Offseason | 2022

Spagnola: All This Joy Ends In So Much Sorrow


FRISCO, Texas – All is quiet this Friday at The Star, barely a creature is stirring, and for sure not even one in the morning wearing a helmet preparing one last time for Saturday's NFC Divisional Round playoff game in Tampa, Fla., against the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.

Maybe we should have known it, and this has nothing to do with the now 26-year history of playoff failures.

Maybe there really was this tinge of anxiety we chose to ignore, those 50-point outbursts in two of the previous three games, scoring more points in a single season than any of the previous 61 Cowboys teams ever had and swiping those NFL-high 34 takeaways, 26 of those interceptions, pouring ointment on some of the previously exposed warts.

The Cowboys were just supposed to win, not leave the majority of the 93,470 crammed into AT&T Stadium this past Saturday wondering what in the world happened. The once-thought mighty Cowboys having struck out, that 23-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers cloaking this place with a quiet pall.

"The bottom line is, we did deserve better than the way it ended up, and that's the way I feel today," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said during his final Friday morning radio segment on flagship station 105.3 The Fan, his frustration from that loss still evident, causing him to throw down enough shade to leave everyone involved, coaches and players alike, even his high-paid stars, a tad uncomfortable heading into the unfortunate start to this offseason.

See, I've always had this philosophy that the regular season normally has a way of minimizing those warts, just the way a turnaround from 6-10 to a 12-5 season and NFC East title will. Just because no matter what, there is always next week. But, short of winning a Super Bowl, at some point in the playoffs those warts become exposed and there is no more next week.

And look, understand any time the Cowboys lose there will be finger-pointing from afar, and some from not-so far when former Cowboys Hall of Famers have their say, too. Right in those sights are, in order, the head coach, the quarterback, the coordinators, all three of them by the way, this guy, that guy, the officials, all of 'em just short of the equipment director.

But there's just no disguising those noticeable warts when playing one of the other top six NFC teams in the playoffs, and let's be pragmatic about this and not invent some cockamamie excuses like, "Well, they just weren't ready to play," or "They didn't understand the intensity of the playoffs," or that "They were tight" because they didn't come out like the Niners bopping to the sounds from a faux boombox.

Please. Being good enough sometimes enters into the equation.

Let's examine.

The Cowboys went 6-0 in the NFC East, helping them to a 10-2 NFC record, the only conference losses to Tampa Bay and Arizona. But when it came to playing teams with winning records over the course of the regular season, the Cowboys were 5-4, with two of those wins over the Eagles, the final one the Eagles punting in a no-matter Game 17.

But do give them credit for beating the teams they should have beaten, going 7-1 in all the other games, the only loss to Denver.

And when it came to games against eventual playoff teams, the Cowboys finished 3-4, again two of those wins over the Eagles and the only other one over New England.

Sense a trend there?

Let's examine the regular-season losses. In three of them the Cowboys gave up 30-something points: 31 to Tampa Bay, 30 to Denver and 36 in overtime to Las Vegas. That defense could not step up to the plate in those games, especially in the opener when scoring 29 themselves and on Thanksgiving Day when scoring 33.

Yes, the Cowboys tied the Colts for tops in the NFL with a plus-14 turnover differential, but in the five loses the Cowboys finished with a minus-1, so not so dominating. And in the loss to San Francisco, the game ended with a 0 differential, one takeaway apiece, each team turning its interception into an eventual touchdown.

Then there was this revolving door at the offensive line. The presumptive five starters missed a total of 18 games, only center Tyler Biadasz starting all 17, though all five were accounted for in this playoff game.

But look, this offensive line did not play well against San Francisco. Those five did not past the eyeball test. And when it came to the numbers, well, even worse with quarterback Dak Prescott suffering five sacks and 14 QB hits.

Now, get this: If we count the five sacks suffered against San Francisco, that means Dak, over the course of his 17 games played, was sacked 35 times, but 20 of those sacks occurred in the six losses.

Then there was the Cowboys 77 yards rushing on 21 attempts against the Niners. One of those was Dak's 17-yard scamper the Niners willfully gave up on what turned out to be the final play of the game. So, the other 20 carries gained 60 yards, only 31 of those belonging to Ezekiel Elliott on 12 carries.

Shocking? Maybe not.

In those five regular-season losses, Tampa Bay, Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas and Arizona, the Cowboys never ran for more than 82 yards with season lows of 45 against Arizona and just 60 at Tampa Bay.

In the 12 wins, the Cowboys rushed for at least 108 in 11 of those games, the 78 against Minnesota Prescott-less the lone exception.

Uh, San Francisco ran for 167, plus quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo wasn't sacked even once. And the Cowboys only registered four QB hits. Four of the five teams beating the Cowboys in the regular season ran for at least 120 yards, including giving up a season-high 190 to Denver.

See what I mean?

Here is another disparity that should have made us nervous.

And as pointed out after the game, this Cowboys defense's kryptonite is susceptibility to giving up big plays. Why, in the five regular-season losses, opponents hit the Cowboys for 30 of their 76 chunk plays during the season – run or pass for at least 20 yards. That means just 46 in the other 12 games.

Well, get this: In this San Francisco game, the Niners nailed the Cowboys 15 times for plays of at least 10 yards, for a grand total of 240 yards. They only gained 101 yards on their other 48 plays. If not for those big plays …

But, that was the trend in losses.

Oh, and one more. The Cowboys led the NFL in a category you don't want to lead during the regular season, 127 penalties, three more than second-place Vegas. That averages out to right at 7.5 a game. Well, they nearly doubled that with a franchise single-playoff high of 14, also matching what occurred in that over-officiated game on Thanksgiving Day with, uh, the Raiders.

So, in the six losses, the Cowboys were flagged for 57 of their 18-game total 141 penalties, meaning 40 percent of their penalties in 30 percent of their games.

Yep, maybe we should have paid better attention to all these glaring trends during their five regular-season losses, four of them to playoff teams.

San Francisco, as the sixth seed in the NFC, was a playoff team at 10-7. A good playoff team, draining all of the Cowboys' joy during the regular season into sorrow. And now we'll find out just how good the Niners are on Saturday night in Round 2.

And the owner isn't happy, not looking at the regular season as a consolation or consoling prize.

When asked on Friday about the jobs performed by coordinators Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore, that drew this final succinct answer from Jerry Jones. Going on this final season wrap-up rant:

"The team and their functions got us in a position, healthy, in a position to win a Super Bowl, and so I'm very guarded about throwing all of that down the drain because we didn't win one of the steps in the playoffs getting to the Super Bowl. So, to answer your question, yes, I take into consideration a lot about how well we did this year in the regular season and what it meant and what the record meant. So I will.

"And so, yes, I thought we did a really, really good job of getting to the playoffs. Still, I still can't get over what we did in the playoffs."

And that might take some time.

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