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Spagnola: Not A Bad Band Of Traveling Cowboys


HONOLULU – Stick with the Cowboys long enough, and they will take you to faraway places for sure.

Why since 1986, while covering the Cowboys, they have taken me to London, Tokyo, Mexico City, and also themselves to Monterrey and Toronto for preseason games, as well as playing games back in the day in the states from Birmingham, Ala., to Pendleton, Ore., from Roanoke, Va., to Shreveport, La.

Now here, add to the list of non-neutral sites numbering 36 Honolulu, where the Cowboys set down early Thursday evening to hook up with the Los Angeles Rams at their request, when they could have very easily saved themselves a five-hour flight and just driven down the Pacific Coast Highway for this second preseason game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

But as we have known now for 60 years, these are the Dallas Cowboys, the traveling road show, where seemingly anywhere they go people do know their names, and that includes here for sure where they will meet the Rams at 9 p.m. (CT) at Aloha Stadium.

"Well, you know as well as I do, the Cowboys' preseason history playing these games all over the place has been well documented," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett reminds. "You and I have been to Mexico City, Monterrey, London, Toronto and many other places, and I think this just fits with that.

"We are here on the West Coast, I started hearing some rumblings about it, and I said, 'What the heck, let's be a part of this thing.'"

And so here we are in this bustling city following the conclusion to the Oxnard, Calif., portion of training camp, where the Cowboys have spent 22 days working in glorious weather preparing this 60th team in franchise history for the 2019 season.

Of course, every training camp comes with consternation, and this one has been no different. No Zeke, angling for a contract extension. Four guys still on PUP, two of those Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Lawrence (shoulder) and Byron Jones (hip), racing along with Tyrone Crawford (hip) and Noah Brown (knee) to be ready for the Sept. 8 season opener.

There have been injuries, projected starting defensive end Robert Quinn recovering from recent surgery to repair two fractured metacarpals on the back of his left hand, not to mention a two-game suspension his agent vehemently contested to no avail. There is Pro Bowler Zack Martin's balky back, a disc in need of calming down. Most recently, Tyron Smith's back began acting up, so for precautionary measures – and common sense – Smith, along with 12 other players, did not make the trip here, a five-hour plane ride from LAX and then eight hours going back to DFW after the game.

There is Pro Bowler Amari Cooper's foot, though he appears close to returning. A two-time Pro Bowler Sean Lee knee that has kept him out since the start of camp, though, also appears about ready to return – if they let him, but because he's Sean Lee, and even though he will not play Saturday night, he made the trip here with his teammates just because.

And there has been the up and down performances of the backup quarterbacks, Cooper Rush and Mike White, and kicker Brett Maher.

But other than that, the Cowboys can't complain. Every team has their camp problems.

On the flipside, the Cowboys have produced some compelling, heart-warming stories, too, during this training camp, one brimming with well-deserved optimism.

Think about it:

Some undrafted kid from Nebraska, Luke Gifford, comes out of nowhere to impress this staff to the point even a high ankle sprain suffered against San Francisco this past Saturday and weeks away from healing likely won't keep him off the 53-man roster.

There has been a resurgent Taco Charlton over these past two weeks and one preseason game, their 2017 first-round pick trying to revitalize a two-year career that was going south last year, his opportunities abound now that Lawrence, Crawford and Quinn are rehabbing injuries.

There's been the return of 16th-year veteran Jason Witten after his premature retirement last year, back out here with these young pups running around as if he's found the elusive Fountain of Youth. Plus, he probably feels fellow tight end Blake Jarwin, who is picking up where he left off the second half of last season, pushing him for snaps.

Safety Xavier Woods, quite possibly the star of camp, heading into just his second full season starting, showing you don't have to spend $15 million a year on a veteran free safety.

How about the return of Alfred Morris, looking trimmer, swifter and far  more elusive than he was just two camps ago, appearing to be a well-spent insurance policy if Ezekiel Elliott's holdout extends into the regular season. "He looks like a young guy out there," Garrett says.

Fourth-round draft choice Tony Pollard just might be that complementary running back the Cowboys have been seeking for several years now, showing he is capable of running between the tackles, catching the ball out of the backfield, lining up in the slot, returning kickoffs and helping out on coverage teams, too.

There are other young guys really blossoming, like WR Michael Gallup, LB Leighton Vander Esch, DT Antwaun Woods, OG Connor Williams, DE Dorance Armstrong and WR Cedrick Wilson. Third-year corners Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis are really balling. And you are going to be very pleased with how a healthy DT Maliek Collins is playing, too, and along with these two newcomers D-Linemen, DE Kerry Hyder and DT Christian Covington.

Then factor in the ever-improving Dak Prescott, and I'll keep harping on this until folks remember how well he played the second half of last season. Man, is he ever driving the football, and playing smarter, too, realizing sometimes you just have to live to play another down – another series – when a play is breaking down. Sacks and turnovers are your enemies.

Also, there is the inspiring story of resurgent wide receiver Devin Smith, trying to recapture the career of what once was a second-round draft talent following two ACL surgeries to the same knee.

Or a whole bunch of undrafted young guys other than Gifford making an impression, such as Jon'Vea Johnson, Reggie Davis, Jalen Guyton, Daniel Wise, Brandon Knight, Ricky Walker, and these late-round picks Jalen Jelks, Donovan Wilson, Joe Jackson and Mike Jackson. 

Gosh, did I leave anyone out?

Yeah, I did.

Jaylon Smith. Officially this is his third season, having spent his 2016 rookie season recovering from what most thought would be a career-ending knee injury in his final college game. If you thought this middle linebacker improved leaps and bounds last year, still recovering from the peroneal nerve damage suffered when tearing his ACL – repaired by Cowboys team physician Dan Cooper – well, check out Saturday night's preseason game, however many snaps Garrett allows his first-team defense to play.

There sure doesn't seem to be a darn thing physically wrong with this guy anymore, including overcoming the debilitating drop foot. Talk about balling. Man, his speed is full throttle. And when he blitzes, to use one of his oft-used terms, it's a thing of beauty. And violent.

"I'm not physically limited or anything of that nature," Smith says. "Last year I played 95 percent of the snaps and was able to showcase that I'm back, so there are no regrets, it's about just being great for the team."

Has he ever been.

See there, not making all this stuff up. This is real. Not some glass-is-half-full baloney.

Now again, this is just the second preseason game. There still will be 1½ weeks left of training camp when the Cowboys return home early Sunday morning to resume practicing at The Star on Tuesday, preparing for two more preseason games, along with the season. The cut to 53 is not until Aug. 31.  

That's a lot of time left for guys to make a move or fall flat. That's life in the NFL. Ask newly-signed tight end Marcus Lucas, who is on his 11th NFL roster over the past five seasons, a career practice squad player or off-season roster guy without ever having played in a regular-season game. But you know what, and this is one of those heart-warming stories, too. He might be the happiest guy in camp, even though he's a last-minute fill-in because of injuries and a long shot to make the team. Not bitter at all. Wears a big smile every day.

Tell you what, though, when canvassing this 90-man roster, the Cowboys would be hard-pressed to cut this team to 53 right today. But you can't keep 'em all, although if the ones released clear waivers, 10 of those guys could possibly be signed to the practice squad.

So do not think these preseason games aren't important. They are.

No matter where these traveling Cowboys might be playing in this wide world.

The Cowboys kick off the regular season against the New York Giants on Sept. 8th. Tickets starting at $35. Get your tickets to see your Cowboys at AT&T Stadium this season!

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