Spagnola: Show Must Go On With Or Without

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Thank goodness that’s done with.

And if you can believe this, the Cowboys actually played an entire football game, albeit, the last of those preseason ones, with just 36 players – 22 guys who started, and just 14 backups, and three of those were holder Chris Jones, backup kicker/punter Kasey Redfern and backup deep snapper Drew Scott.

Those who didn’t, numbering 54, were put on dry dock to preserve future service to this team’s 2019 campaign or were unable to play because of injury.

Not one of the projected 22 starters, nor the front-line kicker and deep snapper, played in this 17-15 Cowboys’ loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Thursday night, and the only healthy backups to be held out were Cooper Rush, Joe Looney, Cameron Fleming, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Alfred Morris, Tavon Austin, Joe Thomas, Christian Covington, Kerry Hyder, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis and Dorance Armstrong.

That should be instructive as to who is staying, who might be going and just who might be too injured to be placed on the 53-man roster come 3 p.m. on Saturday, or remain there for more than a day then revert to IR to retain recall eligibility.

Now on to the real stuff, preparing for the season opener against the New York Giants on Sunday, Sept. 8, right here at AT&T Stadium. This now is serious business.

And with that, we might as well deal directly with the elephant in the room, the absence of two-time NFL rushing champ and Pro Bowler Ezekiel Elliott, still withholding services, his only negotiating leverage for a contract extension to his two existing years.

We have exhausted the reasons why he and his agent are doing so, and can only presume what their asking price might be. Same with why the Cowboys brass is trying to hold the line on just how much they will promise Zeke, trying to remain frugal in their spending to preserve enough cap space to sign others.

But there comes a time from a preparation standpoint, and it has arrived, to move on. The Cowboys can no longer sit tight waiting for Zeke to either return or sign an extension so he does not miss a paycheck. As coaches like to say, they must simply deal with the players who are here, and by no stretch of the imagination is Zeke here.

If he’s still in Cabo, might as well be on the moon. Seems that far away.

Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has conceded as much.

“I’m operating as though right now he’s going to miss regular-season games,” Jones said after the final preseason game at AT&T Stadium. “My entire expectation for what we’re putting together as a team right now would anticipate with him holding out, and not having any of training camp, that he’s going to miss games.”

That should come as no shock since the Cowboys contractual tango with Zeke’s agents has been going on now for 35 days without any significant movement.

First, the Cowboys must put together a 53-man roster by 3 p.m. Saturday, meaning they must shave 36 players off the 90-man roster, since Robert Quinn will revert to reserve/suspended for the first two weeks of the season. Several others are expected to be placed on injured reserve, likely now including third-round draft choice Connor McGovern (pec injury). Other injured players deemed expendable will receive settlements.

But going forward with the assumption there is no Zeke will affect how they deal with the running back position. Obviously running Tony Pollard makes the team. Heck, he’s the starter, and might as well put an exclamation point on that since how many times does a fourth-round draft choice not have to play in the final preseason game.

Same goes for veteran Alfred Morris. He, too, was shelved Thursday night. That’s two running backs on the 53, and my guess is at this point Jordan Chunn is the third since he played sparingly against the Bucs, only getting three rushing attempts and three receptions. And Jamize Olawale is the fullback.

Now some might be suggesting the Cowboys release Morris since he’s a vested veteran, and tell him, as they told Kellen Moore two years ago, don’t go anywhere, we want you and will re-sign you once we place a guy on IR after the initial 53-man roster to retain recall eligibility. But if you’re Morris, that would be fine, except he would need some sort of assurances financially he doesn’t become expendable if and when Zeke returns.

Now that’s only part of the equation. They now must figure out what sort of running back rotation they will devise for the season opener against the Giants. OK, Pollard is the starter. But how many snaps you want to give the rookie? And where does Morris fit in? Here and there, or a series here and there? And the good thing if Chunn is the third guy, he has shown an ability to play special teams, which is why the Cowboys could qualify keeping him as one of the game-day actives.

But this might be the hardest part of all. What sort of game plan do the Cowboys come up with for that opener? Same as it would be if Zeke were here? Less reliance on the run? Different kinds of runs? And when facing top defenders, how will Pollard hold up in pass protection?

Here another part of the consideration: How accurately can the Cowboys project just what the Giants will be thinking defensively? Will they set up their defense to respect the run? Will they back off, assuming they can control the rookie running back and make a priority of taking away the Cowboys passing game? Or will they attack the Cowboys with blitzes, testing if Pollard knows when and how to help pick up blitzing defenders?

Gets a tad more complicated, doesn’t it.

But then, no one out there is feeling sorry for the Cowboys, the least of which are the Giants, and for sure, nor the Redskins. And the Cowboys sure as heck better not be feeling sorry for themselves, like woe is me, and develop this throw-in-the-towel mentality.

Granted, and as Jones said Friday on 105.3 The Fan, “Zeke is an outstanding player,” and why they are willing to sign him to an extension while still under contract for two more years, but . . . .

“No one believes without one player that is terminal as far as us having a great year, and as a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. Don’t tell Jason Witten that if somebody gets hurt or somebody gets suspended that our chances of winning a Super Bowl have gone. That’s just not the case, not the case . . . you got to think like that, got to play like that.”

Got to prepare like that.

And, right now.

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