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Spagnola: Same Ol' Argument, Same Ol' Answer, Nothing Changes

IRVING, Texas – You know that old saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

         So here it is, 20 years later, the Dallas Cowboys 9-4, enjoying a modicum of success with three games remaining in the 2014 season, tied for first in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the two teams bumping heads for the second time this year on Sunday night at The Linc.

         And the same old argument is being waged as it was back in the day, only the names have changed:

         Who is more valuable to this Cowboys offense, quarterback Tony Romo or running back DeMarco Murray? Which one can't they do without?

         Right, same thing 20 years ago.

         Why, the Cowboys had just won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993. Quarterback Troy Aikman was the Super Bowl MVP after the Cowboys whipped Buffalo the first time, 52-17. Running back Emmitt Smith was the Super Bowl MVP the next year after the Cowboys popped the Bills again, 30-13.

         So that produced countless reams of newspaper copy, unmeasurable minutes of sports radio talk time and who knows the number of beers shared over debating the merits of Troy to Emmitt: Which one was more valuable to the Cowboys' success?

         To me, it's always the quarterback. That is the one position in the NFL you can't fake, the one you can't compensate for if you don't have you a proficient one.

         But the pro-Emmitt side would always say, well the Cowboys won games without Troy, but they couldn't win games without Emmitt.

         Now, the cold numbers certainly would support that argument. From the very start of Aikman's career, when he suffered a fractured finger his rookie year in 1989, the Cowboys went 11-8 in games Aikman missed through the 1998 season (a reason for stopping here).

         In games Emmitt missed over his first nine seasons, the Cowboys were 0-4.

         Good point, except for one thing: The Cowboys always seemed to spend money on viable backup quarterbacks, from Steve Walsh to Bernie Kosar to Rodney Peete to Wade Wilson and lastly Jason Garrett – all but Garrett considered starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Always been told to follow the money trail in the NFL.

         But when it came to backup running backs, the Cowboys were pretty chintzy. Let's see, in 1993 when Emmitt held out the first two games of the season, starting in his place was fourth-round pick Derrick Lassic, a mere rookie. The Cowboys lost both games. Other guys backing up Emmitt during his career were Tommie Agee, Curvin Richards, Lincoln Coleman, Sherman Williams and an aging Chris Warren, the only one of note, but at the end of his career.


         What, though, always missing from the argument was this: How valuable was wide receiver Michael Irvin, because the Cowboys never really had a No. 2 wide receiver capable of being a No. 1 guy in Irvin's absence. Once Irvin establish himself as a starting receiver, meaning after he returned from his torn ACL midway through the 1990 season, he did not miss an outing until getting suspended five games for conduct detrimental to the league to start the 1996 season.

         The Cowboys went 2-3.

         Oh, and when Irvin suffered a shoulder injury in the first series of their first playoff game that year, the Cowboys were beaten by Carolina, 26-17.

         Then there was 1999. The Cowboys began the season 3-0. They had one of the most explosive offenses in the league, scoring 100 points in the first three games.

         The next game Irvin suffered what turned out to be his career-ending neck injury at Philadelphia. The Cowboys scored 10 points that game and lost. With Troy and Emmitt, but no Michael those final 13 games, the Cowboys went 5-8.

         You catch my drift?

         There was a reason they were called the Triplets, and why the eventual three Pro Football Hall of Famers were inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor together – as one. They truly were inseparable to the Cowboys' success. Needed all three.

         Because as we witnessed, even Troy and Emmitt weren't enough to carry the Cowboys to better than that 5-8 record without Michael in 1999. And in 2000, with Troy missing five games and knocked out of four others, with no Michael, Emmitt alone could not prevent the first of three consecutive 5-11 seasons.

         And need I remind all that the Cowboys went 5-11 the next two seasons, too, with Emmitt, but no Troy or Michael.

         As Bill Parcells would often remind us, we're not out there playing singles.

         So here we are, 2014, and with Murray leading the league in rushing with 1,606 yards, nearly 400 more than the next guy, and Romo now second-ranked in passer efficiency 108.8, second in completion percentage (69.1) and ninth in touchdowns (25), the identical debate is ensuing:

         Which one, DeMarco or Tony, can the Cowboys least do without?

         To me, neither, and I don't hesitate to throw Dez Bryant into that mix, certainly no Michael Irvin – yet – but equally valuable to this Cowboys offense, one ranked ninth in total yards (378.8/game), eighth in average points (26.4), third in rushing offense (149.1) and 18th in passing offense (228.7).

         Think about it, no Dez, and where do the Cowboys replace his 73 receptions for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns, tying him for fourth in the NFL, just two behind leaders Jordy Nelson and Julius Thomas, a tight end by the way?

         Triplets II?

         Maybe not all Hall of Famers – yet – but certainly equally important to the Cowboys' offensive success and, really, overall success so far this season.

         I mean, Murray began the season with a NFL-record eight consecutive 100-yard rushing games, right? And when did that streak come to an end? Game 9 vs. Arizona, and was that just a coincidence that's the one game Romo has missed all year? That also represents the worst statistical game Bryant's had this season, two catches for 15 yards.

         Oh, and the Cowboys lost, 28-17.

         They also lost to Philadelphia the first time around, 33-10, and all three guys suffered through less than stellar performances: Murray a season-low 73 yards rushing, Romo nearly a career-low 53.7 rating and Bryant four catches for just 73 yards,

         Inseparable II?

         Here, listen to Romo following the 41-28 victory over the Chicago Bears this past Thursday when asked by the NFL Network postgame crew if he's playing more efficiently and is a better quarterback because he has the ability to hand the ball to the NFL's leading rusher, who not only is on pace to break Emmitt's franchise single-season rushing mark of 1,773 yards, but to also finish with nearly 2,000 yards rushing:

         "Everything goes together. I mean, you get a better coaching staff, you can play better. You get a better running game, you can play better. You're defense plays great, you can play better. I mean, the quarterback position gets a lot of the credit, a lot of the blame, you hear that all the time.

         "But ultimately, these games are won with all of the players, all of the coaches. I mean it matters when you have a good scheme, it helps a lot, it really does. When you don't, it's a little bit of a struggle. When you have a good running back, it helps a lot. When you have a good receiver, it helps. When you don't have a No. 1 receiver, teams are going to play you man-to-man coverage and make it hard on you. Teams are going to go through that in the NFL. We have a guy who can make that difficult [Bryant on defenses].

         "When you have a running back, you're going to get single-high coverage and you're going to allow your receiver to go one-on-one, it makes it easier, you know. It's a simple thing, but really … the game can be that simple."

         You know, really, it can, it really can, and for all ages.

         Oh, and uh, if you have a really good offensive line …

         That never changes, either.


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