Spagnola: Start Trending Toward Full Capability

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FRISCO, Texas – This is in the true spirit of Jimmy Johnson, when on the evening of Jan. 20, 1994, three days before the Cowboys would play the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys’ mighty confident head coach said on a local columnist’s evening radio show, “We will win the ballgame . . . and you can put that in three-inch headlines.”

So out here at The Star on Wednesday in the Training Table, where breakfast and lunch is served to all, on the video screen, like in 24-inch type, rested this mind vitamin:

BE WHO WE ARE

That, head coach Jason Garrett’s message to the team coming out of the extended vacay bye weekend, advancing the start of practice in earnest for Monday night’s nationally-televised game against the New York Football Giants at MetLife Stadium.

Though begging the question: Just who are these 2019 Dallas Cowboys?

Are they the team overwhelmingly winning the first three games of the season, scoring at least 30 points in each to beat the Giants, Redskins and Dolphins?

Or are they the team losing the next three games to the Saints, Packers and Jets, two of those three on the road, while never scoring more than the 24 points they did against the Packers in any of the three, averaging a humbling 18.6 points a game?

Or are they the team playing the most complete game of the season in the nationally-televised win over the Philadelphia Eagles, 37-10, enabling the Cowboys to reclaim sole possession of first place in the NFC East?

Yeah, that, like the team we thought – me included – these Cowboys were upon breaking training camp and polishing off the preseason games, one capable of going 12-4 this season and making a deep dive into the playoffs?

Why the Cowboys were good on offense that night, scoring as if they were the No. 1 offense in the NFL that they are. They were good on defense, not only holding the Eagles to a season-low 10 points, 15.24 fewer than the Eagles are averaging after putting together an 4-4 record at the halfway point, but swiping four takeaways, too. And they were good on special teams, kicker Brett Maher going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, including the franchise record 63-yarder to become the first kicker in NFL history to make three 60-yarders in a career and two in the same season.

Yeah, that team, the one in the NFL ranked No. 1 in yards per game (437.9), No. 1 in yards per play (6.7), No. 1 in passing net yards per play (8.6), No. 1 in average first downs per game (24.6) and No. 1 in third-down conversions (51.9 percent).

And not to mention defensively No. 2 in third-down conversions (26.3 percent), No. 8 in total yards, No. 7 in points per game (17.7) and holding opponents to no more than 17 points in four of their seven games.

Certainly that team quarterback Dak Prescott stubbornly said after losing those three consecutive games, “We’re still are a great team.”

Quite confounding, right?

Now also in the true spirit of another Cowboys head coach, Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are, and he’s right, 4-3 is 4-3, good enough for a half-game lead in the NFC East but no better than the ninth best record in the NFC and 15th in the NFL

Some would say that is middling.

So said owner Jerry Jones this week when asked during his weekly segment on 105.3 The Fan what grade he would give his team after the bye weekend.

“Without being trite I think that’s a pretty good grade, 4-3,” Jones said. “That’s as good a way to grade it as I know, is how many games did you win.”

Then when asked if he thought this is about what he expected the Cowboys’ record would be at this point of the season, Jones answered succinctly, “No, I thought our record would be better.”

Of course he did. They all did. I did. So did you. Certainly a team capable enough to be better.

You bet, yet leaving us with these perplexing questions heading into Game 8 Monday night in East Rutherford, N.J., while trying to determine who they are:

One capable of beating four opponents by an average of 20 points a game while scoring at least 31 in each?

Or one nearly there, but not quite, losing two of those three straight by two points each while shooting themselves in the foot enough times as previously pointed out in all three losses to render themselves toeless?

So, which is it, while trying to find the true meaning of

BE WHO WE ARE?

“We establish our identity and be our identity,” says veteran wideout Randall Cobb. “But 4-3 is who we are, that’s where we stand. We had some adversity, had some bright spots early in the season.

“There is a lot of football (left) . . . it’s a long season. You learn from your losses.”

According to the boss, Garrett defines his not-so subtle message thusly:

“It’s be who we are, the best version of ourselves every day. And that’s what our goals are as players, coaches, an offensive unit, defensive unit, special teams unit, and ultimately as a team. Be the best version our ourselves.

“No cheap imitations.”

If the Philadelphia game taught the Cowboys anything, and it’s not anything they didn’t know already, pressure on opposing quarterbacks is important. Forcing turnovers is important. Playing clean football on offense is important. Having your guys healthy and on the field playing is important.

Oh, and let me throw this one in: Don’t give up a 92-yard touchdown pass, for whatever reason.

“Just going out and performing as yourself, not trying to do too much, but living up to your expectations,” says center Travis Frederick of the deeper meaning. “Playing to your level.”

There is a key phrase there: Living up to your expectations.

We know the expectations, and they are not unreasonable. When not missing your starting two offensive tackles and two of your top three wide receivers, all at the same time, this offense is pretty dynamic. And if you think about it, with the exception of scoring only 10 points on the road against the Saints, the Cowboys are averaging 30 points a game in the other six.

Defensively, it’s all about consistency, and really, of the seven games, in only two did the defense let the Cowboys down, giving up 34 points to the Packers – though turning the ball over three times to put the defense in some bad situations – and 24 points to the Jets with mostly an uninspired performance.

Think about this. In those two games the Cowboys gave up 58 points. In the other five? Well, just 66, an average of just 13.2 a game.

So there are signs of who this team can be, the blinking one that beating of Philadelphia.

“Oh, absolutely,” said veteran tight end Jason Witten of just who they should be every week, “and now you got to go out and duplicate it. We know we can do it, now consistently play at that level.”

Witten continues: “Nine games to go and the best version of ourselves needs to show up – let’s be who we are. I think we’re good enough.”

Now they’ve just got to be that version over those final nine games of the season. Home or away. Parking lot or the moon.

And by the way, speaking of the moon, Monday night in East Rutherford, N.J., it will be a waxing crescent one, meaning moving toward full illumination.

Maybe that’s an extraterrestrial sign, the Cowboys needing similar movement, waxing toward full capabilities.

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