Spagnola: What A Difference A Year Makes When Predicting The Future

IRVING, Texas – No sense dilly-dallying around, not when we're somewhere around 48 hours away from the 2015 season opener. Dallas Cowboys-New York Football Giants, 7:30 p.m., before an AT&T crowd creeping toward 100,000 ready to come out of its skin, and a national television audience with more than a million set of eyes expected to be peering in.

         And unlike last year when the Cowboys were about to open the season, there is optimism hovering overhead as heavy as this ridiculous humidity that's been saturating North Texas most of this week. Yes, optimism, not fear, the fidgety ones a year ago worried about so many things a predicted 6-10 season was seen on the horizon.

         Remember the worries?

         Would Tony Romo's back hold up?

         Would this be Jason Garrett's final year as head coach, just *having *to improve on those three consecutive seasons of 8-8?

         Was Jason Witten getting too old?

         Would this defense be no better than those guys from 2013, earning tags as worst in the league and *worst *in franchise history?

         Was Rod Marinelli going to make a difference in his first season as Cowboys defensive coordinator since he was a part of the problem from the previous year as merely defensive line coach?

         Would new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan even try to run the football, and how would demoted coordinator Bill Callahan deal with reverting back to being solely the offensive line coach after the Cowboys blocked him from taking an O-Coordinator position somewhere else after hiring Linehan?

         Oh, and could DeMarco Murray ever stay healthy enough to play all 16 games?

         Remember?

         And raise your hand if you had thrown in the towel by halftime of the season opener when Romo already had been picked off three times and the Cowboys trailed the 49ers, 28-3?

         Then the Cowboys went on to win 12 of the next 15 games for a 12-4 record, the NFC East for the first time since 2009 and a playoff game for only the second time since 1996.

         So hear me out:

         I'm not going to worry about who the starting running back will be Sunday night for the Cowboys, since all three will have a role. And as an aside, I would pay money to see Garrett and Linehan open the game with an empty formation, and I do smile when I say that.

         I'm not going to worry about the Cowboys abandoning the run without Murray, although in Thursday night's NFL opener somehow the New England Patriots, without Murray, were able to beat Pittsburgh, 28-21, by throwing the ball 32 times and running the ball 24, the final four runs their last possession when running out the clock.

         I'm not going to worry about the suspended absences of defensive end Greg Hardy and linebacker Rolando McClain since the Cowboys somehow managed to improve defensively last year without Hardy and with McClain a sometimes healthy participant.

         I'm not going to worry about offensive line coach Frank Pollack taking over for Callahan since that's what he was hired to do back in 2013 when Callahan took over more responsibility for running the offense, and this line has been improving ever since.

         I'm not going to overly worry about the loss of Orlando Scandrick, since somehow last year the Cowboys were able to cobble together a linebacking corps while dealing with the unthinkable loss of Sean Lee, who seemingly is returning this year good as new. Tyler Patmon, the nickel slot stage is yours.

         And I'm sure as heck not going to worry about year-after complacency setting in, since we saw how hard this team worked during those five weeks in Oxnard, how no one seems to be taking anything for granted, and the sweat they put in this week practicing here at The Ranch with the humidity causing temperatures in the mid-80s to feel-like 97.

         "Expectations are higher than they have been in the past, but Jason has done a good job with that from Day One," Witten says in reference to head coach Jason Garrett. "This team understands what's happened in the past. … You have to play each week."

         Ah yes, the past, when it's been since the 1995 season (12-4) and 1996 season (10-6) that the Cowboys have put together consecutive double-digit win efforts along with consecutive first-place finishes in the NFC East. They simply couldn't sustain the double-digit victory totals of 1996, 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2009, nor repeat for division titles.

         And as much as so many in the media have tried since the start of training camp right through this week, no one has been able to draw Garrett offsides on the subject of "How is this team handling the swirling optimism?" heading into the season opener.

         "Last year has nothing to do with this year, and we've made that abundantly clear to our team right from the start," Garrett said once again, as late as Thursday. "You have to build your team over again every single year. We were clear with our players from Minute One on the first day of our offseason program.

         "We focus on being our best today. That's all we really focus on."

         So considering all that, this Cowboys team at least goes 12-4. That's right, good enough to win the NFC East once again and with a good chance to be a better team (higher quality for the playoffs) than they were last year. I mean, do you realize that after last year's season-opening false start, Romo missed part of and all of those back-to-back losses to Washington and Arizona, and the Philadelphia debacle on Thanksgiving occurred to a team with dead legs, having been asked to play a Sunday night game in New York and getting home at 5 a.m. Monday before meeting the Eagles at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

         So what's the logic behind repeating 12-4?

         Who would have believed after the third consecutive 8-8 record of 2013 I would have said defense. Needs to be good enough to improve that 28th-ranked sack total of 28 last year by at least 50 percent. Must be good enough to apply the necessary pressure on opposing quarterbacks to sustain the rash of takeaways (31) from a year ago.

         Yes, this defense has a chance to be greatly improved, and especially when Hardy and McClain return from their four-game suspensions to face the Patriots at AT&T Stadium on Oct. 11. And as I've been saying, if this defense improves than the Cowboys improve.[embeddedad0]

         And that improvement must be up front, The Front Four. Needs to be good enough to earn a nickname. Maybe The Hardy Boys. Maybe Crawford & Crawford and Associates. Or at least deserves Marinelli's moniker of Rushmen.

         No longer can the Cowboys allow a one-legged quarterback the time of day in the pocket as they did in their second-round playoff loss last season at Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers. No longer can an Eli Manning, as he did last year in two games combined, complete 68 percent of his 73 passes for six touchdowns and but one interception while only getting sacked twice.

         Can't have it. Can consistently win with it.

         That will be the story of this 2015 season, the 56th in Cowboys history, starting Sunday night. They still will be potent offensively, even if the plan, as it's always been since deciding re-signing Murray would be too rich for their overall blood if effectively managing a salary cap, still is to lean on Joe Randle, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar in the running game.

         Look, with this offensive line, and as long as Romo and Dez Bryant are on the field, the Cowboys should be able to run the football.

Did you even know the Patriots would be relying on Dion Lewis to run the ball in place of the suspended LaGarrette Blount? Started him on your fantasy team didn't you? Ha, because you knew he'd average nearly 5 yards a carry against the Steelers.

         Nope, you started Brady (143.8 passer rating) and Gronkowski (5 catches, 94 yards, 3 touchdowns) and maybe Edelman (11 catches, 97 yards). Their presence took care of the running game if one game is example enough.

         As Witten says, "(Murray) wasn't the only piece, and not to take anything away from him, but your team moves forward …

         "Dez is a big part of who we are …

         "We go as Tony goes."

         You get the idea.

         Romo puts the running game in this perspective:

         "Ultimately, it comes down to winning football games. If you're able to run the football it helps you shorten games, it helps your defense, it helps everybody. So if we're not very good on third down then the running game is not going to be as good. If the running game isn't as good we won't be as good on third down. Everything kind of flows together."

         And if indeed this offense flows again, and this defense takes that next needed step, who knows how special this season might be for the Cowboys – exactly 20 years after they last won a Super Bowl during that 1995 season. Now, not saying Super Bowl, which even if you did, the percentages are against you, as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones rationally pointed out a few weeks back, but maybe more in line with how Romo feels about this season about to kick off.

         "We're not trying to pick up where we left off," Romo says. "We're trying to be better."

         That's a far cry from a year ago.

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