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Spagnola: Offense Must Rescue This Hurtin' Bunch


IRVING, Texas – There is a good chance the Dallas Cowboys will begin this Sunday Night Football game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium without five of their regular starters on defense.

         For those counting at home, those missing would be Barry Church, Sean Lee, Kenyon Coleman, Bruce Carter and, at this point, since he has yet to practice any of the past two weeks because of a strained groin, Jay Ratliff (doubtful). And let's not forget missing prominent 12th man, Orlando Scandrick, their nickel back, and apparently their most-recent dime safety, Charlie Peprah, another highly doubtful participant.

         And you even wonder how in the world a team can give up 28 points in a quarter, as the Cowboys did this past Thanksgiving against Washington? How in such a critical game you can give up 38 points to a rookie quarterback?

         Starting players do matter.

         It is commendable on defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's part for not publicly whining, saying here at The Ranch on Friday, "I'm not making any excuses, we want to win the football game."

         Or that head coach Jason Garrett, who is trying to duct tape Humpty-Dumpty back together again while spending time ducking arrows being slung around by fans, talk radio hosts and national media calling for his scalp, has maintained his composure while knowing he finished the Washington game missing 14 prominent players. He also said on Friday, "We've just got to make it work," when talking about his secondary and linebacker situations, and then, "we have to mix and match and (players) have to be very versatile."

         Resilient would be another word for a 5-6 team currently in a seven-team clump with records between 7-4 and 5-7 vying for likely the final NFC Wild Card playoff spot if none is able to overtake any of the leaders in their respective divisions.

         I mean, check this out: Likely starting at one linebacker spot for the Cowboys on Sunday will be Ernie Sims, 38 days removed from his couch in Florida. One of his backups will be Brady Poppinga, who was having a hard time sitting on his couch as recently as six days ago.

         With Peprah out, another couch sitter to start the season, likely filling in at nickel and/or dime safety will be Eric Frampton, picked up off waivers two months ago. With Scandrick out, Mike Jenkins moves into the slot, and comparatively since he did so the second half on Thanksgiving Day without any practice reps inside, he should be a seasoned veteran after his first four days of practice in there this week.

         And Vince Agnew, heard of him? The practice squader signed to the 53-man roster on Nov. 10 might get in on some nickel or dime situations, too, and watch out, rookie outside linebacker Kyle Wilber, mostly a special teamer in the first 11 games and owner of just two NFL career defensive tackles, just might show up on a couple of the changeup defenses, but at inside linebacker where he just begun training this week.

         So my suggestion would be: DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, and even though the Eagles themselves will be playing with a backup rookie quarterback, a backup rookie running back, a backup wide receiver, their emergency starting center (third string) who is their right guard and already have been playing with a backup left tackle, you two better have the games of your lives if the Cowboys are to pull to .500 and keep hope alive.

         My other demand: Offense, front and center.

You guys gotta score … and score … and score. None of this three-point first half and 28-point second half stuff. Both halves. Is that asking a lot? I mean, 28 points the second half with the likes of Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and at times Andre Holmes at wide receiver. With rookie Lance Dunbar trying to spell a gallant but banged up Felix Jones at running back. With the right guard at center in this time of need and then backups at right guard and left tackle trying to block. And they still score 28 points in the second half?

         Plus, the balance of health is teetering back in your favor. After a six-game absence, running back DeMarco Murray is expected to return from the very severely sprained (i.e. torn) ligaments in his left foot. Backup center Ryan Cook is back after missing the past two games, which means Mackenzy Bernardeau can return to right guard. Tyron Smith is back after leaving the Cleveland game early with a sprained ankle and managing to serve only as the backup tackle in this past game.

         More encouraging signs: Wide receiver Miles Austin should be good to go after a strained hip-flexor the first series against the Redskins knocked him out of that game. Kevin Ogletree's concussion issue seems resolved after missing this past game.

         And by the grace of whomever you pray to, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is in one piece, I think, and if he throws at least one touchdown pass against the Eagles he'll become the franchise's career leader with 166, currently tied with Troy Aikman but safely ahead of Danny White (155) and Roger Staubach (153).

         Oh, I know how everyone wants to minimize this impending accomplishment, and by the way, let's pause here for a moment. If Romo does not throw a touchdown pass in this game, odds are the Cowboys will be beaten unless that beaten up defense pitches a shutout since this team has only rushed for five touchdowns so far this season (averaging .45 a game). How else would Dallas score?

So, yes, the Cowboys do throw the ball around more than they did in the Super Bowl years of the '90s. True enough, Romo already has thrown more career passes (3,048) in right at seven seasons worth of starts than all but Aikman (4,715), but mostly out of sheer necessity. Look, those other guys either played nearly all or parts of their careers with Hall of Fame running backs, Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith, and Hall of Fame wide receivers, Bob Hayes and Michael Irvin. Other than tight end Jason Witten, and maybe Terrell Owens for those three seasons, you see any Hall of Fame material trotting around in Romo's wake?

         And I know, I know, Staubach was part of two Super Bowl championship teams, Aikman three and White played on three teams that went to the NFC Championship game. Romo, of course, has not won or played in any Super Bowl or NFC title game, but colleague Nick Eatman had a most interesting stat the other day, and in case you weren't paying undivided attention:

         Romo has thrown his 165 touchdown passes in 88 starts, and nary a one of those TD passes was thrown until midway through the 2006 season when he took over for Drew Bledsoe. Aikman finished his 12-year career starting 165 games, so averaging one touchdown pass a start. Romo's average is just under two (1.88).

         But here is the real kicker. Aikman reached his 88th start six games into the 1995 season, so on his way to playing on his third Super Bowl championship team and on squads not only winning five straight NFC East titles but also playing in four consecutive NFC title games. And after 88 starts, thanks to Nick's research, Aikman's starting record was 53-35.

         You know what Romo's is? Try 52-36 for size.

         Certainly not minimizing Aikman's Hall of Fame career, nor that of Staubach's. But I'm just saying, and mostly to those who continually bag and minimize what Romo has accomplished just because he hasn't led this franchise to a Super Bowl, as if that's all his fault. But then it always is the quarterback's, right Danny White?

         So back to Sunday, and hey, maybe this game won't end up all on Romo's shoulders, as too many have this season. Miracles do happen, right? Since the Cowboys still are on pace to obliterate the franchise record-low for rushing yards in a 16-game season (1,409) they ignominiously established in 1989 when they went 1-15. This offense also is actually on pace to rush for fewer yards per game than the record low of 87.4 established in the inaugural 12-game season of 1960 when the 0-11-1 Cowboys rushed for just 1,049 yards.

         Currently the Cowboys are rushing for a dreadful 78.7 yards a game, totaling just 866 on the ground. That, not surprisingly, is dead last in the NFL, and look, I know they've given up on the run a lot – see score and inability – but there are five other teams after 11 games with no more than 251 carries (the Cowboys have 244) and they aren't dead last like the Cowboys, who average 3.5 yards per rush.

         But hey, Murray is back. Felix appears to be getting healthier. The offensive line, too, with backup Cook returning to center and Bernadeau then to right guard, Smith to left tackle and apparently Austin to wide receiver. Plus, the first time around, the Cowboys did expose the Eagles wide-nine look up front, where they play their defensive ends out wider than most for pass-rushing purposes. They totaled 101 yards on 25 carries, marking only their third 100-yard rushing performance of the season – and that's not individual, we're talking team – and most since rushing for the season-high 227 against Baltimore seven games ago.

         Just think, if an offense held to just 35 yards rushing last time out still manages to score 31 points, heaven have mercy. No telling how many points these Cowboys might score if it can pass AND run.

         And with this banged up defense, you had better hope.

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