Spagnola: Accepting Consolation Prize Is Never An Easy Thing To Do

PHILADELPHIA – Those of you old enough might remember this:

         Back in the early days of the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, the two teams losing in the semifinal games would play each other on Saturday afternoon before the championship game for third place.

         Was called the Consolation Game.

         In fact, most of you probably don’t know, the first so-called playoff game the Cowboys ever competed in would take you back to 1965, 52 years ago, when they finished 7-7, their first non-losing season in franchise history, and were awarded for finishing second in the Eastern Conference by playing the second-place finisher in the Western Conference in what was called the *Playoff Bowl Game, *losing badly to Baltimore, 35-3.

         Essentially, the Consolation Game. Nice, but big deal. Sort of like playing in one of, what, 100 bowl games not associated with the College Football Playoff.

         So yes, beating the Philadelphia Eagles here on a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon where the wind chill at The Linc hovered somewhere around 0 all day long was nice, winning 6-0 when scoring the fewest points in a regular-season game to win since beating Cleveland, 6-2, on Dec. 12, 1970.

         But really, big deal, right? No playoffs, and they certainly get it.

“It was great to finish this year on a win, definitely,” Cowboys sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We talked about it: 9-7 was a lot different from 8-8, so that was an important win for us. We’re going to take this win, we’re going to be thankful for it, and we are definitely going to go off of that and be ready to go moving forward in this offseason.

“I don’t know. It’s still hard to swallow knowing that this is the last one.”

So here are some consolation prizes:

The Cowboys did finish with a winning record, 9-7, and combined with last year’s 13-3, marks the first time the Cowboys have finished with winning records in back-to-back seasons since 2008-09, yet one victory short of consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1995-96.

The Cowboys actually tied with Philadelphia for the best record in NFC East divisional games, each going 5-1, their lone division losses to each other.

The pain of being eliminated from NFC playoff contention with that miserable 21-12 loss to Seattle last Sunday was eased a bit since Atlanta beating Carolina would have eliminated them on Sunday anyway, even if they had beaten Seattle, on the basis of losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with Atlanta.

         But this next one just might be the best one, you know, winning like one of those half-sized kewpie dolls at the state fair.

         The Cowboys finished ranked in the top 10 of NFL defenses this year. That’s right, a defense that struggled early in the season, getting hit for 42 points by Denver and then 35 by the Rams and Packers, the same defense that gave up 412 yards to the Rams and 515 to the Chargers, ended up yielding 318.1 yards a game, earning them the eighth spot.

         Eighth now, something to shout about.

         Now, you might not think that’s a big deal, but do you know the last time the Cowboys had a top-10 defense?

         Try 2009 when they finished ninth, and they’ve come a long way since finishing 32nd in 2013, improving each year thereafter from 19th to 17th to 14th to now eighth, as high as they’ve finished since finishing eighth in 2008. And you would have to go back to 2003 when they had the No. 1-ranked defense to find a higher finish.

         “Hell, yeah, that would be meaningful,” defensive tackle Maliek Collins said after the game, not knowing if they would move up from 11th after 15 games. “That’s what we wanted from the start of the year. That will jump start us for next year.”

         “That would be dope,” veteran defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said.

         Dope it is, if you think about it. And you know what, it’s not just yards, and Collins pointed this out, too. Shutting out Philadelphia, their first shutout since doing the same in the final game of the 2009 season against the Eagles, it’s what has taken place with the points as well. Since losing 28-6 to the Chargers, the last loss in that three-game losing streak with no Sean Lee on the field, the Cowboys defense did not allow more than 17 points in the last five games, going 4-1 down the stretch when they desperately needed to run the table those five games to have a chance of grabbing that final wild-card spot in the playoffs. Remember, that Seattle reaching 21 points was the result of an interception returned for a touchdown.

         We can be sure hard-nosed defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will probably say that’s good, in fact discussing the possibility of inching into the top 10 if they played well on Sunday by saying, “That’s what we’re aiming to do.” But he also would say not good enough. Didn’t win enough games. Our bad.

         Also, when it came to points, the Cowboys ended up allowing 332 (20.75 average). But remember, the Cowboys offense was nicked for four interception returns for touchdowns, along with a fumble return for a touchdown. Without those returns, the Cowboys would have given up 35 fewer points, which would have been the first time since giving up 250 in 2009 that they had given up fewer than 300 in a season.

         As it stands, the 332 ends up being 26 more than last year’s 306, so third fewest in the last nine years. Also, the Cowboys were 8-0 in games allowing no more than 17 points.

         And what was the biggest worry coming into this season?

         The defense, hands down.

         Remember thinking out loud that if this group could make the jump into a top-10 defense, why with this offense the Cowboys would be going back to the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time since 2006-07.

         Well, that assumption sure didn’t pan out. Because the Cowboys, especially in those first three games without the suspended Ezekiel Elliott, and in the five complete games without Pro Bowl tackle Tyron Smith, struggled mightily on offense. Six times this season this group that averaged 26.1 points per game last year, was held to no more than 17 points. They lost five of those games. The one they won, well, that was Sunday in Philly with the Eagles pulling back starters all along their offense and especially on defense most of the game.

         Yet all the Cowboys could score – and look, the temperatures had a lot to do with both offenses struggling – was the one touchdown, Prescott hitting Brice Butler for the 20-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown to complete that improbable 99-yard drive, the only score of the game. Meaning it’s the first time in Cowboys history there were no points scored by either team in the first three quarters.

         “I just think as a whole defense and me as an individual, we improved every week,” said linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who finished third on the team in total tackles after missing the first four games of the season with the knee injury he suffered in training camp. “We started off all right, went in a couple game slump, and then from there we just went up and kept going up. Overall, as a defense, we improved and that’s all you can ask for.”

         And you know, that’s really all you can ask for, a young defense growing week by week, and this one, down the stretch starting three rookies in the secondary (Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods on nickel). They also started giving second-year safety Kavon Frazier more snaps; had Collins, the second-year defensive tackle, starting all 16 games; first-year linebacker Jaylon Smith starting six games and finishing with at least 30 snaps in 11 while still dealing with an improving peroneal nerve in his knee; rookie defensive end Taco Charlton getting more and more snaps in each of the last eight games; and got second-year corner Anthony Brown, who struggled early in the season, back on the field playing well.

         They just might be on to something.

         “Feels like we could have been a great defense in the playoffs,” Crawford said.

         Maybe could have. But we’ll never find out, not this season, the Cowboys now stretching their playoff absences to 12 of the 18 seasons this century, and counting just two playoff victories. Basically, as it turns out with Atlanta the only team in the NFC finishing 10-6 after all, the Cowboys fell the one victory short of beating Atlanta, that painful 27-7 loss without the services of Zeke, Tyron and Sean Lee, of making the playoffs.

         Great, but with nothing more to show for what comes with finishing close than hope for next year.

         Guess yet another in that list of not very consoling consolation prizes.

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