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Spagnola: Ready Or Not, Here Go The Cowboys Chasing Level Of Consistency

FRISCO, Texas – In the very words of Rod Marinelli, with folks oohing about this and ahhhing about that, worrying about this injury or that lack of experience or preseason playing time, he shook his head and said, no matter what . . . .

         "Gotta go."

         Therein lies the beauty of this Dallas Cowboys 2017 season opener Sunday night against the New York Football Giants at what promises to be a seam-bursting AT&T Stadium, the 58th campaign in franchise history.

         It's time.

         Yep, it's time to start finding out if the Cowboys can become the first NFC East team to win back-to-back division titles since the Eagles won four straight from 2001 through 2004.

         It's time to start finding out if these Cowboys can produce consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time since 1995-96.

         It's time to start finding out if the Cowboys can qualify for the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since the now-retired Tony Romo emerged on the scene in 2006 and 2007.

         Yes, indeed, it's time to find out if the Cowboys can get over that 21-year hump to finally qualify for an NFC title game that they've come so precariously close to three times since last appearing in one that Super Bowl XXX-winning season of 1995.

         And oh, look, we'll worry about winning a Super Bowl after all that.

         In the meantime, well, some serious lumps have plopped down upon that expanding hump right from the start.

         The Cowboys knew from the beginning of training camp that they would be without three players serving season-opening suspensions: defensive ends Demontre' Moore (two games) and David Irving (four games) joining the nearly forgotten defensive end Randy Gregory (indefinite).

         Their restocked secondary of young defensive backs has been dealing with injuries, robbing Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods of valuable practice and preseason snaps.

         They will be without middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens for at least the first month of the season, the guy who just might have been the most valuable player of training camp suffering a fractured tibial plateau below his knee.

         And on top of all that, Ezekiel Elliott has been involved in a month-long legal battle with the NFL over his six-game suspension. Not until early Friday evening did the Cowboys and Elliott find out this battle will continue. The Cowboys knew Elliott was being allowed to play Sunday against the Giants, but now there is a possibility of playing for the remainder of the season while these court battles continue. U.S. District Court Judge Amos Mazzant of the Eastern District of Texas sided with the NFLPA and Elliott, issuing a temporary restraining order that puts his six-game suspension on hold, scolding the NFL for a faulty arbitration hearing. Maybe for now Elliott can focus on football.

         But hey, with all of this, there ain't no one feeling sorry for you, especially not the Giants, an 11-5 team from a year ago having squeaked past the Cowboys by the skin of their teeth twice, accounting for two of the strikes on the Cowboys' fabulous 13-3 record of last season.

         "But I think now it's in our DNA, whether we have an issue with Zeke, whether we have young DBs who aren't quite ready to go yet against the Giants, we're going to worry about the 46 guys that can help us beat the Giants on Sunday night," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones says. "That's our focus and I think this team has really got their hands around that, and that's why I have high expectations for this football team."

         Jones is not the only one with high expectations. Throw fans, Vegas odds and some media members in that school of thought. But then that is what happens when you go 13-3 the previous season after losing your franchise quarterback in the preseason. That is what happens when you have four draft choices that previous season take over this team the way Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown did as raw rookies.

         And that's what happens when you win the NFC East for the second time in three seasons and come within mere inches of going into playoff overtime against the Packers with a chance to earn a trip to the NFC title game that barely escaped your grasp against that same Packers team in 2014.

         But isn't that what you want?

         Yet, here is the problem with expectations: You have to start from scratch. None of last year matters, just as last year, none of 2015 mattered when the Cowboys went from the 12-4 of 2014 to the 4-12 of 2015 to the 13-3 of 2016. Just because you were that close to earning a home date in the NFC Championship Game last year doesn't mean they grandfather you into the playoffs the next.

         And no one else in the division is sitting still, especially not these Giants, who let's remember did go 11-5 last year to earn an NFC wild-card bid only to get bombed out of the playoffs by those same Packers, 38-13.

         Plus, there are many of those out there wondering if the Cowboys have caught up with the Giants anyway since, yes, they did lose both games to their East Coast foes last year. But here, as a public service, let me jog your memories.

         The scores in those games were Giants, 20-19, and Giants, 10-7. Not as if they put a whoopin' on the Cowboys. Also consider that first game, last year's season opener, was the first NFL game played by your rookie quarterback and your rookie running back. Think that might have mattered some?

         Plus, the Cowboys in that game were leading 19-13 heading into the fourth quarter. Dak Prescott threw for more yards than the veteran Eli Manning. The Cowboys piled up more total yards than the Giants. And they held the ball 13 minutes more than the Giants.

         Why'd they lose?

         Couldn't finish drives, ending up kicking field goals with the ball on the Giants 5- and 7-yard lines. And how can you forget the final play of the game, Dak completing that pass to Terrance Williams who was fighting for more yards instead of getting out of bounds so Dan Bailey could at least attempt a game-winning, probably 60-yard field goal before the clock expired. (Footnote: Bailey already had hit from 54 and 56 yards in that game.)

         And the second time around?

         Cold, slick day at MetLife. The Cowboys already having won 11 consecutive games, a single-season franchise record, meaning they were overdue to finally lose one. Each team was only able to gain 260 yards. Yes, Dak was intercepted two times. But let's also remember one of those occurred when Dez Bryant slipped on a field initially covered with a dusting of snow pregame, causing Dak's pass to go right into the hands of the Giants. Neither team could convert that day on third down, the Cowboys going 1-for-15 and the Giants 2-for-14.

         Want more? Two holding calls on the Cowboys wiped out a Cole Beasley reception down to the Giants 37-yard line and a Beasley punt return down to the Giants 30, turning both possessions on the precipice of at least a field-goal attempt hollow. And darn if Bailey's 55-yard field-goal attempt didn't clank off the crossbar, bounding backward instead.

         So yes, the Cowboys did lose both games to the Giants, but let's not act like they were steamrolled, or that they've got a lot of ground to make up to catch up with those Giants.

         Now, we know the Cowboys aren't perfect. As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says, "You can't have it all."

There are questions at left guard: How well will Chaz Green play in a spot he's only spent one half in a real game playing, and that was in college? How well will La'el Collins play out at right tackle, a position (tackle) he hasn't played in a real game since, well, like 2014 at LSU?

         And then of course there is the annual concern, probably the same one ever since the end of that 2009 season: What about this defense?

         To me, the Cowboys have a chance to be better up front than they were last year. More talent. A healthy DeMarcus Lawrence. Benson Mayowa understanding how hard he must play every snap, every game if Marinelli is going to put him on the field. A healthy Tyrone Crawford. The addition of Taco Charlton. A healthy Charles Tapper.

         Oh yes, and Collins no longer is a mere rookie. This guy is the real deal.

         Yep, the secondary is young. New faces back there. But think also about this: Orlando Scandrick appears to be playing like the Orlando Scandrick of 2014, before tearing up his knee in 2015. Brown no longer is a rookie. While Awuzie and Woods missed a lot of snaps in camp, they are at least ready to go, and quite talented. So is Lewis, though he may be a week or so away from getting over the hamstring that caused him to virtually miss all of training camp.

         Now we'll find out more about cornerbacks Nolan Carroll and Bene Benwikere, veterans signed as insurance. And look, I know there is some consternation over Jeff Heath starting at safety, but also remember that all the guy seems to do is make plays on the ball.

         Oh, and don't sell short the 5-8 addition of Ryan Switzer, not only on special teams but also pairing him in the slots with Beasley.

         And one last thing: Dez Bryant is balling. He's healthy. He's worked an entire offseason for the first time in three years. He and Dak have chemistry. And if you need a sneak peek, just look at his numbers from Games 9-15 and then the playoff game. In those eight games, so half a season, Dez caught 43 passes for 646 yards and six touchdowns. Factor that out over a 16-game season and we have 86 catches for 1,292 yards and 16 touchdowns

         "Dez is ready to go, ready for this matchup," Prescott says.

         To me, this is a team that just might continue to improve as the season goes along, especially on defense. And that's great, but they start counting the games this Sunday.

         And if you just need to feel good about something, consider what your thoughts were last year at this time when the Cowboys were starting the season with a rookie quarterback drafted in the fourth round, and knowing Tony Romo would not be back for at least two months, maybe longer.

         Also remember all the handwringing going on after losing the opener to the Giants last year. You'd have thought the Cowboys would never win another game, everyone going, "Oh man, we're 0-1 and now have to play at Washington, the defending NFC East champs, with 0-2 coming up," many figuring more of the same from 2015 was on the way.

         So come on, sit tight.

         "Now you get criticized in the game when you say Super Bowl or bust, but you all strive to want to win a championship, and I know that's the goal of this particular team," Stephen Jones said. "There is no doubt in my mind with the consistency we've created with the coaching staff, with our personnel, with the consistency with [senior director of college and pro personnel] Will McClay, with ownership, with the organization that I really like our chances."

         So do I. Put me down for continued consistency this year, say something like 11-5 and another NFC East title.

         Great, but time to play it out, because as Marinelli said, "That's what we're going to do, play on Sunday." 

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