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Spagnola: The Early Training Camp Quandary

12 November 2017:    Cooper Rush (7)         
of the Dallas Cowboys during their NFL week 10 regular season 27-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.  Photo by James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys
12 November 2017: Cooper Rush (7) of the Dallas Cowboys during their NFL week 10 regular season 27-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys

OXNARD, Calif. – So this has occurred after just five practices in pads here in training camp, with four more to go before the Cowboys will appear in that first preseason game, Thursday in San Diego.

And it's sort of a chicken or egg paradox.

Is this Cowboys offensive line as good as being projected and surely appears this early in camp?

Or, is this Cowboys defensive front seemingly being trampled in the running game as bad as was being feared and certainly appears?

Which is it?

And just maybe, since again it's early, the Cowboys not playing a for-real game for another 36 days, any solid conclusions being drawn at this early date might be significantly premature.

But …

There are those here at camp already postulating that if the Cowboys don't run the ball more, just smash the ball down the throats of the opposition right from the start of the season, then every single coach on this team should get fired. Seriously, after just four padded practices.

Just run, run, run, hog the ball, shorten the game, and be satisfied winning each week like 17-16, which if this defense is no better than last year's worst defense in franchise history, that would seem a rather preposterous task.

Now hey, I get it. I, too, see DeMarco Murray running untouched through gaping holes in practice. I mean, wide enough for me and you to get through, probably together.

I, too, see Lance Dunbar, fully recovered from that weird knee injury that ended his season last year, speeding around the edge, and many times only the 12th man, that vertical white sideline, finally making the tackle. Even Joseph Randle and newcomer Ryan Williams are having their moments.

Great, right?

But then, too, could this be a mirage? Remember, the Cowboys are trying to figure out just who is their starting middle linebacker with Sean Lee already done for the season. They are still trying to figure out who is the weak-side, pass-rushing defensive end taking the place of DeMarcus Ware, especially now that second-round draft choice DeMarcus Lawrence is out anywhere from 8-12 weeks following this week's surgery to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot.

They still are testing just where veteran free-agent signee Henry Melton is, the defensive tackle trying to return from last year's season-ending torn ACL, although he is looking quicker each and every practice. They still are trying to figure out just where Tyrone Crawford will best fit in, though he, too, is returning from season-ending Achilles surgery that occurred out here last year in the very first training camp practice.

Former defensive end Kyle Wilber is making the transition to strong-side linebacker, and anyone else, no matter position, who can put their hand in the dirt and rush the quarterback is getting a look, be it Wilber or former outside linebacker Martez Wilson, now playing defensive end.

And on top of all that, fourth-year veteran linebacker Rolando McClain is in the process of trying to reclaim his previous form after prematurely retiring and not playing all of last year, along with figuring out if he really, really wants to play football again.

Plus, if all of that doesn't give you some defensive pause, Brandon Carr has yet to practice, and remained beside his mother who was entered into hospice and passed away earlier this week. And Morris Claiborne, who got off to a grand start to camp, tweaked his knee the other day but has a good chance of returning to practice on Saturday.

So considering all that, darn right that offense better be dominating, which is sort of bass-akwards for this time of camp when it's expected that the defense be ahead of the offense.

But again, is this offense I've previously suggested could be better than last year – when it helped this team score the fifth-most points in the league – really that good with the addition of yet another first-round draft choice on the offensive line?

Or is this defense still trying to finds its way hapless?

Hmmm, maybe there is a middle ground between the chicken and the egg.

Whatever, this first-team offensive line has been rather dominate. For sure there is a reason the Cowboys awarded Tyron Smith a 10-year deal this week. Travis Frederick, as good as he was all last year, appears even better, the anchor this line has needed for years. Doug Free has been his solid self. Mackenzy Bernadeau has held down the left guard spot while awaiting the return of Ron Leary (hamstring), who is now ready to resume battling for the starting job.

And this Zack Martin, the first pick in the draft? Well, previously told you that Tony Romo thought this kid was the real deal, and haven't seen anything to suggest so far that he isn't. At times you forget he is a rookie. Just ask Melton.

This group plays as if they've been together for years, not just three months. They eat together. And go out together, hopefully on Smith's $40 million-guarantee dime. And sure doesn't appear anyone is treating Martin as if he's a rookie, and probably better not since he's 6-4, 310 and appears bigger than that.

Must allow Romo to sleep better at night.

"They not only are good," he said the other day of the line's quality of play, "but also good people."

All begging the question, if indeed this is not a mirage: Will the Cowboys run the ball more with new play-caller Scott Linehan in charge?

Better question: Will the Cowboys run the ball more effectively, run the ball efficiently in crucial times and maybe even a little more into the end zone, although they did demonstrate improvement with 12 rushing touchdowns in 2013, the most in the past four years and matching the second most in the previous seven seasons.

The 12, nine by Murray, ranked 18th in the NFL this last season, which by no means is ground-breaking, although some will insist the low total is a product of not running the ball enough.

But, here is the deal. Of those 12 touchdown runs, 10 of them were no more than 4-yard runs – four of those 1-yarders – and none were for more than the two 7-yarders. So it's not as if the Cowboys were running wild into the end zone.

Here is another example of what appears to have been an efficient Cowboys running game not being as productive as it appeared:

Third down.

The Cowboys converted only 63 of 180 third downs, a very modest 35 percent, their lowest efficiency percentage since that woeful 24 percent during the 5-11 season of 2002.

And when it came to third-down called running attempts, the Cowboys did convert on 10 of 18, but eight of those conversions needed no more than 1 yard and they only went 2-for-7 when needing between 2 and 5 yards. On third downs needing more than 5 yards, they went 0-for-6 when handing off. [embedded_ad]

But if indeed this line is better, then Romo should be afford better protection, too, which means more time in the pocket and less time on his backside, maybe helping to not only improve his average per attempt, but also to keep all of his body parts in place.

And it stands to reason, if you are running the ball effectively, forcing defenses to finally put eight men in the box to stop the run, then that should provide more big-play opportunities in the pass game for Dez and Witten and Terrance and even Murray. And don't forget it is big plays that wins in this league … that and, uh, defense.

One last comparison. The Cowboys average time of possession last year was 29 minutes, 2 seconds. Super Bowl champion Seattle was 29:57. High-scoring Denver came in at 30:06 and San Francisco 30:35, so not this huge discrepancy. And of those teams, only Denver scored more touchdowns last season (76) than the Cowboys (51), who finished sixth in the NFL. And of the top five rushing teams from last year, only Philadelphia scored more touchdowns than the Cowboys – just two more.

OK, I lied, one more. Seattle, that hard-charging running team with Marshawn Lynch. Just two more rushing touchdowns than the Cowboys – and six less overall – but took the Seahawks 173 more carries to do so.

But, the difference in defensive rank? Well, well, Seahawks No. 1, Cowboys No. 32, and they averaged just 55 seconds more in time of possession.

Still early, but we'll keep an eye on the chicken and the egg.

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