Spagnola: Cowboys Hope Extinguished With Two Moore(?) Games To Play

ARLINGTON, Texas – Well, shoot.

         That's it, it's over.

         There will be no fairytale ending for these 2015 Dallas Cowboys. No cherub-faced boy unwrapped in a time of dire need coming to the rescue to lead to the promised land this gang that just could not shoot straight long enough. There will be no mandatory three-game winning streak this Christmas season to keep even the slimmest of hope alive. No more scoreboard watching

         No nothing, erasing any more possibility when the improbability of the Cowboys playing well enough to live another day hung heavily overhead.

         Jets 19, Cowboys 16 pounded all this home here Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in no uncertain terms. For the first time in five seasons the Cowboys are done before Christmas, unmercifully with still two games to go.

Pa rum pum pum phooey.

Oh, they tried. Pulled out all the stops despite being forced to play without even more frontline players, middle linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Morris Claiborne inactive by injury in this game. They played players who had rarely or never played for them previously this season. They ran jet sweeps. They ran a reverse. They threw caution to the wind, going for it on fourth-and-short. Making 50-yard field goals, even if the one banked in off the right upright, were not beyond the realm of possibility.

They even played the not-so kid at quarterback, hoping beyond hope and common sense that Kellen Moore, a fourth-year quarterback in his very first NFL regular-season appearance, could provide the much-need offensive spark that veterans Brandon Weeden first and Matt Cassel next simply could not sustain on a consistent basis.

And this was not some spur-of-the-moment decision. The Cowboys had been plotting this move all week long, even Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett admitting that Moore, the former Boise State magician, had taken "a few" first-team snaps in practice for the first time since arriving on Sept. 8. Truth be known, he had taken quite a few, nearly half I'm told, and certainly enough to pull the trigger Saturday if Cassel continued his struggles over the past month in this must-win game.

The Cowboys didn't even wait until halftime to squeeze. Barely waited until the second quarter, already trailing 6-3 when Moore made his NFL debut with 11:16 left in the second quarter to the majority delight of the 90,345 present. Atta boy, completing his first NFL pass attempt, even if it went for minus-1 yard to Terrance Williams, setting up a third-and-7.

There was hope. Hey, on that first throw he didn't miss a receiver by 10 yards. He didn't get sacked. He didn't throw an interception … yet.

Predictably, former Cowboys assistants Todd Bowles, now the Jets head coach, and Kacy Rodgers, now the Jets defensive coordinator, dialed up a blitz. Poor kid, in the utter commotion back there, never saw the safety lurking over the middle. Interception, leading to a Jets easy field goal and 9-3 lead.

So yes, this season had come to this, the Cowboys playing a fourth quarterback in lieu of starter Tony Romo's double jeopardy fractured clavicle that likely – finally – will land him on injured reserve for the remaining two games of the season, marking the first time circumstances necessitated the Cowboys playing four quarterbacks in one season since 2001. And at this point it sure would seem reasonable this coming Sunday in Buffalo that the Cowboys will start Moore, marking the first time the Cowboys have started four quarterbacks in a season since that forgettable bunch of Quincy Carter, Anthony Wright, Ryan Leaf and Clint Stoerner in 2001 when the Cowboys finished 5-11 for the second of three consecutive seasons.

Moore would show promise the rest of the way, finishing up competing 15-of-25 passes for 158 yards and a 10-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant, giving the Cowboys a halftime lead, 10-9, for the first time in their past four games. Before the night was over, Moore showed a pretty good command of the offense, actually completing passes to Cole Beasley, Brice Butler and Jason Witten, too. He would even convert two of his eight third-down opportunities, which is as many as Cassel had in his last 23 attempts.

Why, Moore would even drive the Cowboys to two second-half field goals, the second a dandy 11-play, 51-yarder for Dan Bailey's bank shot to tie the game at 16 with only 1:55 to play. Overtime loomed.

But dang it, there were those two more interceptions, giving him three and the Cowboys quarterbacks four in the game, also giving them possibly a league-leading 27 giveaways, depending on what happens in the rest of the games Sunday and Monday. In doing so, the Cowboys also stretched their ignominious league-leading turnover differential to minus-18 and still rank 32nd in takeaways with now nine thanks to Terrance Mitchell's pick in his Cowboys debut, the first by a cornerback in nearly 600 snaps, going back to last year's Game 13 against Chicago.

Moore's second pick was disastrous, occurring on second-and-goal from the 6-yard line, again not spotting the lurking safety, giving up a sure three points when the Cowboys simply couldn't, leading only 10-9. And the third, well, it was a desperation throw with 24 seconds remaining from his own 32, trailing by three and out of timeouts.

That, only because, per usual, the Cowboys defense, which had done a masterful job containing a Jets offense that had averaged 30.3 points over their previous three-game winning streak to just 16 points and limiting the Jets offense to a grand total of 73 yards rushing, could not slam the door those final two minutes to force overtime.

Of all times, the Cowboys leaked their biggest play of the game with only 1:01 remaining, botching a Cover-2 scheme where safety J.J. Wilcox was to provide help over the top for cornerback Byron Jones on a 43-yard completion to Kenbrell Thompkins, putting the Jets in winning field-goal range at the Cowboys 26.

"You have a roll corner outside," Garrett explained of how the Cowboys played the Jets four-receiver set with their nickel defense, "you have a safety who's a deep-half player. They call a hole-shot," meaning asking quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to drop a deep throw over the trailing corner but down before the safety arrives. "He released at the top of that corner and there's a hole in that defense. Typically, you have to close that hole by the corner sinking and the safety gets wider."

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 And like that, another tie game or lead vanished after the defense had played so well for the majority of the game, just like what happened on the first possessions of overtime against the Saints and Eagles; just like what happened at the end of the 13-12 loss to Seattle and the 10-6 loss to Tampa Bay; and now this, the final kill shot to a season. That's three of 10 losses by four, now three and one points; two by six in overtime without even getting an offensive possession; and another on that 100-yard Giants kickoff return after the Cowboys drove for the fourth-quarter tying touchdown.

"Down the stretch, we're just not making enough plays in the fourth quarter," said defensive co-captain Sean Lee. "Just got to execute."

Not since 2010 have the Cowboys played meaningless games in their final two outings of a season (at Buffalo, Washington home), and this would be only the second time since the 6-10 effort of 2005. Only seven players currently on the roster would remember the feeling from 2010. Only three would remember back to 2005, and with Romo out, that leaves just Jason Witten and L.P. Ladouceur from that group. The rest? This is uncharted territory you'd rather not chart.

So the Cowboys likely go forward with Moore starting the final two games. They need to find out if they are encouraged by his play or simply surprised. They need to find out if Moore is in the backup quarterback conversation for next year. The guy? Or a guy competing for the job with at least one veteran QB to be named later?

Placing at least some significance into this global insignificance.

Some consolation.

Pa rum pum pum pum.

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