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Spagnola: Taking a Breather Before the Grueling Grind Begins

IRVING, Texas – Seven and three.

Would you have taken it, taken it at this bye weekend before the season ever started?

     You know, back before an offseason workout even took place, or, cutting you some slack, before training camp even began? Maybe pushing the envelope, taken it after you saw what took place during the preseason? Like remember when the Cowboys finished the preseason 0-4, and what was everyone cryin', that few teams if any ever finish with a winning record when they fail to win a preseason game? Possibly causing those season ticket holders to start selling off those early games in their package?

     Why then, this must be a veritable miracle the 7-3 Cowboys are four games over .500 and just a half-game behind the Philadelphia Eagles (7-2) in the NFC East going into this weekend's bye without winning even one of those measly preseason games.

Praise the heavens.

     How silly, right? How silly to believe in such goofy interpretations of preseason, as if even a victory over Denver in the final, meaningless preseason game – they lost, 27-3 – would have had any effect on what's taken place so far this season. Maybe a lesson learned, right along with that lesson about the minute the new season's schedule is released you go through marking a "W" or "L" next to each game, making decisions off last season's results.

I mean, look where we are heading into this 11th week of the season.

New Orleans 4-5? Carolina 3-6-1? Both playoff teams from last year.

Atlanta still 3-6? Green Bay just 6-3?

San Francisco 5-4? Seattle, the unbeatable defending Super Bowl champs, just 6-3? The two teams playing in last season's NFC title game.

Cincinnati 5-3-1? San Diego 5-4? Both playoff teams last year.

And how 'bout this: Cleveland 6-3, no thanks to Johnny Football? Arizona 8-1?


     And the Dallas Cowboys, yep, 7-3, the team few thought would win more than five games this year, the team projected to not even match their stagnant 8-8 three years running. Some at the end of preseason were calling the Cowboys the worst team in football, and certainly the season-opening 28-17 loss to San Francisco, trailing 21-3 just 10:35 into the new season – heck, after just five total possessions in the game – did nothing to call off the dogs.


     Well, let's put it this way. When asking Cowboys COO Stephen Jones this week to assess the Cowboys' 7-3 start heading into this most-welcomed bye this weekend, he said this:

     "First of all, you have to start with the record. You have to be pleased with 7-3. You know if you had told me that's what we were going to be at the start of the season, then I certainly would have said, 'We'll take it.'"

Me, here was my final assessment the Friday before the season began:

If the Cowboys win a majority of these ifs, then 9-7 is not out of the question, maybe even better with this offense.

*     If not, can't even break even on those many ifs, then there will be no more than seven wins, maybe even fewer despite this projected offense's goodness.*

*     So as you can see, this whole thing will come down to this defense going from just awful last year to at least average this year, same place we were when training camp began.*

But unfortunately, we really just don't know … yet.

     Right? Hey, they already had lost Sean Lee for the season. Orlando Scandrick was supposed to be suspended the first four games (reduced to two). They had lost second-round draft choice DeMarcus Lawrence for at least the first eight games of the season. And few wanted to believe Tony Romo's back was A-OK.

     Then there were all those lingering questions hovering over the defense, any resurgence to hinge on positive responses from Henry Melton coming back from last year's season-ending knee surgery; Tyrone Crawford coming back from last year's season-ending torn Achilles; Rolando McClain coming back from having prematurely retired, missing all of last season; ramifications of only three returning defensive starters from the same time last year; and the projected 11 defensive starters having never started a game as an entire group or played a single down all together in training camp.

     Enough? Oh no, there was more. Anthony Spencer, after playing just one game last year, trying to beat long odds coming back from microfracture knee surgery, the track record after those surgeries not much better than 50-50. Morris Claiborne, suffering multiple injuries during training camp, not having taken one preseason snap.

     Many even thought there would be no difference between Monte Kiffin running the defense last year and Rod Marinelli running the defense this year.

     Well, well, lookee here. And again, it's only 10 games into the season, and Bill Parcells was wont to remind us when asked somewhere around midseason just how good his team was, he'd always say, "Check with me after Thanksgiving." He's right, so we've got two games to go before taking that barometer reading.

     My guess is you'd come out of your skin at 9-3, but with the difficulty of having to play a Sunday night game at New York, meaning unlikely to return home before 5 in the morning on Monday, and then facing Philadelphia three days later on Thanksgiving, you'd take a split with four games remaining.

Still would feel pretty good about this team at 8-4, even though three of the final four games would be on the road. But hey, don't look now, so far the Cowboys haven't lost a road game, going 4-0 to this point, including a victory this past Sunday in technically an away game that was like way away.

So yes, still a long way to go. But here is what has been encouraging, going back to those hinges. The defense has at least made the jump to average, at this point ranked 14th, a nose better than average in this 32-team league. The Cowboys have given up 910 fewer yards than they did last year after 10 games, a season they ended up giving up the most total yards in franchise history. And when it comes to points allowed, the Cowboys are ninth, giving up 21.2 points a game so far, and a bunch of those directly caused by either offensive or special teams lapses.

In fact, only Arizona has scored more than 17 points against the Cowboys defense without any help from an offensive turnover or a special teams miscue. And that's a far cry from last year when the Cowboys ended up yielding 27 points a game after 10 games, as they still were at season's end, the 432 total points second most ever given up in club history, missing the inauspicious mark of 436 set in 2010 by four.

So, far so good.

     But this will be a grueling six-game stretch to the finish, having to play the next three games in a 12-day span, two road night games sandwiching Thanksgiving Day. Then there is that four of the final six against NFC East opponents, four of the final six on the road and two of those four NFC East games against division-leading Philadelphia, starting with Thanksgiving Day at AT&T.

     Now we see, see if the Cowboys really can break that 8-8 cycle. See if the Cowboys can break back into the playoffs, and if they do so, actually make some noise.  

     Nothing, though, really has changed about my preseason perspective. How this turns out still will hinge on how well the defense plays down the stretch and, of course, keeping Tony Romo on his feet.[embeddedad0]

     I mean, here it is, 10 games in, having posted a highly encouraging 7-3 record, but with six games of rough road ahead, here we wait – still wait – to find out just what this team ultimately will be. No different than my final words back on Sept. 5, two days before the season opener:

We really just don't know … yet.

Crazy, isn't it? Still holding your breath.

But hey, go ahead, OK to breathe this weekend.

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