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Spagnola: Bigger Worries Than Miserable Loss


LANDOVER, Md. – Bad enough Commanders 26, Cowboys 6.

Bad enough the Cowboys turned the ball over three more times.

Bad enough the NFL team third in third-down conversions (47.4 percent) went 4-of-18.

Bad enough they lost to a team quarterbacked by a rookie not only making his first NFL start and taking his first NFL snap, but also throwing a touchdown pass on his first NFL attempt.

Bad enough that whatever could go wrong did go wrong, like dropping the first punt snap of the game, like muffing a punt bouncing off a facemask and into the arms of the Commanders that very well could have been called fair catch interference since the ball did not hit the ground (bobbles are allowed), like missing an extra point, like failing on a poorly-marked fourth-down conversion, like having an intercepted pass returned for an easy touchdown, like squandering a potential opportunity to win the NFC East that never materialized because of not taking care of your own business first and foremost.

Want me to continue?

Because surely can, since losing to an erstwhile 7-8-1 Commanders team with nothing tangible to play for, like losing to a team missing 10 starters, three of those on the offensive line, three of them in the offensive backfield, like 12 of 15 possessions ending up three-and-out.

Again, that's not the end of the misery inflicted on the Cowboys, now finishing 12-5 a second straight season, one of three NFC wild-card playoff teams, the fifth seed relegating them to play at the fourth-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winners of the NFC South at a whopping 8-9 on MNPF – Monday Night Playoff Football.

And bad enough the Cowboys were purportedly taking this game seriously, since had the Giants beat the Eagles – they didn't, losing 22-16 – and the Cowboys had beaten the Commanders, which they didn't even come close to, they still could have won the NFC East title. But this no-show against a team that had come into the game 0-3-1 in its last four thus kills any momentum and potentially confidence building heading into the playoffs.

All this causing Dak Prescott to sum up this lost afternoon with the Cowboys totaling a season-low 182 yards of offense – the fewest of his starting career and the fewest in a game overall since Oct. 25, 2020, when gaining just 142 against these same Washingtons two games after Prescott was lost for the season following ankle surgery – with one word:


But to me, what is worse, much worse, heading into the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006-07, are these two huge migraine headaches the pesky Commanders exposed, sort of like that ol' emperor with no clothes:

Offensive line.


The camouflage stripped away.

That injury-induced line dancing was devastatingly bad in this game, and they had better hope some higher being places healing hands on center Tyler Biadasz after missing this game with a high ankle sprain. There are hopes he returns for the playoffs, and those hopes could improve since the Cowboys playing on Monday night will have an extra day of rehab/rest/stewing.

But the Cowboys attempt to cover themselves here Sunday was exposed, with left guard Connor McGovern starting his first game at center since his days at Pitt, left tackle Tyler Smith starting his first game at left guard and the 40-year-old Jason Peters, brought in for depth purposes, starting his first game since the end of last season at left tackle.

On top of that, Tyron Smith, starting at right tackle for the injured Terence Steele, out for the season, struggled with the Commanders' speed rushers, even though this was his fourth consecutive start at a position he hadn't played since his 2011 rookie season.

These five couldn't handle the Commanders even injury-depleted front. Not in the run game – 27 carries for but 64 yards, 2.7 a carry. And the pass protection leaked badly, Dak completing just 14 of 37 passes for but 128 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, his 45.3 QB rating a season low and the unusual first rating below 50.0 since posting a 30.4 against the Eagles in 2017.

That bad.

But unless Biadasz returns in time for the 7:15 start next Monday on the Bay, the Cowboys have what they have, no cavalry in sight.

"Got to put this game behind us," said McGovern, who battled the flu Friday and Saturday, losing 9 pounds from not keeping food down.

"We're just trying to get different guys in there to make sure we've got them ready to play," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said, certainly understanding the gravity of this situation. "Obviously, the big injury to Tyler and with Connor (ill and moving to center), so we have some moving parts. But it's time, and we've go to get it going because we are going to have to run the ball in Tampa. We all know that."

Here is the other worrisome matter: Accompanying playing a first-round playoff game against the Buccaneers means facing Tom Brady, undefeated when playing the Cowboys, no matter with the Patriots (5-0) or now with the Bucs (2-0). And without being obvious man, it's been bad enough the Cowboys have lost two of their top three cornerbacks for the season with injuries, Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown, but the one guy who has stepped up to fill a gap, rookie DaRon Bland, suffered a chest injury in the second half and did not return to the game.

Bombs away.

And the Cowboys have been scrambling to fill that void, just this weekend picking up their fourth free-agent cornerback, starting with Kendall Sheffield, then Mackensie Alexander (now out with a groin strain), then Trayvon Mullens and now veteran Xavier Rhodes. Because if Sunday afternoon is any indication, they have lost total faith in Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright has shown inconsistencies, Mullens in his first appearance Sunday was burned a couple of times and here's betting Rhodes will be the next man up.

The Cowboys tried to cover themselves once again by playing Bland outside against two-receiver sets and then moving him into the slot on nickel and inserting flavor of the week at left corner. But with Bland out, the Cowboys had been working practice squad safety Tyler Coyle as a backup slot guy, and actually elevated him for this game. He too struggled some manning the slot in just his second NFL with defensive snaps.

Time to get Rhodes, the 10-year veteran, three-time Pro Bowler ready, but he is now on his third team in three years – most recently released by Buffalo this past week. The Cowboys obviously must hope the 32-year-old corner has something left, especially if Bland's chest injury they have their fingers crossed is not serious enough to keep him out next Monday since not only must they face Brady a second time this season – Cowboys lost the season opener 19-3 – but, oh, by the way, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin too.

So what gives at corner now?

"That is a great question," McCarthy said. "Like I said, I don't have an answer for that right now. I don't know the severity of DaRon's injury. We've got to take a look at some things. Obviously, we've just acquired Xavier. The best thing is we have options."

That's great. But they don't have much time to find solutions. On the offensive line for sure, and they hope it's just at one cornerback position, not two.

"It's disappointing, no question. I get it," McCarthy said, knowing his team has not lost two consecutive games all season but four of their five losses have been on the road. "The timing is definitely not what you are looking for. I clearly recognize that, but I take it like a lot of things in life. When you get kicked in the ass or punched in the mouth, you have a chance to respond, and I have great confidence in our football team that we will respond."

Hopefully in a hurry, pulling their pants back up in these two critical areas.

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