Spagnola: Strange Year Leaves ’Em Wanting More 

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FRISCO, Texas – What a season.

In one sense, fast. In another, long. So much change. First on the coaching staff, 11 changes, either through promotions, new hires or fires. Then with starters, 11 new ones, either first-time starters or changed positions or changes during the season.

Two starters lost for the season, one, Travis Frederick, the bedrock Pro Bowl center of that offensive line; Sean Lee missing nine games; and then tight end Geoff Swaim missing the final seven games and two playoff games, a guy coming into his own as a first-time starter.

Plus, no more Jason Witten after 15 years. No more Dez Bryant after eight years. Still no Tony Romo after his 14-year career ended a year ago, no matter those still insisting coaxing him out of the TV booth was a viable option.

Let’s see, this all started with these notions: Receiver by committee, no hope for Randy Gregory, big hopes for David Irving, still on the fence with Jaylon Smith, befuddlement over using a first-round pick on a linebacker (Leighton Vander Esch), questioning the move of your starting safety Byron Jones to cornerback, the loss of Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick to something called Guillain-Barre Syndrome most knew nothing about, starting with four tight ends totaling nine whole catches in the NFL, some dude telling us “don’t blink” over his rise from just some guy named Antwaun Woods to the “Human Log,” Doubting Thomases growing like dandelions over Dak’s capabilities, still growing wonderment over Zeke’s maturity, those questioning if DeMarcus Lawrence was a one-year wonder, and let’s not forget the questioning of Jerry Jones’ sanity over trading the team’s 2019 first-round choice for Amari Cooper.

Yep, all that, because we just didn’t know even by Sept. 9 who these Cowboys were or what they would be.

And considering all that, maybe I should have had my head examined for writing this, two days prior to these Cowboys’ 2018 season-opener at Carolina:

And don’t forget the Cowboys did go 9-7 through all those trials and tribulations last season.

They eventually just might be better this season. Like 10-6 for sure. And as for all this business about the Eagles dynasty? Chill. No NFC East champ has repeated since the Eagles in 2004, a 13-year chasm. And that includes those 2016 Cowboys darlings.

And maybe out of sheer stubbornness, me continuing to insist this team was better, more talented than its 3-5 record at the midway point of the season. Might have been me being so obstinate, because had the Cowboys not made that trade for Amari Cooper, had the Cowboys not fired offensive line coach Paul Alexander when promoting Marc Colombo and talking former offensive line coach Hudson Houck off his couch that overlooks a gorgeous mountainside fairway in Palm Desert, none of what eventually took place would have taken place.

The Cowboys finishing 10-6. The Cowboys winning the NFC East. The Cowboys winning a first-round playoff game, beating Seattle and their more experienced, proven and supposedly talented quarterback Russell Wilson.

Oh, these Cowboys came a long way since the 24-13, Game 3 loss to Seattle or the 19-16 overtime loss at Houston and even the 28-14 loss, at home of all places, AT&T Stadium, to Tennessee.

But did they come far enough for your liking? For their liking? And evidently for Jerry Jones’ and Jason Garrett’s liking, since early Friday afternoon Scott Linehan was relieved of his offensive coordinator duties?

Nope.

And come late into the evening of Feb. 3, there will be 30 other teams joining them in that disappointment, no matter if three of those will come from this weekend’s final four of New Orleans, L.A. Rams, Kansas City or even New England, despite the Pats having played in four of the past seven Super Bowls (wining two) and now in their eighth straight AFC Championship game, if they should get beat in either of these final two playoff rounds.

And I get it. The Cowboys get it. No matter they turned a 3-5 start into a 7-1 second half and their third NFC East title in five years, more than any other NFC East team over more than a decade, but that 30-22 NFC divisional-round playoff loss to the Rams at Memorial Coliseum this past Saturday just sticks in your craw. Theirs, too. One of those that all the boisterous laughter ends in bitter sorrow.

That last snapshot blurring the big picture, watching this weekend’s conference finals with a bitter taste, knowing the Cowboys beat one of the NFC finalists, New Orleans, 13-10, and came within one possession of beating the other on the road.

Nevertheless, that loss heaping an inordinate amount of blame on the Cowboys’ offense, even though the Cowboys’ 24 points in the first round outscored all the other seven teams playing that weekend, and their 22 three of the other seven teams playing this past weekend, the Saints emerging as the only team among the four winners to score less than 30 points (20-14 over Philly).

Again, don’t come in here with defense wins championships, Chiefs scoring 31, Rams 30 and Patriots 41 to move onto the conference finals, and guarantee you the Saints feel quite fortunate to move on by scoring just 20 points at home.

Also, should be pointed out the Cowboys did not let Linehan go after five seasons just because the Cowboys only scored 22 points in the loss to the Rams. Heck, if a one-game assessment was the case, then what would you do with the defensive coaches. This is something that has been brewing internally all the way back to last season.

But again, where do you go, and here is the list of those conventional offensive coordinators hired so far over the past few weeks: Denver, Rich Scangarello; Minnesota, Kevin Stefanski; Detroit, Darrell Bevell; Green Bay, Nathaniel Hackett, son of Cowboys former OC Paul Hackett; Jacksonville, John DeFilippo; Tampa Bay Byron Leftwich; Atlanta Dirk Koetter; Arizona, interviewing Jim Bob Cooter, though we know new head coach Kliff Kingsbury will be running that show.

See what I mean.

But when it comes to the Cowboys, if we take the emotion out of losing that final game, that second-half offensive surge had to be encouraging, despite getting shut out by the Colts, 23-0, giving full credit for the turnaround to the acquisition of Cooper, to the promotion of Colombo and simply to a very young football team growing up, as I like to say, before your very eyes.

Just take Dak. At the halfway point, here was his QB stat line:

Completing 149 of 237 passes (62.9 %) for 1,660 yards, 10 TDs, 5 INTs, QB rating of 88.9.

Here are his second-half numbers:

Completing 207 of 289 passes (71.6 %) for 2,225 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs, QB rating of 103.4, which over 16 games would have ranked him sixth best in the NFL, only behind the likes of guys named Brees, Mahomes, Wilson, Ryan and Rivers.

Definitely can win with those numbers.

When it came to points, over the first eight games, the Cowboys averaged 19.25 a game. Over the final eight, 24.4, and if you take out that shutout by the Colts, then 26.4 in the other seven games that second half. In the playoffs they averaged 23, close enough to win one game but not enough to win the second.

And as for yards gained, the Cowboys averaged 317.1 the first eight games – 128.8 rushing, 188.4 passing – and then in the final eight when they went 7-1 they averaged 343.8/game – 122.7 rushing, 221.1 passing.

Not to overly burden you with numbers, but here is another stat that dramatically improved during the second half of the season. During those first eight games the Cowboys were converting third-down opportunities 33.3 percent of the time. Over the last eight games, they improved to 48.7 percent, to raise the season percentage to 41.4, ranking them 10th for the season. Had that 48.7 been carried over the course of the season the Cowboys would have ranked first in third-down conversions. Like five times in the last eight regular-season games the Cowboys converted more than 50 percent of their third downs, with a high of 64.7 in the finale against the Giants.

Progress for sure.

Except for the absolute final playoff game when the Cowboys converted just one of 10 third-down chances against the league’s 19th-ranked defense.

Ugh.

So, we get it, that final game stains the real progress the Cowboys made over the final eight regular-season games. That is the life in the NFL’s best-of-one playoff format. Can’t have a bad day. There is no tomorrow unless you win, and the Cowboys didn’t. Got beat by eight, matching their fourth worst loss of the season – lost by eight in the first game, lost by eight in the final game, uncharacteristically getting nicked for 30 points only the second time all season.

Strange, strange season, the Cowboys never before recovering from a losing record at the halfway point to qualify for the playoffs. The previous worst halfway record to recover from was 4-4, in 1999 and 2006. Prior to that, twice 4-3 in 1971 and 1973, winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl in the former and advancing to the NFC title game in the latter.

Best way to judge this 2018 season?

Well, by what you thought this team was before the season began. What you thought this team was at the halfway point.

And as the dust and disappointment of the final game settles, my guess on what an accurate assessment of this 2018 season should be is this:

A whole lot better than most everyone anticipated.

Or maybe exactly for some of us, somehow, someway, just what we thought.

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