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Spagnola: Spoiling Good Times Of Training Camp


GLENDALE, Ariz. – Talk about one last kick in the gut.

Here the Cowboys have spent 25 days in the Oxnard portion of training camp, including a trip to Canton, Ohio, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame preseason game, a Saturday afternoon practice against the Rams and then Friday night in preseason Game 2 here against the Arizona Cardinals.

The weather has been great on the West Coast. The facilities good as ever. The practices mostly crisp and energetic. The injuries held to a bare minimum, even Dak Prescott's muscular strain of the right shoulder that has caused a big stir not as serious as maybe it's been made out to be.

Yeah, yeah, the Cowboys might have lost here at State Farm Stadium, 19-16, on an Arizona Cardinals walk-off 47-yard field goal, their second three-pointer in the final 1 minute, 51 seconds of the game after the Cowboys had taken a 16-13 lead.

But dadgumit, they might have lost their first starter for the 2021 season, the surging second-year defensive tackle Neville Gallimore suffering a dislocated left elbow in the game, the possibility of surgery looming, a final decision dependent on what his exams reveal on Saturday.

"You talk about players taking a second-year leap," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy lamented after the game, "he definitely illustrated that . . .just unfortunate."

Then there was third tight end Sean McKeon, leaving the game with a foot injury, as if it wasn't already bad enough starter Blake Jarwin is just rounding back into form after tearing an ACL in last year's season opener and Dalton Schultz, who took over for Jarwin last year, was sent back home on Thursday to continue therapy on his ankle sprain.

Leaving with him was starting defensive end Randy Gregory, nicked up with a bothersome foot, though thought not to be too serious. But that is compounded by the Cowboys other defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence having spent nearly all of training camp rehabbing from a clean-up back surgery and defensive tackle Trysten Hill, who might have challenged for a starting job on the defensive line if not for still rehabbing last year's torn ACL, causing him to be placed on active-PUP, looking as if he will spend at least the mandatory first six weeks of the season on PUP.

As if that were not enough, veteran offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, vying to claim the backup swing tackle position, left the game with a bothersome knee after lackluster performances in these first two preseason games. On top of that, fourth-round draft choice Josh Ball, also in that swing tackle competition, has been dealing with a high ankle sprain, possibly initially eliminating him for that job.

Oh, and that last kick?

The Cowboys left State Farm Stadium with flood-quantity rain reigning down from the desert skies as buses made their way to Sky Harbor for the flight home, landing at a charming 5 a.m. Saturday morning.

All leaving McCarthy saying of the injury aspect, "Hardest part of the game . . . part of the adversity of the game.

"Adversity is a big part of the game."

Was a big part of this game, this adversity.

Now there were some bright spots. Backup defensive end Dorance Armstrong, who had produced a fine offseason and training camp, was a beast in this game, finishing with five tackles, two sacks, two tackles for losses, two QB hits and one pass batted at the line of scrimmage while playing just the first half.

Second-year tackle Terence Steele actually continues taking steps forward to possibly securing the backup swing tackle job. After starter La'el Collins completed his snaps in the first couple of series at right tackle, in came Steele. And when Nsekhe struggled again at left tackle, Steele moved left and Nsekhe moved to right.

Here is a name you might not be too familiar with: Nick Ralston, rookie free-agent fullback who played his high school ball in Argyle, Texas. Did a nice job handling the fullback responsibilities with Sewo Olonilua out with a neck injury. And as important, he had two special teams tackles on kickoff returns. Plus here is a name you might have forgotten. Last year's fifth-round pick Bradlee Anae, finally healthy, doing a nice job putting pressure on Arizona quarterbacks

And this was quarterback Ben DiNucci's most promising performance, leading the Cowboys on an 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, the Cowboys first of the preseason to forge a 16-13 lead with 9:36 left in the game. DiNucci completed five of eight passes on the drive, including a fourth-and-3 completion to Simi Fehoko for 10 yards and then the one-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Smith, showing great pocket patience while waiting for Smith to clear the coverage crossing the back of the end zone.

"Live reps last week helped calm me down," said DiNucci, likely battling for a spot on the 53-manr roster.

Hey, and punter Hunter Niswander, still handling kickoff and placekicks with kicker Greg Zuerlein growing closer to taking over his day job following back surgery in May, went three for three on field goal attempts.

As for disappointments, there were a few, but also, let's remember the Cowboys did not play several starters, including Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amri Cooper, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Lawrence and Gregory.

First, the idea of starting left guard Connor Williams doubling as the backup center hit a speed bump. Williams, who started the game at center, had two botched snaps, one rather high and another he short-armed into himself, quarterback Garrett Gilbert making a diving recovery of the ball on the ground. Both occurred on the Cowboys second drive of the game, the second on a fourth-and-3, ending Garrett Gilbert's second drive at the Cardinals 20. His third possession ended in a field goal.

Then there were Nsekhe's pass-blocking problems. If these continue, if Steele is not yet ready and Ball not healthy yet, the Cowboys most likely in case of a starter going down would move Martin out to tackle as they finally did last year and insert Connor McGovern at guard.

And the Cowboys run defense sprung a leak against the Cardinals again, and this time there was no Kyler Murray playing quarterback as he did in last year's victory over the Cowboys when Arizona ran for 261 yards. This time it was Colt McCoy and Chris Steveler. Still the Cardinals ran 31 times for 168 yards – 104 of those in the second half with the majority of backups playing.

So back to the drawing board, the most concerning injury being Gallimore's. And there biggest decision will be whether to play their healthy starters next Saturday against Houston at AT&T Stadium. They certainly need the work, but the Cowboys must weigh the risk-reward, potential injury versus knocking off rust.

Especially since they are not opening the season wading in against Multi-Directional State U. Nope, that's the world champs awaiting Sept. 9, Tampa Bay.

And there are no such things as mulligans in this game.

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