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Spagnola: Visions Of 2011 Are Dancing Overhead


FROM HOME, Texas – First essential workers, numbering no more than 75, back in.

Today coaches, pushing the facility capacity for NFL teams to 100.

Tomorrow players?

Well, hold the phone on that one, but sure signs of progress being made toward the return of football in the NFL.

Yeah, air fist-bump.

But, let's remember, it is June 5 already. There has been no structured weight and conditioning program for the players, normally nearly a two-month period. There has been no actual on-field sessions with position coaches.

No actual rookie minicamp. No OTAs, and normally at this point those allotted 10-day sessions likely would be concluding next week. And while there still is time, no teamwide minicamp, usually a three-day, mid-June affair bringing an official end to the offseason, giving the players a month to six-week break before the start of training camp in late July.

Why, it's beginning to look at lot like … 2011.


The protracted CBA negotiations between NFL owners and the NFLPA causing the players association to "decertify" and the owners to create a league-wide closure of team facilities to players. Mere contact banned between anyone in team organizations with players. We weren't allowed to even contact players for interviews.

This all began on March 11 that year, not much earlier than the coronavirus this year caused the NFL to shutdown facilities this past March 16.

Back then there was a moratorium on free agency. Players could not be signed. That included draft choices, about the last NFL function before things came to a total standstill. If I remember correctly, club website use of video, practice or game, plus player pictures in uniform also no-nos.

Yep, 2011, not as bad as 1987, when two games into the season there was labor unrest, the season's third game canceled and then three weeks of replacement players playing games that counted in the standings after the players went out on strike. Not as bad as 1982 when the NFL played the first two games of the season and then a 57-day player strike reducing the season to just nine games, culminating in what was called the 1982 Super Bowl Tournament, a 16-team playoff where each conference seeded teams one through eight based on records, looking a lot like the early days of the NCAA basketball tournament.

The Cowboys that year, by the way, we're seeded second with a 6-3 record behind the 8-1 Redskins and responsible for that one Washington loss. Sure enough, the Cowboys advanced to the NFC title game for the third consecutive season, but losing to the Redskins, 31-17, this time.

That seems like a lifetime ago. And for some, gosh, that is, 38 years gone by.

But in 2011, not so far back in the rearview mirror, some of the parallels to today rather eerily the same.

No OTAs. None of the three minicamps the Cowboys were allowed with a new head coach. Interruption of the weight and conditioning period. There were estimates of missing just the first preseason game costing the NFL $200 million, along with a reduction in the size of the 2012 salary cap. The Pro Football Hall of Fame game was cancelled.

Not until 136 days later, with Dallas in the midst of 22 consecutive 100-degree days, did the players and NFLPA approve the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. That was on a Monday, July 25. Facilities were unlocked to players at 9 a.m. Tuesday, when teams could conduct physicals and begin signing their draft choices and start negotiating with their unrestricted free agents. The Cowboys reported to training camp in San Antonio on Wednesday, the official first day to the new league year. The first practice was conducted on Thursday, though three days of non-pad workouts mandated. Veteran players could officially start signing on Friday

In fact, before that first practice, the Cowboys, needing to squeeze under the salary cap, cut the likes of veterans running back Marion Barber, wide receiver Roy Williams, guard Leonard Davis and kicker Kris Brown, shaving $16.6 million off the cap.

And get this: The Cowboys were opening camp under a new head coach, Jason Garrett, after his eight game-stint as the interim head coach in 2010 (5-3), now taking over following a most disappointing 6-10 season. Also would have a new defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, two new defensive assistants and one new offensive assistant. Plus, having to reconstruct a defense that had given up a franchise record by 50 points of 436 in 2010 – at least 24 in 11 of the 16 games and at least 30 in eight games.

Talk about rushing into a training camp.

Hmmm, any of this sound familiar to today's current state of affairs?

The Cowboys starting 2020 with a new head coach, Mike McCarthy, finally get back to The Star, taking over for Garrett. A new defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, taking over for the tandem of Rod Marinelli/Kris Richard. Only two holdover coaches on offense – Kellen Moore and Doug Nussmeier – and just Leon Lett on the defensive side, while Markus Paul was promoted to head of the strength and conditioning department, replacing the retiring Mike Woicik.

McCarthy taking over after a Cowboys most disappointing 8-8 season. Nolan taking over a defense registering just 17 takeaways in 2019, only five teams in the NFL with fewer, but locked in a three-way tie for last with just seven interceptions, matching the second fewest in franchise history by just one. The 10 fumble recoveries ranked fourth fewest in franchise history. Plus, the front office still working on a long-term deal for franchised quarterback Dak Prescott.

And how about this? The Cowboys were going into the season with a new kicker, too, in 2011, Dan Bailey ending up winning the job. And there was this constant talk of the Cowboys spending big money to bring in a high-priced safety. At least Tony Romo was under contract, but coming back from season-ending surgery to repair a fractured clavicle limiting him to just six games in 2010.

See what I mean about revisiting 2011?

At least this year there's been these streamed virtual teaching sessions between the coaches and players. Contact has been allowed. And those players rehabbing from either surgeries or injuries have been allowed into the facility with trainer supervision.

But again, it's June 5, tomorrow the 76-year anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy during WWII. There has been talk of players not returning to teams because of COVID-19 until the start of training camp, whenever that might be. And again, who knows when that might be for the Cowboys since they are supposed to play that Hall of Fame game against the Steelers on Aug. 6, earning them an earlier start to camp. But Hall of Fame president Dave Baker has said there are five contingency plans in the works for the game/slash induction, which obviously must include cancelling the game, thus pushing back the Cowboys projected July 22 start to camp.

So here we are 81 days into the pandemic shutdown, with hopes of, but no tangible end in sight for the players. Say there is a shotgun start to training camp, as there was in 2011. The Cowboys players will have been away for 128 days if camp actually starts at The Star now instead of Oxnard, Calif., on July 22. But if later, for a quite similar total to 2011.

That year, the Cowboys played their first preseason game on Aug. 11 against Denver, as scheduled, no concessions to the blacked out offseason.

They opened the regular season on schedule, of all things, Sept. 11, against the New York Jets, and of all places for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, at Giants Stadium, Manhattan looming in the background.

The young Cowboys, with more questions than answers hovering over them for the opener, actually taking a 24-10 lead, with 14:50 left. But on the Jets' next possession, the Cowboys lost starting cornerback Mike Jenkins, and now were playing without their top three corners – Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick and Terrence Newman. Couldn't even put out a nickel defense with three corners. The Jets immediately took advantage, narrowing the lead to seven.

And of all things, after Romo completes a 64-yard pass to Jason Witten, down to the Jets' 3-yard line, while facing third-and-goal from the 2, Romo, under pressure and no one open, tries to run for the touchdown. But while lunging for the goal line, has the ball knocked out, the Jets recovering.

Then on top of that, still leading by seven with 5:08 left, the Jets block a Mat McBriar punt that Isaiah Trufant returns for a game-tying touchdown. And double-dipping on top of that, with just 59 seconds remaining in a tie game, Romo forces an out pass to Dez Bryant, who is running a go, never open, and Darrelle Revis intercepts to set up, of all things, former Cowboys kicker Nick Folk's game-winning 50-yard field goal.

Needless to say, an auspiciously traumatic start to what turned out to be the first of three consecutive 8-8 seasons for Garrett and the rebuilding Cowboys, the final insult a 31-14 Game 16 loss to the Giants for the NFC East title, the Giants then proceeding to win Super Bowl XLVI, 21-17, over the Patriots.

Certainly the Cowboys will aspire in 2020 to more than that 8-8 record, no matter how the rest of the offseason plays out.

But if 2011's washed out offseason is a cautionary tale, excuses for less unacceptable.