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Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: Sacking A Past To Find Relevancy


FRISCO, Texas – Just watching him on the field this offseason, his quickness, his obvious commitment, his improved strength.

Just seeing the look in his eyes, very clear, very sincere.

Just listening to him speak, be it only the one, 16-minute video interview during the minicamp, sounding confident and unburdened.

This, to me, is the Randy Gregory the Cowboys were hoping for when selecting the Nebraska defensive end in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

This is the Randy Gregory the Cowboys have been waiting for, the troubled and tortured kid who over the six years of his turbulent NFL career has played in just 38 of a possible 96 games, missing 54 by suspension, including all of the 2017 and 2019 seasons, and then four more games because of injury.

"I don't want to get all deep on you guys, I think it's a certain level of self-love and just understanding. I don't know how to put it. It's a lot of self-love," Gregory said of where he is today. "I think there was a point and time in my life where you could ask me to say one good thing about my life and I couldn't, but I could tell you 20 bad things.

"I've come a long way from that where I could say a lot of good things about myself. I'm very proud of myself. I'm proud of where I'm at, I'm proud of the journey I took. A lot of guys don't make it as far in this league as I have. I've made a lot of mistakes but I think I've earned what I've gotten, bad or good, and I'm going to continue to do that.

"I think my best years are to come. They are ahead of me."

You'd better believe the Cowboys are darn well hoping that's true.

In fact, the Cowboys need that from Gregory this season, and why he's my 2021 choice to be _Mr. Relevant_. You know, that guy the Dallas Cowboys dearly need to step up, to help make the difference between last year's epically poor defense and dramatically rebounding this year, much-needed if this team is to transpose last year's 6-10 record into, well, say a 180-degree turnaround to at least 10 wins.

If you guys remember, over some of the past seasons my nomination for Mr. Relevant has been Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, DeMarcus Lawrence in 2017 and Robert Quinn in 2019. And my definition of _relevancy_ has been this:

Someone or somebodies the Cowboys absolutely need to break out if they are to have some success; a player or players with either no or modest résumés the Cowboys desperately need to produce.

This year, it's hard to choose anyone on offense, right? Since most of those guys who play a position of significance are so accomplished already. Defensively, besides Lawrence, there is a slew of guys to choose from. The Cowboys certainly need a healthy Leighton Vander Esch, you know, the guy who accomplished so much during his 2018 rookie year before being beset with injures these past two years. Maybe a guy like last year's third-round pick Neville Gallimore to make a huge jump at defensive tackle.

But to me, the most important salve to put on last year's defensive wounds will be to find a defensive end opposite "D-Law" to keep offenses honest; to give the Cowboys at least one more dynamic player in that front seven to explode the way Lawrence did in 2017 with his career-high 14.5 sacks or Quinn in 2019 with those 11.5 sacks.

The lack of sacks and QB pressures were an issue last year, the 31 sacks matching their lowest total in six years and second-lowest total in 18 years, going all the way back to the 24 in 2002. And this year the Cowboys must face such sharpshooters as Tom Brady, Matt Ryan (put 39 points on them last year), Kirk Cousins (28), Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray (38), Derek Carr, Justin Herbert and Sam Darnold. Don't laugh. Darnold put 338 yards and two touchdowns on them in 2019 with the darn winless Jets to earn a 24-22 victory.

Talent has not been Gregory's problem. Suspensions have. Four games in 2016, then 10 more before the season ended. The entire 2017 season, suspended indefinitely. Suspended indefinitely again in February 2019, missing that entire season, along with having to miss the first six games of the 2020 campaign when "conditionally" reinstated.

He has been a troubled soul, self-medicating and repeatedly violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, something that has haunted him since his two years at Nebraska. And even at the NFL Scouting Combine, which is why this first-round talent fell to the Cowboys in the second round of 2015 at No. 60.

Gregory has staged many comebacks, only to digress. This one seems different.

"It's been an up and down journey. You guys know my journey," Gregory said that first day of the team's mandatory minicamp. "Another big thing for me this year, I'm trying to get away from, and it's hard, I understand, I want to get away from that past. I feel like there's a certain narrative you guys have to follow or choose to follow as far as my journey. That's what people want to read about and hear about. I understand. It's in the past. I've done a great job the last few years with the team on and off the field, and I'm looking forward to the future, if that's three years, five years, whatever it is.

"I'm having fun. I'm doing what I need to do."

The Cowboys are firm believers Gregory has turned that massive corner, showing faith in him last year by extending his contract one season through 2021and including a $200,000 signing bonus.

Turned that massive corner not only personally, but also in his play, glimpses showing up at times during his 10-game 2020 season when recording 3.5 sacks, two tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and 16 QB pressures, ranking third on team. This but playing 21.8 percent of the snaps.

"When I look at Randy's personal evaluation, I give him two arrows pointing up," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said, somewhat regulating his playing time last year, knowing he had not played a down of football since the Cowboys' 2018 season playoff loss, Jan. 12, 2019. Also knowing he had not been conditionally reinstated by the NFL until Sept. 7 of 2020 – meaning no offseason, no training camp, no preseason games, no practice during that six-game absence. Just physical rehabilitation.

In fact, as Gregory accurately points out, this offseason, complete with the strength and conditioning program, OTA and minicamp workouts, is his first since his rookie season. This presumably will become his first training camp since 2018.

A whole lot of time lost.

Yes, McCarthy said of his limited snaps in 2020, "You get to the end of the season and you look at his production, and you're like, 'Well, Coach, why didn't he play more?' Yeah, I get it. But if you go back to the path that he was on, not having a chance to work with him before that, he hasn't been on the football field. So I clearly think his path last year was just that he continued to rise with every opportunity that he had.

"So now going through a full offseason, I'd definitely think he can be a premier, primary player for us on defense."

See there. Always good when the head coach agrees with me.

The defensive coordinator, too.

"I thought, 'Man, I so badly wanted to coach him,' because I saw all the traits, all the speed," said Quinn, the former Atlanta Falcons head coach remembering back to working out Gregory before the 2015 draft. "He's got this unique ability to go full speed and he can bend on the edge and he's got such flexibility to bend. When I had a chance to get here, he was one of the first people I wanted to get in contact with, and we hit if off immediately.

"He just looks so much different. He's bigger, he's faster and stronger than he's ever been."

Yep, 6-5, a solid 260, the guy some of us nicknamed "Rubber Band Man" early on. Now 28, entering into technically just his fourth NFL season, Gregory is the third-oldest member of the Cowboys' defensive line unit. Lawrence and free-agent defensive lineman Brett Urban are older, but entering their eighth seasons. In fact, only one other defensive player, C.J. Goodwin at age 31, is more than a mere few months older than Gregory.

The Cowboys over the years have had many redemptive stories. Not all have gone well. This Gregory tale seems to have a chance.

As for supporting clarity, Gregory's video conference lasted a good 10 minutes before someone mentioned his past, the long and winding road to what he hopes leads directly into his future.

"It's kind of funny. I was talking to my dad the other day, and he's a geek when it comes to football and the Cowboys and me. Especially when it come to me," Gregory said of father Ken, a former football player at Northwestern. "So he reads all this stuff, knows all this stuff talked about me, and he's like, 'It's funny, I don't see you being talked about as much in the media this year. I don't know if it's because you're here and there's not that storyline or what?'

"Yeah, I think that's a good thing. It's a win, I would agree."

So would the Cowboys, this season solidly counting on – no wait, needing – Gregory to become relevant for all the right reasons.

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