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Spagnola: You Just Can't Make This Stuff Up


FRISCO, Texas – OK, enough is enough. Calling B.S. on 2020.

Mike McCarthy was asked this question earlier in the week: Like, since you accepted the head coaching job of the Dallas Cowboys, how many times have you said to yourself, "Are you kidding me?"

Come on, admit it. How many times have we said it? And as for myself, my substitute for kidding not nearly as politically correct.

Gosh, we can start on March 11, right? When something called the novel coronavirus that isn't so novel anymore caused the suspension of the NBA season.

You kidding me?

Maybe then on March 23 when Cowboys Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick surprisingly announced his retirement at age 29 after seemingly returning from Guillain-Barré Syndrome successfully in 2019.

Seriously? Oh, no.

Or maybe going back to Aug. 17, the first training camp practice in pads, not even in any sort of football contact drill, Gerald McCoy, one of the team's top free-agent signings, projected to be the Cowboys' starting 3-technique defensive tackle, tears a quad tendon requiring surgery. Out for the season.

Are you kidding me?

Trying to rehab through back and hip pain all offseason and really never participating in camp practices, the Cowboys decide on Sept. 7 that starting right tackle La'el Collins needs hip surgery. Out for the season.

Already? You're kidding me?

Next, just 23 snaps into the season, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, after successfully returning from 2019 neck surgery costing him the final seven games of the season, fractures his collarbone, sidelining him for the next four games.

My gosh, after the guy you moved to middle linebacker to center your defense around goes through all that rehab to get right, but only lasts 23 snaps, now really, you are kidding me, right?

Next, with so much excitement surrounding young tight end Blake Jarwin, also in the first game of the season – just 25 plays into his starting career – he takes a misstep while out in open space, tearing his ACL during that same Sept. 13 opener. Out for the season.

Come on, you're kidding me?

Next game, Pro Bowl starting left tackle Tyron Smith, seemingly finally healthy from all the back issues he had been having, has what's called a pinched nerve in his neck. Misses the next two games, yet mans up to somehow play 82 snaps in the fourth game. But finally it's decided he needs surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck. Out for the season, now meaning both starting offensive tackles kaput. And then of all things, Cam Erving, the guy the Cowboys signed to be the veteran backup swing tackle, already had suffered a sprained MCL on just his second special teams snap of the season opener and would go on to miss the next five games.

Come on, not all three of 'em? You got to be kidding me? Can't make this stuff up.

But oh, no. No end to the totality of a season chock full of pratfalls. Fifth game, 360th play, 6:33 left in the third quarter, of all darn things, there's your franchise quarterback, Dak Prescott, sitting on the 18-yard line of AT&T Stadium in obvious pain, trying desperately to twist his dislocated ankle with a compound fracture, too, back in place before being carted off.

Immediate surgery. Done for the season. Now you've really got to be kidding me. This just ain't happening. Not this year. Not to the heart and soul of the team.

And now after all that – yes, all of that, and how this must be considered the football gods piling on – backup quarterback Andy Dalton is forced to leave his second start at Washington with a concussion, turning the game over to raw rookie Ben DiNucci. Bad enough, right? Ha! Dalton is unable to clear concussion protocol in time for the next game against Philadelphia, DiNucci now making his first NFL start without any preseason-game snaps, though the thought being the veteran Dalton would be back in time for Sunday's 3:25 p.m. start against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (7-0) at AT&T Stadium.

Not so fast.

Dalton this past Tuesday is placed on reserve/COVID-19. Must quarantine for at least a week, probably two, we'll see, all depending on the circumstances of being placed on the special list created for just this season (we think).

And since DiNucci seemed in over his head in the 23-9 loss to the Eagles this past Sunday, McCarthy decides he needs a little more NFL experience under center going up against some facsimile of the "Steel Curtain," the Steelers coming to town with the No. 5-ranked defense, leading the league with 30 sacks and their 13 takeaways just one short of the NFL lead.

So he's prepping third-year veteran Garrett Gilbert and fourth-year veteran Cooper Rush for one of them to make his first NFL start, though neither of them having played significant snaps in the league – Gilbert 21 snaps, Rush 26 snaps – or here no more than 24 days. Yeah, you got it. Have at it, big boys.

For cryin' out loud. Come on, Mike. You had to go home this past Monday night burying your head in a pillow, screaming, "You're just kidding me!"

Right? I mean, good gosh.

"I think two-thousand twenty, hopefully, we'll never see a year like this again on a lot of different fronts," McCarthy said. "I think, like anything in this game, nothing surprises you. Injuries are part of it, and we've definitely been on the high end as far as the challenge of how it's affected our football team.

"But you have to keep forging forward. There's always a path to victory, and that's our focus. I understand what our record is. … We have to do whatever we can do to win this game."

Talk about a stiff upper lip. Gotta be his Pittsburgh upbringing. You know, those shot-and-a-beer types. Dad a policeman, a fireman and owner of Joe McCarthy's Bar and Grill back in the old Greenfield neighborhood where the boys just knew Mike would grow up to be some kind of coach.

Now take a moment to listen to what Green Bay's general manager Ted Thompson was quoted as saying when hiring McCarthy as his new head coach back in 2006, trying to get the Packers back on track.

"If you break it all the way down to the bitter end, it was probably an East Texas gut call," said Thompson, an Atlanta, Texas, native. "I talked to a lot of people, and the more I talked, the more I found that you're hiring a person. It's not really the coach, it's not really the X's and O's, it's not really the plan, or the strategy or the schedule. It's not any of that.

"It's the person you're looking for, and Mike was the person I was looking for."

Thompson would also add at the time in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, saying, "I like that Pittsburgh macho stuff. He's a tough guy."

So how fitting is this, the Cowboys wallowing along at 2-6 having to face McCarthy's hometown Steelers, who haven't been 7-0 to start a season since 1978 when they wound up defeating the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII?

So Sunday, it's Pittsburgh tough vs. tough Pittsburgh.

And let me add this to the bumpy 2020 road: 62 players already have taken snaps for the Cowboys in eight games this season, with two more for sure on Sunday – either Gilbert or Rush, along with rookie punter Hunter Niswander. That also means the count of players starting for the first or just second times in their NFL careers increases to 14, along with seven veteran guys making their first starts with the Cowboys this year and six more getting their first Cowboys snaps.

And how devastating has the quarterback situation been? Get this: Dak Prescott had thrown for 1,856 yards in his five games. Yet heading into Game 9 of the season, Dak still has more passing yards than the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Tannehill, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray, not to mention just 4 yards less than Philip Rivers, 27 yards less than Carson Wentz and but 42 yards less than Drew Brees

Yep, that's the depth of McCarthy's anguish.

But instead of moaning over having to start a fourth quarterback this season, something that has only happened twice in the Cowboys' previous 60 years of history – 2015 and 2001 – along with preparing his third different backup quarterback, McCarthy will tell you for the first time this year he'll be starting Sunday with the same five on the offensive line in consecutive weeks.

He does not beg for sympathy.

About all he will allow is, "As I've stated over and over again, this two-thousand twenty has been an incredibly interesting year on a number of fronts – challenges, change being constant."

Got that right. We've all had to deal with change this two-thousand twenty. Some mighty worse than that, making what appeared to be a Cowboys Super Bowl contender now struggling to remain in the NFC East crawl they are not all that far out of not seem so tragic in the scheme of things. Heck, this is only football.

So as McCarthy said, they forge on, not asking for pity either over enduring an unfathomable number of injuries, adhering to this blue-collar approach while trying to pull out of this ditch of a three-game losing streak without your top two offensive tackles, your retired Pro Bowl center and your top two quarterbacks, just to mention a few missing links, along with running back Ezekiel Elliott (hamstring) listed as no more than questionable for the game.

"I think it's the obvious conversation – I think it's a waste of time to even talk about it," McCarthy says of the record and a division race at the halfway point leaving them just one win behind the Eagles (3-4-1). "I think the fact is, I think you have to focus on putting all your energy on winning the third game. So, that's why we play16 games. We're at the halfway point. There are a number of things we want to improve on, and we know we have to improve on those things to get these wins we need.

"Really, my focus is on getting that third win."


Most of us in times like these would have focused instead on multiple shots and beers.

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