Spagnola: On The Verge Of Building Something Big


FRISCO, Texas – There is something brewing here at The Star.

You can feel it.

You can see it.

You can smell it, if you will.

The Cowboys are 6-1.

Have won six straight.

First place in the NFC East, a half-game from tying for the best record in the NFL.

Despite Dak Prescott's absence in the sixth of those six straight victories, they still are the top-ranked offense in the NFL. Ranked second in rushing, third in passing and third in scoring.

And just maybe this defense is coming around, too, playing its best game in many moons on Halloween Night while holding Minnesota to one touchdown, 16 points and just 278 yards, the second time the Cowboys have given up only one touchdown in a game and just the third time in the past 23 games.

The schedule for now is playing in their favor. Three of the next four games are at AT&T Stadium, starting with Sunday's noon start against the 4-4 Denver Von Miller-less Broncos, though a team they have not beaten in the past six meetings, needing to go back to the Super Bowl XXX-winning season of 1995 to find the last victory.

Currently, of the next four opponents – Denver, Atlanta, Kansas City and Las Vegas – only the Raiders (5-2) have a winning record, winning two straight under interim head coach and former Cowboys special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia.

Still, though, sense there is some latent hesitancy out there caused by the past two seasons of 8-8 and 6-10, but think about it this way: As bad as head coach Mike McCarthy's first season was last year, the Cowboys have won 9 of their past 11 games.

Do not be afraid to stand up and cheer.

"We feel like we have something really special going on with our locker room and everything that is going on," even McCarthy allowed this week. "We're about beating Denver. The overview questions, the big picture questions, you have to answer them, but you could feel this building all the way back in the spring. But we're doing something with it, that's the most important part. We need to keep winning. This is the most important game because it's the next game, a cliché there for you …

"I definitely feel strongly we have something special brewing here."

See there, even Pittsburgh's own shot-and-a-beer Mike thinks it's OK to stand up and cheer.

Now, how come? Why this drastic turnaround from last year's 3-9 start? From 2019's 2-4 in fade the final six games of Jason's Garrett's nine-year reign? That ugly streak of 5-13?

Health for one, especially on offense, save Dak missing last Sunday's game and the likely possibility of Tyron Smith (ankle) missing this Sunday's game, along with tight end Blake Jarwin (hip), and CeeDee Lamb (ankle) questionable.

A vastly improved coached defense, too, with the additions of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. and defensive line coach Aden Durde, plus the status elevation of George Edwards with the linebackers.

But here is the biggest difference, just why this team has been able to overcome so many adversities and win three of those six games on basically the last play: Greg Zuerlein's walk-off 56-yard field-goal against the Chargers, Dak's 35-yard touchdown pass to Lamb in overtime to beat the Patriots and Cooper Rush's 5-yard game-winner to Amari Cooper with 51 seconds remaining to knock off the Vikings.

This team is making plays.

Harkens me back to the Jimmy Johnson days, when the head coach who turned this franchise around from five consecutive losing seasons would stalk the practice fields exhorting his troops with arms raised out in front of him, clapping hands and shouting, "Who's going to make the play? Who's going to make the play?"

Them Cowboys are making the plays.

And frankly, that's what this NFL game is all about. No team just goes out there and crushes an opponent play after play after play. Nope, it's making plays in crucial times, just as we thought Dallas did in that season opener in the 31-29 loss to Tampa Bay, when the Cowboys drove for Zuerlein's 48-yard field goal with 1:24 left, yet far too much time for Tom Brady to recover for the Buccaneers' winning field goal.

But look here.

Take the past game. Not just the Coop-to-Coop game winner. How's 'bout the other Coop-to-Coop that drive, the 33-yarder hot potato of a catch. Or Ezekiel Elliott bulldogging through the Vikings defense on that third-and-11 at the Minnesota 20 for 15 yards and a first down, saving the Cowboys from being forced to kick a game-tying field goal.

Or the defense in that game, facing first-and-goal at the Cowboys' 4-yard line with 5:08 to play in a 13-13 game when Donovan Wilson and Justin Hamilton drop Delvin Cook for a 4-yard loss or on the next play Jayron Kearse stopping Alexander Mattison for a 3-yard loss, all causing the Vikings to settle for a field goal instead of what appeared would be a sure touchdown.

Or the New England game after Zuerlein misses a 51-yard field goal and the Cowboys trailing 21-20, two plays later Trevon Diggs picks off Mac Jones and goes 42 yards for a touchdown. Or on the game-winning touchdown drive in overtime, facing fourth-and-4 at their own 35, Dak hits Cedrick Wilson for 13 yards and a first down.

Making plays.

Want more? Zuerlein's walk-off 56-yarder to beat the Chargers. In the Philadelphia win, with the Cowboys leading 20-7 at halftime, and the Eagles with a chance to narrow the game to one possession starting the third quarter, Diggs comes up with his first Pick-6 of the season, going 59 yards to stake the Cowboys to a comfortable 27-7 lead.

Or the Carolina game, when trailing 14-13 at halftime, Dak's 35-yard TD pass to Cooper on his slick route for a 20-14 lead and never looking back. We forget the 44-20 victory over the Giants was a 10-10 game with 41 seconds left in the first half before Dak hits Coop on a skinny post for a 24-yard touchdown and 17-10 lead, not to mention a Diggs pick early in the third quarter to set up a Zuerlein field goal, the first three of 17 consecutive points scored.

Just making plays. Overcoming adversities left and right. No matter home or away. Healthy or backups stepping up. Winning in the NFL don't come easy.

Who would have thought trailing 10-3 at halftime of the Minnesota game, with Rush in his first half at quarterback in the NFL having produced just 168 yards offense and holding a humble 53.6 QB rating, the Cowboys would rebound to win 20-16?

That just doesn't happen often.

"It was huge," Dak says of that win. "Obviously when you go in there with a backup quarterback in a hostile environment and he leads the team to a game-winning drive, I think that speaks volumes about not only him but our whole team in how we stuck together in a game with penalties and a lot of things. And we are on the road, we found a way to win. I think that is tough to do, whether I am in there or a backup is in there.

"Cooper Rush did a great job of keeping the guys together and making sure they believed in him. He went out there and finished it off with a great touchdown. The defense made a play on the last drive.

"Great team win."

And that's the key to special seasons. Team wins. Can't expect, no matter the circumstances, for this offense to hit its six-game average of 34.2 points a game every time out. Sometimes you've got to win one scoring 20 points. Now that's two wins scoring just 20 points in one season. Over the previous eight seasons, only once have the Cowboys won more than one game in a year scoring no more than 20 points. That occurred three times in 2017, though the NFC East champion Eagles, with nothing to gain in Game 16, basically no-showed in the Cowboys' 6-0 victory.

Hey, during that 1995 Super Bowl XXX championship season, the Cowboys lost three of their four games that year when scoring no more than 20, and the fourth that 12-4 season when scoring just 23.

Just think, had the Cowboys made a play or three more in the season opening loss to Tampa Bay, they very well could have been 7-0 heading into Sunday's game against the 4-4 Broncos.

That close. That good.

"We're winning different ways, we're getting over the adversity humps that we've created or the opposition has created," McCarthy says. "So, building confidence is probably A-No. 1. We're a more confident team than we were two games ago."

Can smell it, can't cha?

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