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Spagnola: Clock Ticking On A Fading Season


CHICAGO – The Cowboys defense is broken. Bad.

The Cowboys kicking game is broken. Bad.

About the only thing that could have saved the Cowboys here Thursday night before 57,166 fans and national television audience is the NFL's No. 1-ranked offense.

And what do you know, broke, too, on this particular night at Soldier Field.

'Da Bears 31, Cowboys a consolation 24, and believe you me, this game, once again, was not near as close as that score might suggest.

The Cowboys fading fast this 2019 season?

Losers of three straight for the second time this season?

Losers of four of the past five games?

Losers of seven of the past 10?

No longer with their heads above .500?

No way to become the first team in 15 years to repeat as NFC East champs. This is no way to navigate into the NFC playoffs. This is no way to create expectations of a deep run in the playoffs.

Just having lost their compass?

Well, not completely, reminding one of those old spaghetti westerns, you know, a shootout at the OK Corral, when one of them, uh, cowboys gets shot over and over and over again but won't go down.

Yet suddenly the Cowboys have been expiring week by week, though still hanging on to a life vest for dear life.

At 6-7? (Insert incredulity emoji now.)

Yes, the Cowboys at 6-7, their most losses after 13 games since 2015 when they were 4-9, having dropped eight straight without Tony Romo.

Before that, well at least in the 8-8 seasons of 2011-13, they were 7-6 each time.

Why, you have to go back to the 2010 season to find another record worse than 6-7 at this point. Once again, without Romo, the Cowboys also were 4-9 that year after 13 games. And we know what happened, head coach Wade Phillips was fired after the 1-7 start, though interim head coach Jason Garrett led the bunch to a 5-3 record over the second half of the season to finish 6-10. Somewhat uplifting.

But this, when so much has been expected, is downright depressing. And Garrett seemingly has tried everything. Light practices to get players off their feet during this grueling stretch of four games in 19 days they've concluded at 1-3. Instead of just the normal one practice outdoors on the grass field per week, all three were outside in preparation for a game on grass in Chicago. Instead of the normal night-before team meeting at the hotel, Garrett had the team treated to a surprise steak dinner at a nearby restaurant walking distance from the team hotel in downtown.

There has been the yelling and screaming after the loss to Buffalo. There has been visible frustration bench-side. There has been Dak Prescott saying too much talkin' going on. There has been owner Jerry Jones leveling public threats to his coaching staff, then support, then encouragement.

But nothing seems to be working.

"I think we played hard," a drained Garrett said. "We didn't play well. We didn't play well enough. And at different times we did some good things, but on an overall team basis, we didn't play consistently well enough. Give the Bears credit, they did what they needed to do to win the game and we did not."

No, they did not. Especially, once again, the defense. Almost to the point of pitiful.

Like, what did I say on Wednesday, that among all the keys for beating the then equally 6-6 Bears, the top one was defense, defense, defense. And once again, as the Vikings did (28 points), as Detroit did (27 points) and as Buffalo did (26 points), the Bears picked the Cowboys defense apart. Play by play, with a Mitch Trubisky-led offense that had been averaging 17.6 points a game – one that only twice all season had previously scored more than 22 points in a game.

And once again another team shredded the Cowboys run defense, the Bears going for 151 yards, and yet another quarterback, Trubisky, who had only run for 80 yards in 12 games, only one touchdown and a long of 12, sails for 63 yards on 10 carries in this one, with a back-breaking 23-yard TD run to boot.

There is a trend, and it's a bad one.

"They consistently moved the ball throughout the game," Garrett said, knowing the Bears had 12 plays with at least 10 yards running or 20 yards passing. "They were able to run the football with their runners, their quarterback runs, they kept drives alive, they made timely plays in the passing game, they cashed in when they got down in there close, and we just didn't play well enough defensively really in any part of it."

No kidding there, for at one point in the game the Bears, who finished seven of 12 on third-down conversions, had converted seven of their first nine while building that 31-14 lead. Missed tackles. Missed assignments. Or just plain getting fooled.

"That's on me, nobody else," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "I take full responsibility. I didn't get it done. If the talent is not directed well, that's my fault.

"I accept that, it's on me 100 percent."

Noble gesture on Marinelli's part. That's what those old-school coaches do.

But let's face facts. This defense hasn't been the same without Leighton Vander Esch on the field. Not the same without Jeff Heath on the field. Vander Esch now has missed the last three games with a neck injury. The Cowboys have lost them all. Heath has missed the last four, and played just 10 plays in a fifth. Cowboys losing four of those five. Weak up the middle.

And it was obvious the Bears devised an offensive scheme to attack the Cowboys linebackers, working hard to isolate Jaylon Smith in coverage on tight ends. Trubisky completed 13 of his 23 passes to running backs, tight ends and the fullback, just picking the Cowboys apart underneath.

Combine that with Trubisky having his way in the pocket, only sacked twice and hit just three times, he threw for 244 yards and three touchdowns, finishing with a 115.5 passer rating, yet another young quarterback having his way with the Dallas defense.

Look, I know the Cowboys offense struggled. But you figured it would somewhat against this Bears defense. And it doesn't help when always playing from behind, the Cowboys allowing Buffalo to score 26 consecutive points after taking a 7-0 lead and now the Bears 24 straight after once against scoring a first-possession touchdown.

This Bears defense is tough. Grows even more so with the Cowboys playing from behind, the score basically taking Ezekiel Elliott out of the game after finishing the first half with 72 yards rushing to surpass 1,000 in a season for the third time in four years, but then getting just nine more on six second-half carries – four of those when the Cowboys were facing first-and-10 at the 11-yard line to score a touchdown.

That allows those big, bad Bears to come after Dak, and they sure did, sacking him twice but hitting him officially seven times, though chasing him out of the pocket more times than not on his 49 passing attempts.

"Frustrating," says Prescott. "I think that's the best word for it. It's a blessing, fortunate enough, I don't know how it is, we're still in the lead for our division. You have to be thankful for that. But we can't hang our hat on that. We have got to figure out our issues right now, fix them, and get better."

Well, the Cowboys have nine days to ponder those "issues," before on the 10th day playing the Rams. Impossible to pull out of this nose dive?

Said a frustrated Jerry Jones this morning, "We are not playing at the level of our personnel."

True that.

And they are starting to run out of time.