 – 10 of those 24 after trailing 31-14 – the Cowboys have totaled just 10 of those 20-plus-yard chunk passing plays. And get this, four of those came in the fourth quarter of the Bears game.

And not to jump to any hastily formed correlation, but in those first 10 games, the Cowboys scored 34 touchdowns, like 3.5 a game. But during this recent three-game losing streak, the Cowboys have scored a total of five touchdowns, or just a pinch more than 1.5 touchdowns a game.

So, you ask, how do you correct this imbalance?

Run the football. And the Cowboys have run it well in the first halves of the past two games, Zeke going 10 for 56 against the Bills and 13 for 72 against the Bears. So, yeah, keep running it, right?

Well, one problem. The Cowboys fell behind 23-7 by late in the third quarter against the Bills, having to abandon the run to play catch up. Ditto against the Bears, trailing 31-14 at the outset of the fourth quarter.

The Dallas defense just can't take Zeke out of the game, since in those two games combined the Cowboys found themselves trailing by 54-21. Those guys would love for you to keep running, and running out the clock at the same time.

So here we are, three games remaining, and as Zeke said, "You can't make it more simple than that – we need to go out there and win every week."

Do that, win the final three, the Cowboys win the division and go into the playoffs with a modicum of momentum.

Heck, win two of the next three, as long as one of those is over Philadelphia, and Cowboys win the division, at least gaining some confidence.

Do any less, including losing to the Eagles, and the Cowboys will need assistance from both the Redskins and the Giants when playing the Eagles.

"This is not rocket science here," Witten reasoned, "we've just got to be better."

And win.

We're about to see.