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Spagnola: These Aren't Last Year's Cowboys


FRISCO, Texas – Three more practices, and here we go.

Cowboys-Buccaneers, 7:20 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. A nation watching on primetime television. No doubt the Bucs raising high their second Super Bowl championship flag.

And the Cowboys, on the road for the first of two consecutive games. Underdogs. Coming off only their second losing season at 6-10 since going 6-10 in 2010.

What gives?

Not in this game, particularly, but for the 2021 season. What to expect? What should you expect?

Darn well needs to be better than last year's 6-10. Much better. But will it be?

Well, been watching this team since leaving for training camp on July 20 through Friday's final practice of this week. A full 45 days. Practices in Oxnard, one even with the Rams. Games in Canton, Ohio, and Glendale, Ariz. Practices here at The Star. Two games at AT&T Stadium.

From what we've seen covering the Cowboys traveling road show, this season will be better, health permitting. OK, there, said it. And not for having suffered some sort of heat stroke out here the past couple of practices with the high humidity pushing "the feel like" temperature into the hundreds.


Look, here is the fallacy assessing this team. That abominable 6-10 season is rubbing off on this year's expectations. Clouding the coaching ability of Mike McCarthy. Shrouding this defense in clouds of darkness.

Well, here to tell you, 2020 is dead and gone. Buried. This is a new year. A new team. A more talented team. A healthier team.

Now normally 'bout this time of year, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is asked for his assessment, many poking him in the ribs, hoping he will predict a Super Bowl championship on the horizon. Predicting an end to the now 25-year drought. Heck, that's so long ago the Cowboys still have the rights to 71 guys in this building who were not yet 2 years old when the Cowboys beat Pittsburgh, 27-17, on Jan. 28, 1996, in Tempe, Ariz.

The self-admitted naïve Jerry most always looks at the glass, not just half full, but overflowing. Yet thought his assessment Friday morning on 105.3 The Fan was spot on. Pragmatic, saying what I would have said myself when asked his thoughts of his 2021 team.

"I feel this is the team that I thought we were going to have last year," Jones began in full assessment. "Of course, that was before Dak's injury. That was the euphoria for me over having Mike as our coach; not necessarily appreciated what our lack of practice over COVID and all of that, and how it was going to impact the actual team. Certainly not anticipating the injuries and certainly not anticipating the breakdown we had in defense.

"But this year, with what we addressed – and boy did we go at it, and I'm sure you'll give us that – we'll see how the results are. But man, did we change it up. You change something up about as good as you can change it up, and correct it up, and what we lost when we lost Dak. We hope we got back our protection and our front line on offense … and now No. 88 is just better. All of those things give me the same feeling as I had last year.

"We're going to be a good team."

As we remember, this offense was smoking last year, even in those first five games when going 2-3, but already playing without La'el Collins for the entire season, Tyron Smith for just two games, Blake Jarwin for just the season opener. And then in the third quarter of the sixth games losing Dak Prescott for the entire season, along with backup quarterback Andy Dalton for two games and parts of a third.

That's a lot to overcome, and the Cowboys did not overcome.

Especially when your defense gives up 473 points, the most in franchise history. As I keep saying, historically bad, like 153 points worse than in 2019 when the Cowboys' total defense finished ninth and their run defense 11th.

Last year, though, is last year.

Dak is back, and no matter what you hear from outside voices, he is _back_, darn it. Throwing with velocity. Throwing all the routes. And moving quite well. Getting hit, knocked to the ground, is the only thing that hasn't happened … yet.

Does he need to have his bones rattled some to be ready?

"It'd be great to come out of the game (against the Buccaneers) never hitting the ground," Dak said in response.

Back, too, are Smith, Collins, Zack Martin and Jarwin. Having CeeDee Lamb back with a full offseason and preseason under his belt. Center Tyler Biadasz in his second year. Tony Pollard in his third.

Why, Dak has said it. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has said it. Finishing with the league's No. 1 offense might not be all that far-fetched. Heck, the Cowboys were the No. 1 offense last year in four of the first six weeks of the season before the trainers' tables filled up.

So here we are at the $64,000 question, and as I've pointed out during the offseason work, at the beginning of training camp, at the end of training camp, all until I'm blue in the face:

If the defense is better, if it's at least average for goodness sakes, this team is capable of transposing 6-10 into 10-6 to win the NFC East for the fourth time in eight seasons, something no other division team can do, since Philadelphia and Washington have won two titles apiece since 2014. Uh, better make that 10-7 since this is a 17-game season.

There are signs this is a possibility. Dan Quinn having taken over the defense and defensive line. That's good. George Edwards taking over the linebackers. The addition of Joe Whitt Jr. to the secondary.

The grand addition of football player Micah Parsons, wherever you want to put him. Leighton Vander Esch back where he belongs at weakside linebacker, Jaylon Smith back at middle linebacker, but just on the base defense. The addition of Keanu Neal at nickel linebacker. Demontae Kazee adding more experience at safety. Donovan Wilson now with starting experience back there.

A healthy DeMarcus Lawrence. A fulltime Randy Gregory. A more experienced Trevon Diggs. A more experienced Neville Gallimore at defensive tackle once he comes off IR-DTR and Dorance Armstrong at end. Depth added with Osa Odighizuwa, Carlos Watkins, Brett Urban, Tarell Basham, Quinton Bohanna, Maurice Canady, Malik Hooker, Jayron Kearse, Jabril Cox, Nahshon Wright and Israel Mukuamu.

As McCarthy said, "flipped" that defense about as much as they could in one year.

But now we've got to see. See if this defense has improved. See if a rushing defense giving up 5 yards a carry last year and the second-most rushing yards in club history has improved. See if a defense lacking pressure on opposing quarterbacks and takeaways can even approach what took place in 2019.

And what a better way to start seeing than facing Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs returning all 22 starters from last year, making up their second-ranked passing offense and No. 1-ranked rushing defense, causing Dak to say, "This isn't just any ordinary defense."

So just remember when bracing for this 2021 season, these aren't your 1-year-old's Cowboys, and as Jerry said, "I think we've improved across the board."

Me, too. New Year. New team.

Now we see if that includes new and improved results, too.

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