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Spagnola: This Program Heading In The Right Direction

IRVING, Texas – Home is usually good.

         You know, home for the holidays; home for the summer; home on leave.

         But home for the playoffs is not.

         And for the third consecutive season the Dallas Cowboys are sitting at home this weekend, not involved in the NFL playoffs. Not this wild-card weekend and certainly not next weekend's divisional round of games reserved for the top two teams in each conference and this weekend's four winners.

         Ba-humbug. Nobody is in a good mood.

         Not you.

         Not the local media.

         Not the coaching staff here at The Ranch.

         Not the players.

         And for sure, not the owner, Jerry Jones spewing his frustration this past Wednesday on his local 105.3 The Fan radio segment, saying, unprovoked, mind you, "I can assure our fans this, it's going to be very uncomfortable from my standpoint, very uncomfortable for the next few weeks and months at Valley Ranch."

         Absolutely, not a soul is happy with 8-8, especially on the heels of an 8-8 season, the only time in the 53-year history of the Cowboys that they have finished .500 in consecutive seasons and just the fourth time overall. Not a soul is happy landing there by losing the final two games of the past two seasons, which includes the final game of each season playing for the division title.

         My guess is, though, finishing with back-to-back 9-7 seasons, NFC East titles and two first-round playoffs losses also would have left all souls fire-spittin' mad, no?

         So driving home the other night, for some reason thinking of just how to portray this season, the third time in the last five the Cowboys have been beaten in a winner-takes-the-East contest while winning another, this 8-8 didn't seem as bad as last year's 8-8. In fact, this 8-8 almost seems encouraging.

         And right about then, seriously, no lie, over the radio here comes the refrain from the 1969 hit by the Spiral Staircase: I love you more today than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow.

         Yea, that's it. Maybe that's this 2012 season, minus the mushiness:

These Cowboys are better than last year's Cowboys, but not as good as the Cowboys will be next year.

Seriously now, if you just cut through the emotion, that all-encompassing dejection that has you screaming to trade this guy, cut that guy, blow up this unit, fire that coach and or that coordinator or that general manager, don't you see the progress?

Certainly not tangible progress, since no matter how you cut it, 8-8 is 8-8, and third place is no better than second place or fourth place. All the same place when it's not first place or at least a wild-card place in the playoffs.

But didn't this team grow on you as the season wore on? Didn't you start to get the feeling you actually had a team out there playing, not just a bunch of individuals thrown together on 11-man units? That these guys genuinely cared about one another, cared about what was going on from play to play?

I should apologize for sort of jumping one of our Talkin' Cowboys callers Friday on when he insisted "the culture" needs to change out here. So sorry, that hit a raw nerve I guess, because if anything, "the culture" has changed out here over the past two seasons with Jason Garrett as the head coach.

This is not that team care has forgotten. Telling you, these guys did care about winning:

Jason Witten fighting like heck to the last minute trying to find a doctor who would allow him to play with his lacerated spleen in the season opener.

Newcomer Brandon Carr playing with a sore Achilles in the middle part of the season, and not uttering a peep.

Dez Bryant passing on what should have been season-ending surgery for that fracture left index finger so he could help his team in the final three games.

DeMarcus Ware unable to practice because of that useless right arm the final month of the season, strapping himself together with an elbow brace and shoulder harness to give whatever he could give to the bitter end.

Marcus Spears doing whatever was medically necessary to drag his degenerative knee out there as a starter once Kenyon Coleman was lost for the season.

Chris Jones trying to still punt with a right knee he shouldn't have been punting on when his recently-signed backup Brian Moorman was injured too badly to punt in his place.

Recent-comer Ernie Sims arguing to convince trainers to leave him on the field after suffering what they suspected – and was – a concussion.

Felix Jones playing on two knees so banged up that putting them together would not have comprised one good knee.

All 53 rallying together in Cincinnati, less than 24 hours after finding out practice squadder Jerry Brown had been killed in a one-car accident with teammate and best friend Josh Brent behind the wheel and subsequently incarcerated for intoxication manslaughter.

On and on and on.

This does not happen within a losing culture.

Now, if you want to argue a deficiency of talent, that's another matter. Yet, seriously how many of you realistically thought there was enough talent on this team before the season began to win the NFC East, to be better than the Giants and Eagles?

Yet here they were, these never-say-die Cowboys with a chance to win the East in the final game of the season – hey, in the final 3 minutes, 33 seconds of the season, playing on the road and the majority of the game without seven defensive starters if you include nickel back Orlando Scandrick and Ware out there with one arm, and then finishing the game with their two starting wide receivers out and two more wideouts suffering injuries severe enough to sideline them this weekend had they won.

Does this team need to improve on the offensive line? Let me answer for Tony Romo, you bet. Does this team need to improve on the defensive line? Yes indeed. Does this team need more depth at wide receiver, running back, safety and cornerback? Yup. Does this team need to figure out somehow, someway to retain the rights of Anthony Spencer? Absolutely!

But let's not overlook Bryant's emergence this second half of the season, in the last eight games catching 44 of his 92 passes for 869 of his 1,382 yards receiving and 10 of his 12 touchdowns.

You now definitely know who Dwayne Harris is, not only as a return specialist, but a receiver, too, and same goes for rookie James Hanna, emerging as a receiving threat at tight end.

In his absence, you thoroughly understand now the creative ability and hard-nosed style of DeMarco Murray, what he means to the Cowboys running game. You have little, to no doubt when Dan Bailey lines up for a field goal, from anywhere and under any circumstance. And don't you forget Tyron Smith returns next year with his first season at left tackle under his belt (college or pro) and at all of 22 years of age.

Now admit it, Carr and Morris Claiborne stepped up the corner play. Barry Church, if three games is any indication, is a keeper at safety. Sean Lee and the emergence of Bruce Carter have inside linebacker in great hands. Tyrone Crawford has something for sure.

All huge steps in the right direction.

So let's not be throwing around terms like "blowing it up" or even "rebuilding," because before your very eyes, without even invoking the R word, and without regressing to like the 4-12 depths that come with "staring over," the Cowboys have been rebuilding. Been rebuilding through free agency these past couple of years and through the draft if you've cared to notice, and with "the right kind of guys," if I may quote Garrett.

No one bats 1.000 in the draft, but again, since Garrett has become the head coach, the Cowboys have added through the draft Smith, Carter, Murray, Harris, Claiborne, Crawford, Hanna, and don't be surprised next year by Kyle Wilber or when finally healthy Matt Johnson and Danny Coale. And if you care to include the 2010 draft, then Bryant, Lee and Sean Lissemore. Hey, if I'm right about those other three guys we've seen very little from, going 13 for 21 is to die for compared to the Cowboys draft record from 2006-09 or from 2000-04.

Feel any better?

Then there is this, tangible numbers, too. After the 2011 season everyone was quick to point out how the Cowboys lost five games after leading going into the fourth quarter – though very few temper that by pointing out they also won four games when trailing in the fourth quarter.

But this year the Cowboys  went 3-1 holding leads going into the fourth and engineered five, fourth-quarter comeback victories – three of those in overtime – and came back a sixth time in the fourth quarter to force overtime against the Saints, only to lose.

Also, let's not forget the overtime loss to New Orleans, the winning field goal set up by forcing a Saints fumble that they recovered at the Cowboys' 2-yard line. Or Dez' fingertips landing beyond the back of the end zone to wipe out a game-winning touchdown reception in the final seconds; or Bailey's 51-yard field goal attempt at Baltimore drifting a foot or so wide in the gusting crosswind as the game expired, one of only two misses all year (29 of 31).

This team has grown better with age. These comebacks and that tragic accident have galvanized this core group of guys. Jason Garrett, head coach, has made a difference and has this franchise headed in the right direction. And no matter what you think or how heartbroken you were with that last interception, without Romo none of this would have even been possible, not even the close call in the end.

This all is headed in the right direction, the Cowboys rebuilding without anyone realizing they've been rebuilding, going 21-19 ever since the 1-7 start to 2010 that most everyone else wants to disown.

So absolutely, and with regards to Spiral Staircase, better than yesterday and betting you not as good as tomorrow.

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