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Spagnola: This Is Not The Same Ol' Story For The Cowboys


IRVING, Texas – Flashback: Dec. 30, 2012, Landover, Md., 8:31 p.m. (EST), FedExField.

         That is, if you can bear it.

         Here are the Cowboys missing from the starting lineup:

         C Phil Costa, DT Kenyon Coleman, NT Jay Ratliff, LB Sean Lee, LB Bruce Carter, S Barry Church, P Chris Jones.

         Then, by the time the game concluded, a 28-18, NFC East title-clinching victory for the Washington Redskins, WR Miles Austin was out with an ankle sprain; WR Dwayne Harris had a high ankle sprain that left him in a walking boot the next day; WR Cole Beasley sprained the AC joint in his shoulder; QB Tony Romo suffered a broken rib; and WR Dez Bryant, already playing with a fractured finger in need of postseason surgery, managed to play through back spasms so bad he was carried from the locker room to the bus, then to his car upon the charter flight's landing at DFW and driven right to the hospital for overnight observations.

         Oh, and DeMarcus Ware, the one-armed man, finally completed an entire month of playing with a hyperextended elbow and a labrum tear in his shoulder in need of offseason surgery.

         By game's end, a crushing ending at that, here are some of the guys with whom the Cowboys were trying to clinch their second NFC East title in four years:

         C Ryan Cook, LB Dan Connor, LB Ernie Sims, S Eric Frampton, CB Sterling Moore, CB Michael Coe, S Charlie Peprah, DT Brian Schaeffering, LB Brady Poppinga, Sean Lissemore starting at nose tackle and rotation guy Marcus Spears starting at defensive end. Of the group, only Spears, Lissemore and Connor had gone to training camp with the Cowboys, and of the 11, only four have an opportunity of returning for this season.

         On top of that, the Cowboys had set some franchise records for futility, having rushed for the fewest yards in franchise history during a 16-game season; collecting the fewest takeaways in the franchise's 53 seasons; and allowing opponents to not only rush for 2,003 yards, second most given up since 1986, but also average 4.5 yards a carry, second highest since 1963.


Yet there they were, owning the ball at their own 29-yard line, first-and-10, with 3:06 to play in the season, going no-huddle and trailing just 21-18. No joshing … and no excuses, just facts.

         Yes, the entire country knows what happened next, the visibility just part of the dinner that comes when playing with the blue star on your silver helmet.

         So look, when owner Jerry Jones says he is encouraged by this 2013 version of the Dallas Cowboys speeding toward the start of the regular season, do not simply dismiss it with, oh, that's just Jerry being Jerry.

         When COO Stephen Jones says these Cowboys can "compete" with any team in this league, do not simply accuse him of being a chip off the old block.

         Or when head coach Jason Garrett expresses optimism, it's not just the talk of a red-headed Pollyanna.

         There does seem to be something brewing here out at The Ranch, and it does not have that stale smell as many want to suggest, Thursday night's final preseason game littered with backups and castoffs notwithstanding, as the Cowboys began the process Friday of whittling down a 75-man roster to 53 by 5 p.m. Saturday.

         Are they perfect? Absolutely not, and few teams are, including the season-opening opponent New York Football Giants, who very well could be playing without two starting offensive linemen, have just lost their backup running back with a broken leg, just had wide receiver Victor Cruz get out of the walking boot protecting his injured heel, had just moved defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul off PUP following June back surgery and finally had just gotten corner Terrell Thomas back on the field after missing the past two seasons with not one but two ACL tears.

         The Cowboys do have a few windshield chips, most notably having to place projected starting defensive tackle Jay Ratliff on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, meaning at the very least he must miss six full weeks with a surgically repaired sports hernia from back in December evidently still problematic. That in the aftermath of already having lost Tyrone Crawford to a torn Achilles in the first practice of training camp, and Josh Brent to his overshadowing legal problems stemming from the intoxication manslaughter charges following his one-car accident killing passenger and teammate Jerry Brown back in December.

         Headaches persist at defensive end, expecting yet not knowing for sure if Anthony Spencer will practice this coming week for the first time since having his knee scoped back at the beginning of training camp. Also on the offensive line at guard, expecting but not knowing for sure if Ronald Leary and Mackenzy Bernadeau will return next week in time to possibly start against the Giants. That had the Cowboys scrambling for viable contingency plans, including moving Doug Free to guard if Jermey Parnell, who missed the entire offseason (hamstring) and nearly all of training camp (knee), was ready to play right tackle (he was better Thursday night).

         And, you might cringe knowing the Cowboys basically finished this week with only two healthy safeties behind starters Barry Church and Will Allen, they being third-round draft choice J.J. Wilcox and rookie free agent from Saginaw Valley State Jeff Heath since out with injuries have been Eric Frampton (calf), Danny McCray (hamstring) and Matt Johnson (ankle).

         So yeah, not perfect, but still better than where the Cowboys were eight months ago to the day. When healthy, this offensive line, with the additions of first-round draft choice Travis Frederick at center and projected starter Leary at left guard, plus Free playing much better at right tackle, is an upgrade.

         The defensive line, even minus Ratliff, is better with a healthy Ware and the resurgent Jason Hatcher once Spencer returns. The return of Church helps the safety position immensely and I think Allen has been better than the perceived Band Aid upon signing. Plus, always been a fan of the 4-3 and of Monte Kiffin, remembering him going all the way back to his defensive coordinator days at Nebraska in the Big 8.

         Just think of Lee and Carter possibly playing more than six games together at linebacker, a healthy Bryant and Austin, the addition of Terrance Williams and continued progress of Harris. Jason Witten actually healthy from the start of the season, Murray back in tip-top health and the employment of a two-tight end offense surely beats playing Lawrence Vickers at fullback.

         And yes, what's not to like about the empowerment of Tony Romo. He's always been a highly-engaged player, but now even more so. And just what if the Cowboys are able to better protect Romo so he doesn't suffer another career-high amount of sacks like last season, and are able to spread the ball around (i.e. run the darn ball) so he doesn't have to account for 78 percent of the offensive touchdowns. Yes, like last season?

         "The time is upon us, so it's time to go," says veteran corner Brandon Carr. "This is what it is. This is from last year, all the bitterness you had in your mouth, now it's time to spit it out and go out here and rewrite the history books.

         "Last year is last year. Now, it's time to write a new story."

         And for sure, complete with a new ending.

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