Spagnola: The Fear Dez-Less Cowboys Must Now Overcome Going Forward

IRVING, Texas – Sometimes in this life you have to face your fears.

         The Dallas Cowboys are about to go 15 rounds with theirs.

         Why, they did everything in their power not to play this season, nor any of the next four without Dez Bryant.

         They initially slapped the erstwhile free agent with the franchise tag, virtually ensuring them his rights for the 2015 season. That would come at a high cost, $12.8 million against the team's salary cap, a good chunk of change.

         But in the back of their minds the Cowboys had budgeted a long-term deal, one that would lock up one of the very best wide receivers in the National Football League for five years, making sure the 26-year-old Lufkin, Texas, native wouldn't be going anywhere else. That would cost a "chunk" of change worthy of Fort Knox security.

         In doing so, they knew they couldn't possibly have their cake and eat it, too. If you sign Dez long term then you can't afford under this salary cap, this year and future years, the ability to improve the defensive line; the ability to lock up a Tyrone Crawford for the future; the ability to at least keep this offensive line together for years to come; the ability to pay Greg Hardy his per-game bonus this year, along with that of Rolando McClain.

         Thus forcing them, if they were going to be frugal enough to afford all these riches, to draw a line in the sand on the NFL's 2014 rushing king DeMarco Murray at $12 million guaranteed over the life of the deal. The Philadelphia Eagles would then guarantee him $21 million spread over the first three years of a five-year deal stretching through 31 years of age. The Cowboys (1-0) gritted their teeth, saying, see ya down the road, one of course leading them to Sunday's 3:25 p.m. game at The Linc when they have to face the Eagles and their well-liked running back while looking for a fourth consecutive road victory over the Eagles (0-1).

         Finally, after Dez' minimally-contentious long-term contract negotiations and the emotional wide receiver vowing "on my babies" not to play in the season opener if a long-term deal couldn't be worked out in time (July 15), the Cowboys and Roc Nation got together in the 11th hour, 30 minutes to hammer out that five-year, $70 million deal that included the much coveted $45 million in guarantees.

         And then after all that, after doing everything they could – and maybe a tad bit more – to make sure they didn't have to go forward without the player who led all wide receivers since 2010 with 56 touchdown receptions going into this season, the guy who set the franchise single-season record with 16 scoring catches this past season and the guy considered the heartbeat of the team, this is thrown in their face:

         The Cowboys won't have the services of Bryant for the next six weeks, that timetable being a floating estimation since surgically-repaired fractured fifth metatarsals in the foot can be a tricky projection because no two people are alike. But also consider if the Cowboys feared some of these doomsday estimations circulating around, they certainly would have placed Dez on injured reserve/recall, meaning while he was missing a mandatory eight weeks as did DeMarcus Lawrence last year and came to regret since he could have returned sooner, they could have replaced his spot on the 53-man roster with another player. They have not.

         But this is just what the Cowboys so feared, having to play games without probably the second-most important player to any future success on the team, next to only quarterback Tony Romo. And that is something they haven't had to do for nearly four years to the day, Sept. 18, 2011, Game 2, when Dez (thigh, vs. 49ers) last missed a game.

         What to do, what to do?

         "Yeah, it's next guy up," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett repeatedly says, but with a stiff and jutted jaw. "We have great confidence in our running game, we have great confidence in the receivers, we have confidence in the balance we have in the offense, the guys up front, that's really where it all starts, and we're going to go out and run our offense. If you're effective running the football, you get some of those favorable looks, regardless of who the runner is. If you're effective throwing the ball, the receivers get some attention and that gives you an opportunity to run it.

         "Regardless of who is out there for us, we believe in that philosophy we're convicted about, and we expect the guys who are playing to allow us to uphold those expectations."

         Philosophy is a good thing. It's bold. It's courageous and motivating. And it's realistic when talking about going with the next starting guard or linebacker or safety. But when it comes to this Pro Bowl wide receiver, the guy with such uncommon skills, *next guy up *is a gaping difference.[embeddedad0]

         Maybe the proper term should be next guys up, plural, because in the Cowboys' case, it's going to take a village and some heady game-planning by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to compensate for Dez's absence.

         Now, Garrett is right about a couple of things: First, Romo is still on the field, so that's enough there to give defenses pause. And so is that offensive line, although starting guard Ron Leary will be officially doubtful (strained groin) for Sunday's game since he hasn't practiced all week.

         Then this, too:* Effective running game*. The Cowboys don't have to run more, but when they run they must run effectively. Make the Eagles and then the Falcons, etc., respect the running game, and that means even if those opposing defenses start squeezing this offense with eight-man fronts, thinking they can man up on the outside to stop the remaining wide receivers.

         One way to back off defenses from loading up against the run is to spread 'em, out – three receivers or some combination of four wide (tight ends included) and a running back, as they did at times against the Giants, so they don't know if the back is going to line up in the backfield or the slot. In that opener, by my count, the Cowboys went either four receiving players on the line of scrimmage or empty at least two dozen times and only twice did they fail to gain yards (incompletions).

         If they go a lot of three wide, then the Eagles have to decide who is going in the slot against Cole Beasley. Usually whoever does is a favorable mismatch for the Cowboys. In the opener, the Eagles dropped safety Malcom Jenkins in the slot rather than a third corner, then bringing in a third safety on the back end.

         The Cowboys can also create mismatches with their two-tight end personnel, especially if it's Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar. Witten tight to the line, Escobar either in the slot or way out wide. Now what you gonna do? Cover Escobar with a safety? Take a linebacker possibly out of run support? Not a bad idea, create an edge through personnel use.

         Then there's leaning once again on running back Lance Dunbar, as the Cowboys did against the Giants, when they flanked him out into the slot or wide and actually this time threw him the ball. Did so eight times for 70 yards, 40 of those yards on the first two completions during the game-winning touchdown drive. That also usually takes a linebacker out of run support or off the field, though a dangerous proposition since defenses can't assume Dunbar won't line up in the backfield, as he did on each play in the game-winning drive against the Giants with three wides and Witten on the line of scrimmage.

         And then there are Terrance Williams and Devin Street, who knows how to play all three receiver positions. Time to step up for those guys, right? Time to produce. Time to show them you guys can be more than just secondary options in the passing game.

         They don't have to be Dez. They just have to make defenses respect the possibility of what could happen if they beat man coverage, especially with Romo throwing the ball.

I can remember way back when Anthony Wright came to the Cowboys. His hands were not as fast as his feet, if you know what I mean. But as Jimmy Johnson would say, when the Cowboys would send "Ace" deep, "they still have to cover him because you never know when he might catch one."

         "The real take is, the guy has to win one-on-one," Romo said of his receivers. "That's your whole job when you're a skill position player when you get the one-on-one. Look, if you're not consistently winning one-on-one, it's going to make the game very difficult because that's where the ball needs to go, and if you can't beat your guy … Dez obviously wins that matchup 99.9 percent of the time, so he makes it easy to go to him in the one-on-one situations.

"So we just need the other guys to step up, win their one-on-one matchups."

         Eighty-two years ago, if you can comprehend that much time passing, Franklin D. Roosevelt said during his presidential inauguration speech in 1933, with the country spinning into The Great Depression, "That the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

         The Cowboys are about to find out if there is any truth to that when it comes to their own fears.

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