Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: Normal Has Never, Ever Felt So Good

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FRISCO, Texas – The gang is all here.

Well, nearly every one of those 90 on the Cowboys roster, if not all, for this week's "voluntary" Organized Team Activities workouts, the ones the NFLPA advised members league-wide not to attend, supposedly and inexplicably for safety reasons.

Now, not positively sure the reason for the Cowboys' full house on Tuesday, and from what we hear, mostly all week long.

Maybe lingering frustration from last year's 6-10 season providing the motivation.

Maybe the embarrassment of a defense giving up the most single-season points in franchise history.

Maybe the crew following the leadership of guys like Dak Prescott, Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, all present and accounted for.

Maybe the influence of Cowboys' second-year head coach Mike McCarthy, the new-found passion from new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn or the irrepressible personality of special teams coordinator John Fassel.

Hmmm, maybe owner Jerry Jones, a Pied-Piper in his own right, encouraging his troops, and we have come to know over his now 32 years with the Cowboys, Jerry can sell about anything he puts his mind to.

Maybe it's the Cowboys training staff, deftly managing the team through COVID-19, and just how diligently those guys care for their players, along with the strength and conditioning crew that began working with the players the previous couple of weeks.

Or just maybe it's the convenience of residing in the DFW area, since a majority of these players live here year round, not having to uproot themselves from out-of-town homes to participate in offseason workouts as players escaping harsh winter months must in so many other NFL cities.

And after all, the workout facilities at The Star just have to be the best health club money can buy.

Heck, maybe it's a little bit of all of this.

But all we know is many players from other NFL teams are boycotting these types of offseason workouts, following, to me, the union's misguided advice. And unfortunately Denver offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James found out the hard way when tearing his Achilles working out on his own, discovering he became eligible for the Broncos to place him on reserve/non-football injury (NFI), absolving themselves from his contract's financial responsibility in 2021. Worse, a week or so later, he was released.

Yet, at least for Tuesday's OTA, the one us media types were able to witness, that was a mighty crowded Ford Center. They were near 'bout all here, and that includes those players still rehabbing from previous injuries and those from surgeries ending their 2020 seasons or from necessary postseason surgeries.

The Cowboys an NFL outlier?

And how inspiring must that have been watching Dak Prescott going through most every drill, and at full speed, knowing what he's gone through rehabilitating from his devastating season-ending injury requiring immediate surgery after leaving Game 5 to repair that compound fracture and dislocation of the right ankle.

And according to Dak, sure didn't take having a team meeting to achieve near perfect attendance, all under the watchful eye of Jerry and Stephen Jones from the sideline.

"Believe it or not, there weren't many conversations about not showing up, coming from me, coming from other guys, we have a lot of leaders," Dak said of the team-wide commitment. "Obviously, we talked to some NFLPA reps on just what those meetings are about, but as far as these guys in this locker room, didn't hear much talk or have many conversations about guys not showing up, to be honest with you."

How gratifying this must be for McCarthy to have his team together in May, though never once blaming COVID limitations abolishing last year's offseason and preseason games when trying to implement his program for the Cowboys' 2020 struggles, yet realizing full-well the adverse effect of those on-field absences. Not only that, but facing the challenge of having to incorporate an entirely new coaching staff when working remotely this time last year.

Go ask your friendly teacher how difficult doing virtual is.

McCarthy must have looked around Ford Center that day walking onto the field, seeing lines and lines of guys for pre-practice stretch and thinking, _Now this is what I signed on for._

"I'm loving normal, no doubt about it," McCarthy said with a noticeable smile of relief. "It's great to be on the field with your players. It's a lot of fun to see the coaches because you know how much time these guys put into this, the planning of practices, the drill work. We started back with the rookies with a couple of new ideas and different drills, so having a chance to work those and make sure they are ready for training camp.

"It's been great."

Wonder how many other NFL coaches are saying that today?

Now look, none of this is to suggest the Cowboys have uncovered, uh, with apologies to Ponce de Leon, some Fountain of Success for this season, the very elixir to fix what ailed them in 2020.

But just having the team together learning, the coaches together teaching, sure can't hurt. Neither could the palpable energy those of us sitting up in the stands had to feel.

If not from me, then take the word of newcomer Keanu Neal, starting his sixth season in the NFL, the previous five with Quinn in Atlanta.

"Oh man, the energy is there," said Neal, trying to jumpstart a career somewhat derailed in 2019 when suffering a ruptured Achilles Week 3, though returning in time to start 14 of 15 games in 2020. "You can tell the guys want to get better and get after it. I can feel that, for sure."

And, let's be honest, even though these workouts are merely in helmets, jerseys and shorts. Even though there is no contact, with an emphasis on installation and individual technique drills. Even though McCarthy has reduced the OTA workload from the CBA allotted 10 days to six, and then a three-day minicamp.

Practice never hurts, right? No matter the NFLPA petitioning its members to invoke, in the immortal words of former Cowboys linebacker Darren Hambrick when asked why he was skipping these types of workouts back in the day, "What do _voluntary_ mean?"

"I think it's going to be huge, it's going to pay off," Dak says of the "voluntary" offseason work going on. "And obviously the mental aspect, whether it's the defense learning a new scheme, whether it's the offense being on the same page and communicating better, I think it's going to pay off huge when we get to training camp to maybe have that step that these other teams might not take during the offseason.

"For us to get that, and to build off that in training camp and continue to grow as we get into the season."

Again, none of this assures one darn thing. But maybe these guys showing such offseason commitment might dissuade those barking from afar, those refusing to look at the facts contributing to last year's demise – injuries, having to start four different quarterbacks and a generally discombobulated defense – from merely leaning on the flimsy perceptions that these Cowboys are a bunch of spoiled prima donnas, that they were serving up a heaping plate of give-up last year.

Plus, there is this, and hopefully fans being allowed into training camp practices will see what seemed readily obvious to me on Tuesday: Just how competitive these workouts are, and surely what the camp practices will be. Competition not just to earn starting roles, not just to earn snaps, but to make the final 53-man roster.

Think about it. Other than the offense being generally set, with the high possibility of every starter now healed and healthy returning from last year, not many jobs on defense are locked up with the addition of unrestricted free agents and eight rookie draft choices.

Oh, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are starters at defensive end. Probably Trevon Diggs at one corner. But other than that, with the addition of the likes of free agents Neal, Demontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse, Carlos Watson, Brett Urban, Tarrel Basham, and conservatively draft choices such as Micah Parsons, Kelvin Joseph, Jabril Cox and Quinton Bohanna, nothing else is a given.

And from the looks of things as far returning starters, that includes Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Donovan Wilson, Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill, no way any of them will be grandfathered into starting roles.

Look, go 6-10, give up 473 points, finish third in the NFC East, there are very few givens the next year, and maybe that already has been emphasized, Tuesday's high energy a by-product.

Said McCarthy, "The energy in the building since Monday kicked off has gone to a whole different level. This is what we need. This is what I've felt you need, especially being a young team, especially being a team that is new in a lot of phases, and we're still trying to integrate everybody.

"So I'm very thankful for what we've got done so far."

You bet he is … you bet he is.

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