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Spagnola: Offense must race forward after bye


FRISCO, Texas – Great the Cowboys beat the Chargers, 20-17, Monday night.

Great they were able to survive their first foray into deep waters offensively and defensively, performing quite well down the stretch to close out the win.

Great they have a bye after playing six games – four of those on the road, two of those road games on the left coast, one on the right coast, another south of the Grand Canyon and three of those four away games at night about as far away from home as possible.

Great they held serve in both home games, winning at home imperative for successful teams.

Great they came out of these six games with a 4-2 record, tied for the second-most wins in the NFL, just one game behind the five teams with the best records at 5-1. One of those the Philadelphia Eagles, so just one game back in the NFC East and the NFC.

Great the Cowboys outscored their opponents in the four wins, 128-30, but in this wild six-game roller-coaster ride having to squeeze their eyelids shut over losing the two games by a combined score of 70-26.

Great from a projected six-game win-loss total while resting this week, just one game off their expected pace. Heck, some had the Cowboys losing to the now 1-5 Giants in the opener and a few more losing to the now 2-3 Chargers this past Monday night, though not a soul probably had them losing to the now 1-5 Cardinals.

Time to rest. Everyone needs to exhale once in a while.

But also time to heed defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's advice about not spending too much time looking back, though self-analysis is fruitful, but looking straight ahead with five of the next seven games being played at AT&T Stadium, starting with next Sunday's game against the Rams and concluding with three straight home games against the Commanders, with Dolly Parton the halftime entertainment on Thanksgiving, then the Seahawks the following Thursday in prime time and concluding with the second Eagles meeting in a third consecutive nationally televised game on Dec. 10.

Quinn said on Tuesday he told his guys this, and sure could apply to the entire team after the 42-10 loss to the Niners, representing the most points the defense has given up since 49 to Cleveland 52 games ago and scoring the fewest points since bookending the 2022 season with three in the opening loss to Tampa Bay and six in the season ending loss to Washington:

"All week, and I don't know if you heard from me or the guys, we talked about running our race. Thought that was an important message for us after coming off last week. We even kind of used Usain Bolt. He wasn't looking over at Lane 4 to Justin Gatlin or Asafa Powell. Just worried about how we go get it on. And we didn't look at Lane 4."

Nice analogy, because if you are running a 100-meter race and you are looking sideways, or worse looking back, you aren't running at optimum speed. And in this case not playing at your best while worrying about what just happened.

Hey, remember in 1988 sitting there covering the Summer Olympics when 100-meter favorite Carl Lewis was getting smoked by Canada's Ben Johnson. Lewis looked a few lanes over in disbelief three times with Johnson pulling ahead, though Johnson would be disqualified after the race, testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

So then, looking forward to this bye week yet considering what has already taken place, this is what's causing some trepidation in the Cowboys' quest to not only overcome that one-game deficit behind the Eagles in the East but to reach that end goal, that Super Bowl goal every team has:

This offense.

And look, I know the Cowboys have outscored their opponents 154-100, but in three of the past four games they have not scored more than the 20 points they did against the Chargers, a team coming into the game with the 31st ranked defense and the 32nd ranked pass defense. And even in the 38-point effort in the 38-3 thumping of the now 1-5 Patriots, 14 of those points were defensive returns for touchdowns.

Understand head coach Mike McCarthy preaching complementary football. How he wants to play to his defense, the purported strength of this team, and that's fine and good. But of the five teams with 5-1 records, only the Chiefs have scored fewer than the Cowboys' 154 points, and remember four of their 15 touchdowns this season have been defensive returns.

Praise rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey for supplementing that 154-point total by making all 16 of his field goals and going 12 of 13 on extra points, so 60 of the Cowboys' 154 points coming off his right foot.

Of concern in the past two games, playing against teams coming into the game with at least the Chargers' 2-2 record, the Cowboys have struggled running the football, averaging just 3.4 yards a carry. And in the win over the Chargers, quarterback Dak Prescott ended up leading the way with 40 yards on seven carries. Plus, of the 96 rushing yards, 32 came on Dak's 18-yard run and a Brandin Cooks 14-yard end around.

The other stark deficiency going forward would be a lack of passing touchdowns. The Cowboys have just six with receivers producing just three of those in six games, one each for Cooks, CeeDee Lamb and KaVontae Turpin, his two touchdowns, one running, too, tying for the team lead with all of two by Tony Pollard.

This passing attack needs to get going, ranking 19th in the NFL at an average of just 210.2 yards a game, with Dallas only 17th in total offense at 329.8.

Now, get it, there has been some extenuating offensive circumstances. Like pulling out to a big lead in the 40-0 shutout of the Giants, along with a second-half rainstorm. Then the 30-10 win over the Jets. Quite obvious by halftime, with the Cowboys up 21-7, that the Jets were no threat, Dallas willing to settle for field goals and not risk turnovers. Plus, in the 28-16 loss to Arizona, the Cowboys were playing with three backups on the offensive line, two of those elevated from the practice squad and making their NFL starting debuts.

But still, Prescott has thrown only six touchdown passes, three of those to running back Rico Dowdle and tight ends Jake Ferguson and Luke Schoonmaker. That's it, an average of one a game. On pace for a career-low 17. Even in his five-game 2020 season, Dak had nine passing touchdowns before suffering his season-ending ankle injury. Why, just two seasons ago, Dak finished with 37 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions.

A quarterback with 42 multiple passing-touchdown games in his first seven seasons, including seven as a raw rookie in 2016, has just one such outing in six games this season. And to think Lamb has only one touchdown reception so far in 2023, when he totaled a career-high nine to lead the team in receiving touchdowns in 2022.

Just for perspective, Dak's six touchdown passes are tied for 18th in the NFL this year, while there are eight quarterbacks with at least 10 touchdown passes heading into Week 7. And it's not like Dak doesn't have the ability to throw for TDs. Why, he now has 172 in seven seasons plus six games in 2023, including 60 of those in 28 games over the past two seasons when the Cowboys have finished 12-5 both years. That's 2.14 touchdown passes a game.

So, get it, too, this offensive alteration is a "process," as we've been told. Plus, the starting five on the offensive line have two games under their belts after six games, the only two times the team's prospective five starters have been on the field together since the end of the 2021 season.

But come Monday, it's time to go. Time to go against the currently 3-3 Rams at AT&T Stadium, noon next Sunday.
"It was huge for us to get to 4-2, no doubt about it," Dak said after beating the Chargers this past Monday night. "But as I talked about our message throughout these days, we're moving forward and running our race, honestly. You've got to show up week in and week out in this league. If you look back at this past weekend, obviously, that shows you that. The last thing that we can do is start watching other teams and start, you know, 'If they do this, if they do that, when we do this.' Like, one, it's too early, and two, at the end of the day, we have to go win games. And we have to win games when it's available or when we are available to do that.

"Obviously, as it gets to the latter part of the year, it'll show a playoff picture, but we have to focus on getting better, peaking at the right time, being the best versions of ourselves every week that we show up and just continuing to make strides of getting better."

Do all that, great, too. Just keep their heads down moving forward.

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