Spagnola: Who Really Knows What This Cowboys Team Will Be

FRISCO, Texas – This is somewhat frustrating, and should be for you, too.

         We've witnessed nine Dallas Cowboys OTA practices.

         We've witnessed two minicamps.

         We've witnessed 13 training camp practices, along with an endless stream of walk-through sessions and the opening portions of six more practices here at The Star.

         We've witnessed one Blue-White scrimmage.

         And alas, four preseason games.

         But after all that – all that – what do we really know about the 2016 Dallas Cowboys, who in nine days will open the season against the New York Football Giants?

         Seriously, what do we know?

         There are some out there insisting they know, that the Cowboys will be just fine without Tony Romo until he returns.

         There are others who have already kicked over the bucket, have totally given up before next Sunday's 3:25 p.m. season-opening kickoff at AT&T Stadium on national TV. They think they know.

         But the truth of the matter is, no one really knows. In fact, saw where the Las Vegas Review-Journal is reporting odds makers in its neck of the woods who initially set the Cowboys' over-under win total at 9 have taken them completely off the board. They don't have a clue, either.

         And these guys out there are paid to know. That's how they make their living. This is their business. No emotion involved, although they do prey on people who bet with their hearts instead of their minds.

         Come on, the Cowboys are entering uncharted waters, at least for them. As far as research reveals, the Cowboys never, ever have been forced to start any of their previous 56 NFL seasons without their projected top two quarterbacks available for an extended period of time.

         Oh, the defending Super Bowl VI champion Cowboys were forced to start the 1972 season without Super Bowl MVP Roger Staubach, who suffered a dislocated shoulder during the preseason. But at least they still had former starter and first-round pick Craig Morton to start that entire regular season.

         Morton in turn missed the opener in 1969, the rookie Staubach having to start, but Morton returned the very next week.

         Now, the Cowboys in 2004, fresh off a 10-6 playoff season, were forced to change gears in training camp when incumbent starter Quincy Carter was kicked off the team for off-field issues, causing the 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde to start 15 of 16 games that year.

         But that's it, just the starters in these cases.

         Not kicking off a season without the starter, Tony Romo, and the presumptive backup, Kellen Moore, as they will on 9/11, Moore already placed on season-ending injured reserve (broken bones in his ankle) and Romo out for the near future after suffering a compression fracture of the LI vertebrae in that Aug. 25 preseason game.

         Seriously? Seriously? Both guys?

         You believing this?[embeddedad0]

         Someone mentioned to me that the Cowboys are snake-bit. Me, more like a Tyrannosaurus rex biting.

         "We're not naïve," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said. "We know this is a difficult situation."

         To say the least.

         That leaves rookie Dak Prescott the starter, and there are two ways to look at this:

         With backup quarterbacks to Tony Romo starting since Romo took over in 2006, the Cowboys are just 7-19, though the 1-11 of last season significantly distorts the previous record of 6-8.

         But then after the three preseason games Prescott played in, his passer rating of 137.8 was the best of any quarterback attempting more than 25 passes. He had completed 39 of his 50 passes (78 percent) for 454 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.

         He's been so good that there are those already sending him to Canton, causing cautionary flags to fly on high.

         But at least that beats the alternative, the signs so encouraging that Jones has said, "I don't think it's too big for him."

         So which is it? Dak saves the day now that Dez Bryant is healthy again, along with Lance Dunbar, and the running game seems energized with the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Alfred Morris and Dunbar?

Or the Cowboys sink again without Romo?

         My point. We just don't know.

         What we probably know, or at least a reasonable person would suggest, is that the notion of this offense carrying the team, getting back to averaging the 29 points a game it did during the 12-4 season of 2014, has been reduced to a pipe dream.

         Thus, defense, front and center.

         Now, there have been questions about the defense ever since last season ended in 4-12, with the unit grabbing only 11 takeaways, the fewest in franchise history. And the questions continued into training camp when it was discovered the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Rolando McClain will all begin the season suspended at least for the first four games and McClain for the first 10.

         And you know what? After all these offseason practices, training camp and the four preseason games, the defense is in the same boat as the offense: Encouraging, but darn it, we just don't know for sure.

         Check this out. With the majority of the first-team defensive players playing in the first halves of the first three exhibition games and Prescott in control, here were the scores: Cowboys 24, Rams 7; Cowboys 27-Rams 14; Cowboys 10, Seahawks 10. Add that up, and even though the Cowboys finished 1-3 in the preseason, their cumulative halftime scores was: Cowboys 61, opponents 31.

         So again, there is hope, but you just don't know for sure. And that hope is magnified since there had been a slew of injuries scattered about the team, nothing season-ending, but rarely did all 11 starters line up for a bundle of snaps. Yet the defense was, well, encouraging.

           Some might suggest that because they are starting a rookie quarterback, the defense must step up and do even better. Cowboys veteran cornerback Brandon Carr smirks at the suggestion.

         "Before the season started we had the mindset that we had to do more," Carr said, meaning improve over last year's performance, though the Cowboys points-against total wasn't that much different than the 2014 total when the Cowboys gave up just 22 more (1.4 a game).

         See what I mean with the Cowboys beginning preparation for the Giants in earnest this Monday? This team has a huge question mark hanging over The Star out here, and that has been hung out there by those unsure of what this team can do kicking off the season without their presumed top two quarterbacks.

         That is not easy. Not for no one.

         "Dak's had a great preseason, but that's what I just said, preseason," Jones said. "It will be different, of course, when the season starts. He'll have a whole other set of challenges, but at the same time, he's accomplished a lot since he's been here. It's a short time, but he's gotten the respect of our players. He's gotten the respect of the organization, and he's gotten a lot done."

         How much more can he accomplish? What's this team capable of?

Who knows? Who really knows?

         But alas, we're but week away from starting to find out.

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