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Spagnola: O-Line Must Wipe The Slate Clean


FRISCO, Texas – The Boys are back in town.

There's a new Cowboy and a former one joining them.

Then there is a relatively new one leaving town.

Yep, change is in the air.

But the record still is the same, 3-4. The Cowboys still are the third-place team in in the NFC East, a half-game behind the second-place Eagles and 1½ games behind the first-place Washington Redskins.

So, what's the word returning to practice here on Thursday following the team's extended bye week, what with the 3-4 Tennessee Titans on deck Monday night at AT&T Stadium?

"You want to get away from ball, you want to come back and it's a blank slate, if you're 7-0 or 0-7," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said during his first media gathering since dismissing the troops a week ago Thursday for CBA-mandated R&R. "It's a blank slate, let's start again, and that's something we try to instill in our team week in and week and out.

"This is a chance to get recharged, and coming back with a clean slate is important."

As in 0-0. As in starting over.
And there seemed to be a re-energized team on the practice field, a lighter attitude in the locker room, maybe spurred on by the changes during the bye, trading for wide receiver Amari Cooper and promoting assistant offensive line coach Marc Colombo to the offensive line coach in place of the dismissed Paul Alexander and bringing back an old hand to assist, the retired Hudson Houck.

The sun is out and the air seems fresher.

And as Dak Prescott said, "The time is now."

So just maybe everyone can focus on what really is the root of this 3-4 evil record, one constructed with three victories at home and four losses on the road. One constructed with the NFL's No.-3 ranked defense but the No. 28th-ranked offense. With the second-ranked scoring defense but just the 26th-ranked scoring offense.

So, so much attention has been paid to the quarterback. He holds the ball too long in the pocket. He can't anticipate. He's not accurate. Then the offensive coordinator. He's not creative enough. Runs the ball too much. Then the head coach. Not aggressive enough. Then the wide receiver corps. Don't get open enough and soon enough.

But come on, what's truly been the problem with the offense if you are willing to put these cheap narratives aside?

Well, how about smoking on these numbers in your pipe:

Dak has been sacked 23 times in seven games. Only four teams have suffered more sacks per pass play than the Cowboys, and if 23 is factored out over the course of a season, he's on pace to suffer 52.6 sacks in 2018. Why, that would be the most sacks suffered by a Cowboys team since the 54 in 2002. Plus, the poor guy has been hit 46 times, meaning at that rate Dak will wind up with 105 hits over 16 games.

Then there is this, despite Ezekiel Elliott ranked second in the NFL with his 619 rushing yards: Zeke has been held to no more than 78 yards rushing in four of the seven games. Cover your eyes, because in the first 25 games of his career he'd been held to no more than 78 yards only twice.

And you're telling me you're still looking for what's ailing an offense averaging just 20 points a game, ranking 26th in the NFL?

Come on man, draw a big fat circle around offensive line.

And when doing so, you need no longer ask why in the world did head coach Jason Garrett moved on from Alexander, the 25-year veteran NFL offensive line coach hired here this off-season, then promoting Colombo and also coaxing the 75-year-old Houck, who had spent 14 years with the Cowboys, going all the way back to Garrett's playing days with the Cowboys, off the golf course in southern California to pair with Colombo as the senior assistant.

You might be asking, heck, what took him so long.

Truth be known, this was a disconnect from the start with Alexander. Just wasn't a good fit in this room loaded with three Pro Bowlers, all first-round picks; another first-round quality offensive lineman; and a second-round choice at guard just this year. And don't fall for all this talk about Alexander's attempting to change the line's blocking techniques as leading to his dismissal or player disenchantment.

All you had to do was listen intently how Garrett handled this delicate issue here Thursday morning.

"We felt (Houck) and Marc working together would create the kind of environment on the offensive line where they could be their best," he said.

Focus on the word environment.

These guys, and I get it, playing without Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, were just not playing with their customary physical nature. Maybe thinking too much. And this has been across the board.

Now you don't have to listen to me, but take six-time Pro Bowler Nate Newton's assessment, saying, "If you listen to (Garrett), the first thing that comes to your mind is toughness, and he's saying we got to regain our toughness."

If nothing else, toughness was Colombo's trademark during his playing days. Same quality Houck preached when coaching him, and the likes of Newton, Larry Allen, Erik Williams, Mark Tuinei, Flozell Adams, Ray Donaldson, Andre Gurode and then advocating in 2011 for the Cowboys to use the ninth pick in the draft on the 20-year-old from Southern Cal, Tyron Smith.

These guys here are not dancing bears up front.

"In a week or so, you will see these guys are better," Newton said.

Boy, they'd better be if these Cowboys are to pull out of this rut and get to where they expected to be, knowing not only must they face the defensive-minded Titans on Monday night, but then have to go on the road to Philadelphia and Atlanta, then home for their back-to-back Thursday games against Washington and New Orleans – totaling four games in 18 days.

By then we should know for sure who these Cowboys are.

"This is all about our quest to get to our standards," Frederick said of the coaching change.

Then, lend an attentive ear to what Colombo had to say, and you get a better feel for the disconnect not only in the room but on the practice field.

"We need to get back to who we are, what we do," Colombo emphatically stated. "We're going to work, we're going to grind, every day – we're going to bring some violence, some nasty to the game. The guys have done that somewhat.

"But we've got to get back to our roots over the past few years here, which has been a nasty attitude, and we're going to bring that."

You go, Marc. Exactly what Garrett is looking for. More physicality.

Because if this group doesn't get back to the standards it has set over the past, oh, four years, fails to reach those heights, then the acquisition of Amari Cooper will be minimized, and that would be a shame after spending a first-round pick to acquire him last week, and knowing, according to wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal, that he's ready to go Monday night.

Dak agrees, knowing this is a fast-twitch guy, right off the line of scrimmage. And when someone asked him how much we'd see Cooper on the field, Dak sort of gave a say-what look, basically saying a lot, because, "We didn't trade a first-round pick for a guy to sit on the bench."

And failing to improve up front also minimizes his talents and those of Zeke, which would be a dirty rotten shame.

Hopefully this all explains why the Cowboys made this coaching move.

"Believe very strongly in (Colombo) and (Colombo and Houck) working together," Garrett said. "We think it's going to help our offensive line, our offense and our football team."

Sure needs to, and in a hurry to bury those previous narratives that were missing the mark, wide and outside, blaming 3-4 and a struggling offense on everything but.

All right then, the slate is clean, and as Tyrone Crawford pointed out, "We have to focus on this week, focus on now."

Got that right, because indeed, the time is now.