Tue, 30 Nov 2021

Spagnola: Welcoming The Unexpected Surprises

Dallas Cowboys
23 Oct 2021, 19:24 GMT+10

Mickey Spagnola

FRISCO, Texas - Let's call these The Unexpecteds, if you will.

You know, the top-5 surprises during the first third of this 2021 season with the Cowboys enjoying a bye this week, able sit back at 5-1 to watch other teams grind away.

Maybe these surprises all coming somewhat out of nowhere or on us for just not being aware enough.

So look, not talking Dak Prescott here. For those of us watching him do his offseason rehab, watching him during that first portion of training camp, listening to the medical people about his recovery from the dual ankle surgeries and watching him throw after the shoulder muscle strain, his performance so far is no surprise. Look, I expected him to pick up where he left off last year after his four-plus games. So did he. Remember, Dak was lighting it up during those five games in 2020, throwing for 1,856 yards, actually 43 more yards than he's thrown for in six games this year. He had a 99.6 QB rating at the point before his injury and had completed 68 percent of his passes. He had the Cowboys offense No. 1 in total yards. Nope, not Dak.

Hey, not Ezekiel Elliott, either. You could tell during the offseason and early in training camp he was primed for a much better performance than last season, one he claims was an "s-show" in his opinion. Plus, why wouldn't Zeke be better this year, having played with an injury-plagued offensive line last year now back in place and once again playing with a quarterback defenses would respect.

Some might think Randy Gregory's six-game start to this season is unexpected, but after watching his impact over the last part of the 2020 season and seeing how active he was in training camp, my projection for him was a 10-sack season. And he's right on that pace with four in six games, factoring out to an 11-sack season.

Not Micah Parsons. You know me, was all over the Cowboys drafting Parsons in the first place, thinking he could make a huge impact as a rookie, not at any one position but as a "football player." When asked where the Cowboys would play Parsons, some thinking the linebacker position was crowded, my response simply was "on the field." Expected him to make the impact he's already making, playing strongside linebacker on base defense, middle linebacker on the nickel and lining up at defensive end, too.

Now then, you kind of catch my drift.

So, let's go, with these Unexpecteds, and in no particular order, unless you guys want to arrange them yourselves.

Starting off with Jayron Kearse. Who knew? When the Cowboys signed the free agent safety to a mere one-year deal in the offseason, had looked up his stats, finding he was more of a special teams player than anything else. He had only five starts in 62 career games over his first four seasons in Minnesota, though did start seven of the 11 games in 2020 with Detroit. Probably should not have overlooked the 56 tackles he had that year.

Still, Kearse had only one career interception, one fumble recovery, a half-sack, four QB pressures and two tackles for losses. But ... he had 42 special teams tackles in five seasons.

Well, shame on me. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has carved out a role for the 6-4, 220-pound safety who has started five of six games, has played 352 defensive snaps (91.2 percent) - second on defense to only cornerback Anthony Brown - and those snaps include every defensive snap in the past two games. Kearse is a vital part of the Cowboys Big Nickel formation, utilizing him as part safety/part linebacker.

And Kearse is second on the team with 30 tackles, one behind Brown, with three tackles for loss and five QB pressures.

"We use him in a way very few players are used," secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. says. "He goes in there as a linebacker. He erases tight ends, plays in the middle of the field, he blitzes and (the offense) turns the attention to him and not to the linebackers.

"So, he gives us such versatility. His play in the first six games has been really, really good."

Come on, so unexpected.

Then there is Terence Steele, the offensive tackle thrown to the wolves last year as an undrafted rookie when the Cowboys lost their starting two tackles and the presumed backup to injury. Steele predictably struggled. No offseason to speak of. No preseason. And struggled to the point that by Game 10 the Cowboys finally moved Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin out to right tackle.

Well, Steele worked hard in the offseason to get stronger, winning one of the team's 10 offseason workout awards. To me, during training camp he beat out veteran tackle Ty Nsekhe for the backup swing tackle position. And then starting right tackle La'el Collins gets suspended for five games after Game 1. In comes Steele and, boy, has he played well. Shockingly well compared to his struggles last year.

"I just think he's more comfortable, more confident in what the job description is," Cowboys offensive line coach Joe Philbin says. "I think he's more comfortable systematically with what we're asking him to do. When you're a rookie, especially when we didn't have an offseason program in 2020, everything was maybe a brave new world for him and all the other rookies. I think he worked extremely hard in the offseason from a strength and conditioning standpoint.

"Just a lot of things, and you always hope there's a natural progression from your first year to your second year, and I think that's evident with him."

No kidding.

Now, Cedrick Wilson. Over his first three seasons, we've seen glimpses, but only glimpses. The former sixth-round wide receiver in 2018 spent the entire season on injured reserve and then played just six games in 2019, mainly on special teams, once again injuries getting in his way. But last year, working as the fourth receiver, he finished with 17 catches and two receiving touchdowns. The Cowboys thought enough of him to pick up his restricted free agent option.

Well, with Michael Gallup going down in Game 1 with a calf injury, Wilson has stepped into the third receiver role, having now played 51 percent of the snaps and starting in the past two games with three receivers on the field. And it's not so much his 14 catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns that's been remarkable, but it's his spectacular catches and speed causing defenses to sit up and take notice. Especially this past Sunday against New England when he had four catches for 42 yards, one of those critical to the Cowboys winning the game.

Remember the 13-yarder on fourth-and-4 from the Cowboys 35, prolonging the drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to tie the Patriots on Greg Zuerlein's 49-yard field goal and then go on to win in overtime. And how about the circus, 35-yard catch against the Giants that followed his 22-yard end-around pass to Noah Brown two games ago.

"Cedrick is playing well, he's not surprising me by any means because I know, given the opportunity to be put in those situations, he'll make plays," receivers coach Adam Henry says. "He made plays last year but has evolved into a bigger role due to the injury. It's just something I knew."

And now we know, too.

And we now certainly know all about Trevon Diggs, right? Look, he did start 11 of the 12 games he played last year as a rookie. He did lead the team with three interceptions. But he also had his struggles, as most rookie cornerbacks do when making the jump from college. And as we know with most talented players, they will make a huge jump from their rookie season to their second year.

But this? So far, this have been like one of those Evel Knievel jumps. Come on, seven interceptions in six games? Tying an NFL record for intercepting at least one pass in each of the first six games of the season, initially accomplished by former Cowboys head coach Tom Landry in 1951 playing for the Giants? Now just four interceptions short of tying Everson's Walls' franchise mark of 11 interceptions in the 1981 season, a total no NFL player has reached over the past 40 seasons, and Diggs has 11 games to go? On pace to break Dick "Night Train" Lane's NFL single-season record of 14 interceptions set in 1952?

And get this, having returned two of those picks for touchdowns, already tying the franchise single-season record for most interceptions returned for touchdowns, last achieved by Roy Williams in 2002 - yet, again, still having 11 games to go.

Seriously?

Guaran-darn-tee you no one expected this.

"It's early, but seven interceptions in six games is rare," Whitt says. "He has the ability to see and catch the flash of the ball.

"A lot of people see it, but he goes and gets it, and that's what the great ones do."

Not sure even Diggs understands the magnitude of his six-game accomplishment.

"I think the type of kid he is, I think he expects it from himself," Whitt says. "He's not cocky about it, he's not arrogant about it, he's very confident, and I know arrogance and confidence can be confused because they look very similar.

"But he's a very confident player, but he's a young player and a lot about his game we have to get better. But the ability to go get the ball, he's there."

And then some.

And finally, we'll end with this, since half of this is thanks to Diggs: A Cowboys defense highly suspect coming into the season, one that struggled mightily to grab takeaways during the first nine games of last year, totaling just seven and four of those in the Philadelphia game, already has 14 takeaways in the first six games of the season. That's second in the NFL to Buffalo's 16, giving the Cowboys a plus-7 turnover differential when last year they finished at a minus-3.

And to think, 11 of those takeaways are interceptions when the Cowboys had all of 10 last year and just one in the first seven games.

Shocking, no?

They say these takeaways come in bunches. But a baker's dozen plus one in a half dozen games? Who would have expected that?

"I think the DBs are playing fast and aggressive, which I love, knowing that we have those ballhawks behind us," Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch says. "I love our group."

No doubt.

Just another layer of all this unexpectedness going around so far.

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