Spagnola: On Your Mark, Get Set, Go … Now

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FRISCO, Texas – Come on, let’s go.

No dilly-dallying around.

These are the Minnesota Viking running into AT&T Stadium Sunday night.

Stout team. 6-3. Eighth-ranked offense. Their running back, Dalvin Cook, leads the NFL in rushing, is second in rushing touchdowns. Seventh-ranked defense. Their defensive end, Danielle Hunter, is tied for fourth with 8.5 sacks. His linemate, Everson Griffin, is right behind him with 5.5 sacks. The bookend ends have combined for 69 quarterback hits.

This game starts at 7:20 p.m. Sharp. Kickoff. Not 7:25. Not 8 p.m. Not 8:30.

When Al Michaels says, “And here we go,” when there are 90,000 people on their feet screaming from the rafters, these slow-starting Cowboys need to either kick the darn ball into the end zone for a touchback or catch the darn kickoff on the fly. No one-bouncers.

Can’t keep casually moseying into games as they basically have in six of their eight this season, and really seven of their eight in the first halves. Only in that 37-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles have the Cowboys gotten off their mark on time for the start of the game.

This, the biggest reason why they come into this game the No. 1 offense in the NFL, the sixth-ranked defense – just one of three teams ranked in the top 10 of both categories – but with just a 5-3 record. Sure, first place in the NFC East, but heck, by just a half-game over the idle Philadelphia Eagles (5-4).

Slow cookin’ is fine for pulled pork. Not for winning enough games to reach the NFC playoffs.

“At that moment early in the game, when we’re struggling,” said Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, he too playing at a high level overall, one of nine quarterbacks with a 100 passer rating, his 102.5, but behind the Vikings guy, Kirk Cousins’ 112, “it’s just about getting our guys focused, getting our guys concentrated. Stop making mistakes, stop doing things hurting ourselves, including myself, starting off with the first play of the game.

“Once again, we’re stalling because of self-inflicted mistakes. Let’s get on pace, get on track. When we do the things we’re supposed to do we’re able to roll and we’re a powerful offense.”

Truer words never spoken.

Check this out: In six of eight games the Cowboys have fallen behind, including in all three losses: Giants 7-0, Washington 7-0, New Orleans 9-3, Green Bay 14-0, Jets 21-6, Giants II 12-3. And for argument support, the Cowboys only led the 1-7 Dolphins at halftime 10-6.

Only in the 37-10 victory over Philadelphia did the Cowboys get out of the starting gate clean, turning a 14-0 lead into a 27-7 halftime advantage.

My gosh, until that black feline came ominously roaming onto the field, gaining 50 yards before retreating at MetLife Stadium on Monday night, the Cowboys were sleep-walking through the first one and a half quarters against the now 2-7 Giants. Never knew black cats to be associated with good luck charms.

Who knows, maybe everyone needs to arrive at AT&T dressed in black cat suits, faces painted with black whiskers instead of blue stars.

Just something.

“Obviously we want to play better at beginning of games,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore says, “and eventually we hope to get to that point and find that formula.”

Maybe having set the clocks back will help. When the Cowboys body clocks think it’s 8:20, normally about the time they kick it in gear, it’s now really 7:20 CST, and that’s PM, kickoff time.

Made even myself chuckle the other day thinking about these slow starts. Remember as a kid, when watching baseball with my dad, any time a White Sox pitcher would give up a bunch of runs in the first inning and then settle down, he would say, “Maybe that guy needs to warm up longer so he’s ready to pitch.” Exasperated at the too simplistic thought, I’d give him one of those typical teenage, \Oh, dad\ responses.

Maybe daddy might have been on to something because caught myself thinking earlier in the week, maybe the Cowboys need to come out earlier for warmups. Again, just something, anything to wake them up.

Look, the Cowboys only have been outscored in one quarter this season. Good guess, the first, 41-37. And they are only up 94-86 after two quarters. But the second half, they are squashing opponents, 133-56, for an overwhelming 227-142 advantage in total points.

Now, there’s been a lot of superficial perceptions floating around for these slow starts. That the Cowboys aren’t prepared. Well, if they aren’t prepared by kickoff, what miraculously happens by the second quarter – the second half – to goose them? Or that they aren’t properly motivated. Well, if they aren’t motivated for the opening kickoff, do they need falling behind for inspiration?

After all, in the three losses the Cowboys would come storming back, losing two of those by two points, and after falling behind the Packers, 31-3, came within a missed 33-yard field goal from being able to onside kick with 1:41 left just seven points down, in the 34-24 loss.

Let me provide you with the most tangible reason:

Turnovers.

Or let Dak do it.

“Obviously, you’re frustrated that they piss you off because they are fixable, they’re so easy to fix,” he says of fumbles and interceptions and penalties and, well, just bonehead plays, “and that’s also the encouraging part because you know you can go in and clean those things up. We just have to stop doing it.”

Got that right.

Here is evidence. The Cowboys have turned the ball over 11 times in eight games – eight interceptions and three lost fumbles. Eight of those 11 turnovers have occurred in the first halves.

Of their 17 first-quarter possessions, the Cowboys have turned the ball over three times, kicked three field goals, missed one field goal, punted six times and scored four touchdowns. Two of those touchdowns were in the first quarter of the Philadelphia game. A win.

In the three losses, the five possessions resulted in one field goal, and that from the 10 after being first-and-10 at the 11-yard line in the two-point loss to the Saints; one interception, and that Amari Cooper’s dropped pass that if he caught the ball might have been a touchdown against the Packers; and three punts, one of those their only first-quarter possession against the Jets.

These slow starts do not exclude the Cowboys defense. That side of the ball has only allowed 14 touchdowns so far in eight games, pretty impressive. But five of them, or 35.7 percent, have been given up in the first quarter, along with nearly 30 percent of the 142 points yielded.

Makes me think of Dez Bryant’s infamous remark one day when frustrated with the media in the locker room, aiming his anger at Cowboys PR director Rich Dalrymple, “Fix this s---, Rich.”

Yeah, fix it Cowboys.

“You acknowledge it, hopefully correct it, hopefully make some improvements as we go,” Moore says. “Whether you look at, maybe see things on my end I could do a little better, from an execution standpoint we could do better. It’s part of it. We want to do better. But fortunately we’re not digging too deep a holes and we’re able to overcome those things.”

Now that is the bright side. Because in four of the five wins, if we include leading Miami only 10-6 at halftime, the Cowboys did dig themselves out of those sluggish starts. And in the three losses, at least they did come charging back, though, too little too late.

There is something to be said for that.

“The best players I’ve been around, the best teams I’ve been around we’re able to do that,” head coach Jason Garrett says. “They play this play, they let the last one go. Touchdown, interception, fumble, sack, whatever it is, you just keep playing this play, keep moving forward and understand it’s play after play after play for 60 minutes.

“Play with a clean mind, a clean spirit and you keep going.”

Now then, how’s about doing so right from the start.

Sunday.

7:20 p.m. CST.

Not a minute later.

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