Emptying out the notebook, and some observations from the weekend…

Kilgore soccer fans, you may be in for a treat this season.

I am not predicting anything. Do not point to this and say, “Dang! Mitch said we’re winning state titles in boys AND girls this year!”

Mitch is not predicting that, although I will say with the development of Kilgore soccer in both categories the last, oh, 10 years or so, it wouldn’t shock me. We’re only a couple of years removed from both programs making the state tournament at the same time.

But I went out kind of impromptu and talked with KHS boys coach Tom Wait on Friday afternoon. Wait was conducting a practice at R.E. St. John Memorial Stadium, and he was pumped up, like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon.

And it wasn’t about the College Football Playoff.

Wait is super enthusiastic about the upcoming soccer season, and he wants everybody to catch that. And I did, honestly. By the time I left there after talking to Tom like 15, 20 minutes, I was ready to run through a brick wall, too.

The thing about it is, Wait isn’t just optimistic about his own team; he’s fired up about the Kilgore girls soccer program, too. That’s not out of the ordinary: what I’m saying is, most coaches have to be preoccupied with their own team, meticulous down to every little detail and typically, their assistant coaches, too.

Wait is just ready to go, and I understand it. He’s got reason to be optimistic. He’s got Tray Epps back, who had a phenomenal year last year and is just a junior. He’s also got a healthy Wanya McIntyre, one that’s 100 percent and Wait is predicting huge things for them this year (I’ll keep that prediction to myself, but trust me, it’s big).

 Cowboys: I feel like every media outlet in the U.S. that ever mentions the NFL, me included, has talked about this topic – specifically, how the Dallas Cowboys have underachieved this season, and pretty much every season in the last 25 – ad nauseam.

But I will make this point: Dallas hasn’t beaten a single team with a winning record. They’re beating the NFL’s bad teams, but losing to the good ones.

Doesn’t that make the Cowboys like the best of the bad teams?

Doesn’t matter, because someone has to win the pathetic mess that is the NFC East Division. The Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles are both 6-7 overall. Dallas is 4-0 in the gosh-awful NFC East. They play not this Sunday, but next. This Sunday, the Cowboys host the Los Angeles Rams, also fighting for a playoff berth at 8-5, but they’re in worse shape, as odd as that sounds, because both San Francisco and Seattle have already passed 10 wins each.

The big debate has been whether or not Dallas head coach Jason Garrett will be back next season. At this point, I don’t think there’s a debate: Garrett will not return next season. In my opinion, if that’s what the organization is going to do, make it a clean sweep: don’t tell the next head coach he’s saddled with the current assistants. By the way, this would require no action on the Cowboys’ part other than to not renew Garrett’s contract; it’s up after the season ends. So it wouldn’t really be a “firing,” per say.

Here’s what I don’t understand, and I don’t mean to insult any Cowboys fans. This is just true.

Why do people keep saying this is such a talented roster?

Let’s look at the Cowboys’ best players in comparison with some of the rest of the league. Let’s start at the top with quarterback Dak Prescott.

Numbers don’t lie – isn’t that what they say? OK. Prescott leads the NFL in passing yards – that’s 4,122 yards. He’s 12th in completion percentage (65.5 percent). He’s tied with Kirk Cousins and DeShaun Watson with 24 touchdowns each – that’s fifth in the league. He’s only been sacked 18 times, which means the offensive line is doing a good job protecting him and he’s doing a good job getting the ball out.

In other words, Prescott is among the top half of quarterbacks in the league, maybe even top eight. His contract expires at the end of the year. The Cowboys can either let him walk (unadvisable and not likely to happen), re-sign him (also not likely to happen before August), or franchise-tag him (the most likely option), which means keep him for another year in order to work out a deal with him, at a greatly increased salary.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad.

I believe running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, as much as I hate to say it, are all somewhat if not greatly overrated; the Cowboys placekicking game is a mess; and Jason Witten is way past time of retirement.

One by one: Elliott has 1,071 rushing yards on 246 carries, about 4.4 yards a carry, with three games left to play in the regular season. That’s fifth-best rushing yards in the league. Not bad. The bad: He’s got nine touchdowns in 13 games. That’s not great at all, not when the Cowboys are supposed to be built around Zeke. That’s what we’ve been told, remember?

Here’s where it gets tricky. Cooper has given the Cowboys a shot in the arm since they traded a first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for him last year. He’s been a very good target for Dak. But as good as Coop has been – this year, 70 catches for 1,054 yards, and a 15-yards-per-catch average, for eight touchdowns. He’s had 100 targets, which leads the Cowboys’ receivers, and 70 catches. Impressive. And he’s been very good in Cowboys wins.

But where has he been in the losses? He had a good fourth quarter against Chicago, but where was he in the rest of the game? Where was he against New England (he didn’t have a catch)? He has a tendency to disappear sometimes.

Going on to linebacker Jaylon Smith now. Everybody was happy when the Cowboys signed Smith to a long-term deal. Seems to be a very good kid, overcame a devastating knee injury to help anchor the Dallas defense. Jaylon has 120 tackles; that’s good for third in the NFL. That’s really, really good. He does miss some tackles, but overall, seems to be a good investment.

Tight end Jason Witten is a Cowboys legend. The dude was drafted in the third round in 2003! He’s 37 years old, and he’s done just about everything except win big in the playoffs. This year, he’s looked every bit of that 37, don’t deny it, Cowboys fans. He does have 53 catches (that’s tied for 44th in the league) for 455 yards, and three touchdowns.

The defense has given up 4,241 total yards this year. That’s awful. It’s 24th in the league. Things get some better when you see the fact that they’re allowing just 216 passing yards a game (eighth). They’ve allowed 1,428 rushing yards this year; that’s about middle of the pack. And they’re allowing 20.5 points a game, good enough for 12th-best.

My point: sometimes numbers DO lie. The Cowboys are beating the teams they’re supposed to beat: the New York Giants (twice), the Miami Dolphins, the Washington Redskins, all teams that will be drafting in the top six to 10 picks. But they’re losing to ALL of the teams they’re not supposed to beat, which makes Dallas nothing better than…mediocre.

Mediocre isn’t going to win any Super Bowl titles, folks. It’s 2019. The last time the Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl was Super Bowl XXX. That’s Super Bowl 30. THIRTY. The Super Bowl coming in February is LIV (54). Since Dallas won a Super Bowl, Bill Clinton was elected to a second term; George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have all won Presidential elections; the internet, e-mail and iPhones have become must-haves in our society; and an entire generation of children was born in 1996 and has now had time to graduate college.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones needs to make some changes. I don’t know that I would change a lot of on-the-field pieces, but the last thing Jones needs to do is fire Garrett, then keep his entire coaching staff to force on the next coach.

KC basketball: There’s never really a large-enough sample size in November and December to get a real read on either the Kilgore College men’s or women’s basketball teams, although I will say there’s been bright spots for both.

The Rangers have just one Region XIV Conference loss in their three games, and it was like a 78-75 loss at Angelina. They’ve won four straight since, including a pair of conference games. That holiday break is just so long – they won’t be back until the final weekend of the calendar year. But no complaints for coach Brian Hoberecht’s team. They seem to have had good balance so far.

The Lady Rangers have beaten a pair of nationally-ranked teams and then got beat by 20 or so by conference rival Trinity Valley, all in a tournament at Midland College.

They got off to a bad start in conference play with an 81-80 loss to Angelina that had an absolutely AWFUL call at the end of the game that allowed Angelina to shoot free throws with no time on the clock. But they did beat Panola Wednesday night to get that first conference win, so they’re not carrying that albatross around their necks the entire holiday season. They don’t return to the court until Jan. 1.

Rangers, Astros lose big and didn’t even take the field: You read that right. I don’t talk a lot of Major League Baseball. But a couple of things happened this week of note, and involved the two Texas MLB teams.

The Anaheim Angels, which competes in the American League West, along with both the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros, locked up third baseman Anthony Rendon to a seven-year deal on Wednesday, according to ESPN.

That’s significant because of two things: the Rangers and the Astros face the Angels multiple times each season, and because the Rangers were apparently one of the teams in pursuit of Rendon, and missed out on him to a division rival.

Rendon is 29 years old, and joins a lineup that already features three-time American League most valuable player mike Trout. If Rendon’s name is familiar to you, it should be: he just helped the Washington Nationals beat the Astros in the World Series, and probably could have been named the National League MVP.

Rendon led MLB last year with 126 RBI and had a .319 batting average, the highest of his career. He hit 34 home runs, but none of them bigger than the two he hit in World Series games six and seven.

The Astros had little answer for him in November, on the world’s biggest baseball stage, and now they’ll face Rendon a dozen times in the regular season. Not good. Trout and Rendon together, led by one of the best managers in recent history in Joe Maddon, who was released by the Cubs and signed by the Angels? That’s an ominous sign for both Houston and Texas.

The Astros got even worse news when pitcher Gerrit Cole, a free agent who bailed on Houston to sign with AL rival the New York Yankees earlier this week. The right-handed pitcher, also 29 and in his seventh season, went 20-6 last year, had an ERA of 2.50, and struck out 326 batters in 212 1/3 innings. He spent the majority of his MLB time at Pittsburgh, having been traded to Houston in 2018.

I’m far from an MLB expert, but a lot of people who know more than me think that gives the Yankees the edge in the American League. I don’t doubt it. Cole, who was so impressive last season (especially the playoffs) for Houston, was the runner-up for the AL Cy Young Award. His ERA was the best in the AL, and those 326 strikeouts set the Astros’ new single-season franchise record for Ks.

Yes, he did lose the first game of the World Series, but he won what should have been a key game in game five. And – let me editorialize here – he SHOULD HAVE BEEN ON THE MOUND for the Nationals’ at-bat late in that final game, and if he would have been, the Astros might not have given up the lead that led to their demise.

We all think the Yankees win the World Series every other year, and there for a while, it seemed like it. But they actually haven’t won a title since 2009.

In addition to ALL of this, the Astros are also looking at punishment from MLB’s commissioner’s office due to accusations of sign-stealing last season

Will these things be the obstacle that finally derails the Astros’ current run? Well, no crystal ball here, but it’s not looking good. Disappointing that the Rangers missed out on Rendon, especially with them opening a new ballpark next season and needing a pop that a star like that could’ve provided.

One more thing on baseball: apparently, a new rule that requires relief pitchers to face at least three batters will go into effect when the season begins.

It’s true: relief pitchers, unless saved by the end of an inning, must face at least three batters when brought in. That will really change strategy; it’s unbelievable that the league is doing this, for what seems to be simply to cut out the warm-up time that’s standard right before putting a new pitcher on the mound.

College Football Playoff: I did get the four teams correct in my prediction column last weekend before the announcement – LSU, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma. I just got in it in the wrong order.

But LSU will face OU, and Ohio State will meet Clemson, in the two semifinals. The two winners will meet in the national championship game. I won’t make that pick right this minute. But I will say that if you’ll keep your eyes here on the News Herald, and on kilgorenewsherald.com, I’ll personally preview every big bowl game, including those involving the major Texas colleges and the playoff games.

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