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Spagnola: Time for a much-needed growth spurt


FRISCO, Texas – It's time.

Time to find out about these 2023 Dallxas Cowboys, now about to start what head coach Mike McCarthy would call the "second trimester" of the season.

Are these Cowboys the team having won four games by a grand total of 128-30? Or are they the team having lost their two games by 70-26?

Are they the team just one loss off the best two records in the NFL (6-1)? Or are they a disappointing team, having lost one game to an opponent now just 1-6 that has failed to score more than 16 points in four of those losses (Arizona), and also having lost when giving up 42 points to a now 5-2 Niners team stuck in a two-game losing streak ever since the 42-10 whipping of the Cowboys?

See, we thought we knew coming out of training camp, thought this version of the Cowboys would be one of the more untouchable teams out there this season. Why, they had added veteran receiver Brandin Cooks to what already had been a high-powered offense, having averaged 27.5 points a game in 2022 and most impressively in Dak Prescott's first 10 games back from injury averaging 35.1.

Wide receiver Michael Gallup would now be more than a year removed from his torn ACL. The offensive line figured to be back intact after losing Tyron Smith for the majority of the regular season and then Terence Steele the final month of the season. Plus, having beaten their first two opponents by the combined score of 70-10.

And then owning a defense leading the league in takeaways a second consecutive season last year that could only improve, one finishing third in sacks, abusing many an offense during 2022 and holding 10 of 17 opponents to no more than 20 points.

All so promising.

But here we are, the Cowboys coming out of their bye week at 4-2 and facing the 3-4 Los Angeles Rams noon Sunday at AT&T Stadium. Sort of wondering if this team is as good as we thought, the level of trust out there somewhat questionable after that depressing loss to the Niners, a team once thought to be invincible until losing two straight after wiping out the Cowboys, first 19-17 to the Jets and then 22-17 to the Vikings, two teams with non-winning records going into Week 8.

So, go figure.

But now, six games in, we start finding out more about these Cowboys, having previously put together consecutive back-to-back 12-5 seasons, the first consecutive double-digit winning seasons since 1995-96 and consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 2006-07. Can they reach a projected third straight in each category?

The time is right now.

Starting with Sunday's Rams game, the Cowboys, after playing four of the first six games on the road, will now return to the quite friendly confines of AT&T Stadium, where they will play five of the next seven, including with the Giants, Commanders, Seattle and Philadelphia, the only two road games during this stretch at Philly next Sunday and at Carolina Nov. 19, the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving.

Let's consider what needs to take place for a "second trimester" push with the Cowboys heading into Sunday's lone home noon start of the season. And they do so while riding a 10-game home winning streak, stretching back to the 2022 season when they won eight straight at home after losing the season opener 19-3 to Tampa Bay, only to return in the playoffs to spank those same Buccaneers, 31-14, on the road.

Now then, in order to stretch that home streak to 11 the Cowboys defense must prove the Cardinals scoring 28 points in their only win of the season an anomaly and, too, proving the Niners scoring their season-high 42 just a bad day at the office.

As McCarthy said on his Friday morning radio segment on 105.3 The Fan, "Defense is the thermostat of your team, and 4-2 is a good solid record, good start, but we need to grow."

That growth certainly jumpstarted against the Chargers, holding a solid offense, now the NFL's eighth-ranked, to just 17 points, 10 of those set up by a Chargers punt return into Cowboys territory and that goofy punt recovery at the Cowboys' 20-yard line. Even held a Chargers team dead set on running the football with Austin Ekeler back from injury to just 53 yards and quarterback Justin Herbert, at the time with a 111.9 QB rating, to only an 84.0 mark.

This must continue Sunday against Matthew Stafford. Putting pressure on the Rams quarterback will go a long way toward neutralizing wide receivers Cooper Kupp and emerging rookie Puka Nacua. Plus, must stop the Rams penchant for running. Who can forget the Rams running for 273 in their 30-22 playoff win over the Cowboys that 2018 season?

Then this Cowboys offense dragging along in three of the past four games must rise to what became last season's standard. While scoring 35 points against the hapless Patriots, the Cowboys in those other three games only mustered 16 in the loss to Arizona, 10 in the road loss to San Francisco and 20 in what should be considered a good road win against the Chargers in their game prior to the bye.

But now they are at home.

Now they must kick their running game in gear, averaging a piddling 3.9 yards a carry. That must improve. And they know it.

"It's no secret we want to run the ball," says perennial Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin. "Our yards per carry is not horrible (3.9), but that definitely needs to be higher. Our standard is higher than that. Needs to be better when it's called, needs to be 4-5 at least."

     That seems to be a reflection on an offensive line initially pieced together over the first four games, but now the starting five in place for not only practice but also the past two games for the first time since the end of the 2021 season. Continuity is in their favor going forward with the same group for three consecutive weeks, assuming questionable left tackle Tyron Smith (neck) is good to go as expected.
     "We're definitely a work in progress," Martin says.
     Not sure if there is deeper meaning to the hat Prescott wore during his weekly press conference on Thursday, the front lined with "LINEMEN," possibly emphasizing their importance and knowing they will be facing Rams future Hall of Fame defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who Martin says "can do everything. He can wreck games."
     So at least the Cowboys front five will now have three weeks of reps in their favor this Sunday, since those five never practiced together as a group during the offseason, training camp or preseason, Martin's contract holdout and injuries always getting in the way. Plus, all together the invaluable two preceding games.
     "It's big anytime you can get those reps," Martin says. "It's like anything. If you're doing radio with someone you've never done radio with it takes some time to get it right with each other. Those reps are huge.

"We just got to continue to get better. It's a long season. It's not going to happen overnight."

Got that right. There is no such thing as a growth spurt in the NFL. Just takes time.

"And now it's time to reboot," McCarthy says of his team returning from the bye week and Sunday beginning this all-important seven-game trek through the middle of the season that finishes with three consecutive home games against Washington, Seattle and Philadelphia, knowing though his team finishes the season with three of the final four games on the road, including at Buffalo (5-3), at Miami (5-2), home against Detroit (5-2) and at Washington (3-4).

"And we need to grow as an offense."

Because it's high time.

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