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Spagnola: Rare Talent To Fuel 2nd-Half Surge


FRISCO, Texas – Seven down, nine to go.

Cowboys 4-3, first place in the NFC East at the bye.

Just OK. Could have been better. Heck, should have been better. Face it, 5-2 was not far off.

Each side of the ball had its say-what moment. The offense in that 10-point effort against the Saints. The defense giving up 34 points against the Packers. Special Teams, Mr. 60-yarder missing from 54 and 33 against Green Bay.

So after taking a deep breath this bye week, the Cowboys get back at it a week from Monday. First the Giants (2-5), then the gauntlet of Vikings (5-2), at Lions (2-3-1), at Patriots (7-0), Bills (5-1) on the short Thanksgiving week, and at Bears (3-3) the following Thursday.

Starting with Detroit, that's that brutal stretch we recognized when the schedule came out, three of four games on the road, but also four games within 19 days, averaging out to a game every 4.75 days.

Yeah, they better get off their feet for some R&R – Rest and Rehab.

Now then, as for hope going forward, as for confidence this team is what we thought it would be at the beginning of the season – what they thought they would be – to me, this is it:

Dak Prescott.

Ezekiel Elliott.

Amari Cooper.

Yeah, I get it. This is a team thing. Need that offensive line. Need that defense. Need those kickers for sure.

But those three guys, those three Pro Bowlers, are the ever-lovin' spark plugs to the future success of this team.

Dost thou protest?

Well, let's start here with some blinking-number proof.

Dak Prescott: 168 of 238 (70.6 percent), 2,123 yards, 8.92 yards per attempt, 12 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 102.6 passer rating. The rating ranks seventh in the NFL, just four points from fourth. His yards rank third, only Patrick Mahomes (2,180) and Matt Ryan (2,170) have more. His completion percentage ranks third, only Derek Carr with 49 fewer attempts, (74.1) and Matt Ryan (70.9) higher. His yards per attempt rank third, only Kurt Cousins and Mahomes at 90.5 higher.

That's darn right stout.

Ezekiel Elliott: 135 for 602, 4.5 yards a carry, six touchdowns. Zeke's yards rank fifth in the NFL, a mere 16 from third. His six rushing touchdowns are tied for fifth among running backs, two short of the lead, and one of those guys with eight, Green Bay's Aaron Jones, compiled half of his total against the Cowboys. This would put Zeke on pace for a 1,376-yard season. And when it comes to yards from scrimmage, his 778 ranks fourth. Not bad for a team that is balanced offensively, ranking fourth in both rushing and passing yards.

Amari Cooper: 38 catches for 621 yards and five touchdowns. Cooper ranks third in receiving yards behind Michael Thomas (763) and Chis Godwin (662). And his 16.3 yards per catch also ranks third, behind just Stefon Diggs (18.7) and D.J. Chark (17.6). And his five receiving touchdowns ties him for second behind Godwin (six).

No other team has a threesome ranked as high in their individual categories.

That's why the Cowboys lead the NFL in total offense, averaging 437.9 yards per game. How good is that? Only two other teams are even averaging 400 yards a game, Baltimore (434.9) and Kansas City 400.4.

And while the Cowboys rank seventh in average points per game (27.1), think about this: If not for the clunker in New Orleans, scoring just 10 points, the Cowboys are averaging 30 points a game in the other six, and have scored at least 30 in four of their seven games. That's one more 30 pointer than the three they scored all of last season.

But as we know, if there is a drink to stir, the quarterback is always the straw. And for these first seven games, Dak has been this team's swizzle stick.

"I think he's off to a really good start," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says. "His leadership has been fantastic. His mental and physical toughness has been fantastic. He, too, has been an example of how he approaches every day. He handles his success, he handles his adversity week to week, play by play. I just think he's been outstanding in that regard.

"He's certainly been very productive throwing the football. He's been productive running the football. He's playing at a very high level."

So high, he has disintegrated those false narratives that, one, he is not accurate throwing the ball. Two, he can't throw the ball deep. Three, can't read defenses, thus holding the ball too long and taking too many sacks. Which brings me to another one of those stats. Dak has only been sacked 10 times in seven games, a 22-sack pace over 16 games. Last year, why he was sacked 56 times.

Yeah, might call that an improvement.

"I think he's playing at a high level," quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna said after the second of the two bye-week practices, "and I think our team is coming to where he's at physically and mentally.

"He does a great job dealing with frustration, dealing with success. His mental toughness is off the charts."

And while emphasizing how much he's improved in the pocket, his awareness, his ability to get the ball off, Kitna pointed out that in the 37-10 victory over the Eagles, Dak actually got a pass off to his fifth option. Fifth, now.

Now Jon, which play was that?

"First play of the game," said Kitna of his 7-yard dump off to Zeke. "That's rare."

His point: A quarterback can't do that if he does not have a command of the offense. If he's not only aware of coverages, but also of where all his receiving options will be during the play.

Of course, there will be some insisting Dak can't play at this high a level without Amari. But then I'll tell you Amari can't play at the level he's playing without Dak.

And as for Zeke, well, he benefits from what Dak and Amari can do, and they benefit from Zeke scaring the daylights out of defenses. No defensive cheating allowed.

Now then, it's only been seven games. Me, better than most, thoroughly understands that. Still a long way to go. But look at what this team has done since acquiring Cooper. The Cowboys went 7-2 the rest of the regular season last year. Went 1-1 in the playoffs. Now 4-3 in the first seven of 2019, with two of those losses by a mere two points.

So now's time to kick it in high gear these final nine. And the kicking starts with this offensive triumvirate.

And as Dak said of the beat-down of the Eagles, the offense scoring 37 points and piling up 402 yards of offense – the Cowboys piling up their fifth 400-yard performance and just 2 yards shy of a sixth: "We have a lot of weapons on this offense and we can get them involved in different ways. That's the performance that you get. We'll get better from this one. It was a lot of great stuff on tape, but there's still a lot of things that we can get better from.

"We'll do exactly that."

And if they do, this team ought to go humming along.