Skip to main content

Spagnola: All that sweetness turns sour in desert


GLENDALE, Ariz. – Let's be real.

No Trevon Diggs, and they won't have him for the rest of the year, so get used to it.

No guard Zack Martin AND center Tyler Biadasz as of Saturday before the team took off for Game 3 here.

Then on Sunday, no Tyron Smith, whatever he did on Saturday precluding him from being more than an "emergency" backup on Sunday. And some would say there was an emergency need.

If you are keeping score, that's three-fifths of the starting offensive line, with two of the backups making their first NFL starts: center Brock Hoffman, no more than a rookie free agent practice squader last year and elevated for this game once again, and guard T.J. Bass, making the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie free agent this year.

And on top of that, the Cowboys pretty much knew veteran Chuma Edoga is a better guard than the tackle he was forced to play at the last minute without any real tackle preparation during the week.

Would like to say, "No Bueno," and the reason for all the first two-game euphoria evaporating out here in the desert in a 28-16 loss to the erstwhile winless Arizona Cardinals Sunday at a heavily populated Cowboys fandom State Farm Stadium among the 62,915 crowd.

But you know what, to be totally honest with you, the Cowboys still had a chance, er, chances to win this game instead of falling to 2-1 and into a tie for second place in the NFC East. Why, they trailed only 15-10 with 5:32 left in the first half. They trailed but 21-16 with 9:33 left in the game after shutting down the Cardinals on two consecutive second-half possessions after they had scored on every one of their first five of the game.

Yet almost inexplicably, this defense that some began jumping to premature conclusions about after the first two games by equating this bunch with yesteryear's Doomsday – No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in pass defense, No. 1 in sacks/takeaways/and turnover differential – doomed whatever chance the Cowboys had to overcome admittedly a hard week.

"We had a lot going on this week," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "The reality of where we are, we're 2-1. We're disappointed leaving here without a win."

In fact, this eclectic defensive group did diddly squat on these five plays going a long way toward reviving the now 1-2 Cardinals playing without starting quarterback Kyler Murray.

Check it out: A 44-yard run by backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs set up a field goal. A 22-yard pass interference on cornerback DaRon Bland, replacing Diggs on the sight side, helped pave the way for the Cardinals' first touchdown. A 45-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Rondale Moore, lined up as a running back, spotted the Cardinals to a 15-3 lead. A 26-yard James Conner run led to another Cardinals field goal.

And the final dagger, after the Cowboys had pulled to 21-16 with 9:33 left in the game, an uncontested, broken assignment 69-yad pass from Dobbs to wide receiver Michael Wilson for a first-and-goal at the seven. The very next snap from scrimmage turned out the Cowboys' lights.

"We did a poor job of communicating," Cowboys safety Malik Hooker said, knowing those five plays accounted for 206 of the Cardinals 400 total yards.

Look, shoot, after yielding only 172 yards rushing the first two games of the season, the Cowboys were crushed with 222 by the Cardinals, creating visions of last year when the Cowboys gave up at least 134 yards rushing in all five of their regular season losses and at least 100 to 11 of 17 opponents. Lest we forget because it was a win, the Cowboys allowed the Bears 240 yards rushing last year. Why, 182 of the Cardinals rushing yards were in the first half, most in a half against the Cowboys since 1991.

Was almost as if the Cardinals' offensive gameplan was to use the Cowboys' ultra-aggressive defensive approach against them, veteran defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence willing to agree. Not only did he say the defense got "antsy," but also, "You can say that" about over-pursuing upfront, falling for play-fakes and rollouts.

But that was only half the Cowboys' problems for not overcoming those three offensive-line injuries.

"If we scored a touchdown we might still be out there playing," McCarthy said.

No kidding. Last Sunday in the 30-10 win over the Jets, we thought having to kick five field goals and struggling in the red zone and goal-to-go situations was one of those things. Now it's a troublesome trend.

There was rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey extending his streak of consecutive made fields to start a season to 10 now with three more in this game. A good thing for sure, but unfortunately, with the exception of drilling a 49-yarder, two of those three field goals came on snaps inside the Arizona 10.

In fact, the Cowboys had four second-half possessions ending, in order: On a field goal from the eight, on downs from the four, another field goal from the eight and a late forced throw from the six that was intercepted in the end zone. For the Cowboys and Dak Prescott, the first turnover of the season with but three minutes to play, the QB saying, "I knew it was going to be a tough throw."

But that's what happens when you can't run the ball into the end zone, have a pass-interference penalty flag in the end zone picked up for some gosh-forsaken reason and having a hard time protecting your quarterback. Dak was sacked twice, hit four more times, with nine passes deflected and the team suffering five tackles for loss.

This now means the Cowboys are 3-for-11 scoring touchdowns in the red zone and 2-for-7 scoring touchdowns in goal-to-go opportunities. By the way, Ezekiel Elliott is in town this coming Sunday, but with the Patriots.

That just ain't going to cut it.

"We moved the ball up and down the field and couldn't score," Dak said.

Sure did, and this will be hard to swallow too, the Cowboys finishing with 416 total yards of offense, 16 more than the Cardinals when they scored three touchdowns, two of those no more than five yards out. Tony Pollard rushing for 122 of the Cowboys' 185 rushing yards. Michel Gallup breaking out finally with with six catches for 92 yards. Backup running back Rico Dowdle with three catches for 25 yards, which included an impressive 15-yarder for a touchdown.

This all behind that makeshift offensive line, and in fact with starting left guard Tyler Smith playing for the first time this season. And had the Cowboys had any inkling during the week that Tyron would not be available, they could have moved Tyler to left tackle where he played last year with Tyron out, and Edoga could have stayed at guard where he played decently in place of Tyler.

So, yes, injuries do matter. But dang it, the Cowboys fought hard to mitigate them despite two inexperienced offensive line backups forced to play without many practice-snaps all week. But when it came to big plays, the Cardinals had seven plays of at least 20 yards while the Cowboys – facing two-deep Cardinals coverage all game, trying to force Dallas to peck away underneath – only came up with four, but none longer than 32 yards.

But hard to swallow how the Cardinals took advantage of this Cowboys defense, especially running the ball when there were those early two-game signs this defense had plugged up that porous run defense of past seasons. And missing Diggs had nothing to do with the Cardinals running roughshod over and through the Cowboys for those 222 yards, Dobbs with 55 of those, continuing this season-opening trend of allowing quarterbacks to scramble past them. They've been far too anxious to put pressure on these quarterbacks and not mindful enough of rush-lane integrity.

And let's not give these Cowboys a soft pillow to lay their heads on, saying they got too full of themselves or that they took the winless Cardinals lightly. To me, the Cardinals came up with the perfect offensive scheme to thwart an overly aggressive defense. Early, play-fakes and running the ball right at Micah Parsons kept the Cowboys off-balance.

Some sort of emotional letdown had nothing to do with this loss.

The defense sprung a leak. And not just the defense. Why, the offense treated the goal line as if some impenetrable border wall.

They shoulda, coulda, but they didn't.

"It's all about us," Lawrence said, then going on a bit later to add, "we take this on the chin. Not sweet."

In fact, sour as they come.

Related Content