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Spagnola: Getting By With A Little Help From 'Em All


INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Maybe Mike McCarthy is right about this.

Maybe it does take a village to win in this NFL.

Case in point: Cowboys 20, Chargers 17.

No DeMarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory. Step right up football man Micah Parsons. Linebacker one day, defensive end the next.

No La'el Collins. Step right up Terence Steele. And please meet Joey Bosa, Chargers pass-rusher extraordinaire. And with a little help from his friends, they turned Bosa into a pass-rush specialist, not an every down player. Kudos there, Mr. Steele.

No Michael Gallup. CeeDee Lamb, eight catches for 81 yards, and nearly a spectacular touchdown when he raced with just three seconds left in the first half, alluding one tackle after another before pitching to Ezekiel Elliott for another 16 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the Chargers 3. Almost.

Need to challenge this Chargers defense on the edges with a running game, making those outside pass-rush specialists play the run? Why, turn to the speed of Tony Pollard, rushing for 109 of the Cowboys 198 yards rushing, the most since the 223 in the 2019 season finale against Washington.

No Donovan Wilson. Step right up Jayron Kearse at safety, six tackles, one for a loss, one QB hit and one pass breakup, along with an interception wiped out by a pass interference call. And you, too, Damontae Kazee, stalling a Chargers scoring drive with his end zone interception.

And if Dak Prescott completing 23 of 27 passes (85 percent) and throwing for 237 yards and a touchdown wasn't enough, some unintended consequences caused the Cowboys to send Greg Zuerlein out there with three seconds left in a 17-17 game to attempt a game-winning 56-yard field goal.

That's right, Zuerlein – he of the costly missed 31-yarder against Tampa Bay, along with a missed extra point – hits the game-winner that evens the Cowboys record at 1-1.

Oh, and if all that were not enough, there was a small village of Cowboys fans among the 70,240 folks in SoFi Stadium on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, turning the spectacular place into a home-field advantage for the Cowboys. That caused head coach Mike McCarthy to say after the game, "I felt in a lot of ways we were back in Oxnard."

Or Trevon Diggs to remark, "It was home. That was our home game." And Zack Martin to add, and this is no exaggeration from the wave of blue in the stands, "We didn't have to go in the silent count, and I think they did. It was pretty cool."

It's always pretty cool when you win, and goodness knows the Cowboys sure didn't want to start this season off 0-2. And sure is pretty cool to win when you only had eight offensive possession in the game, just 28 snaps in the second half and your opponent totals 408 yards and the quarterback they were leery of, Justin Herbert, throws for 338 yards.

But somehow, someway – two interceptions, too many untimely penalties the Chargers (1-1) committed – a Cowboys defense missing four starters holds them to a mere 17 points, matching the second-fewest points they have given up in the last 18 games. Maybe the start of … well, we'll see.

Oh, and how about this: This is the first time the Cowboys have won a game scoring less than 30 points since beating Tampa Bay, 27-20, in Game 15 of the 2018 season, encompassing their previous 15 victories. Incredible, right? And as for Dak, this is only the second time in his last eight starts, stretching back to the final game of the 2019 season, that he's put up less than 30 points, losing the opener right here in SoFi to the Rams last year by, uh, 20-17.

"To get a win is awesome," Zuerlein said. "It's so dang hard to win."

Yep, and the Cowboys made this one even more difficult during that final 49-yard, game-winning, walk-off drive. Recall the unintended consequences.

So, after the Chargers tied the score at 17 with 3:54 left on a 29-yard field goal, that after a touchdown was wiped out by an illegal shift and Parsons chasing down Herbert for an 18-yard loss on a second-and-goal play from the 7, Dak masterfully went to work as if this was child's play, conducting his two-minute drill.

"Goes back to when I was a kid," Dak said of his calm in these occasions.

But don't think the Cowboys, after driving to a first-and-10 at the Chargers' 45 – thanks to Amari Cooper's 12-yard catch, his apparent rib injury stopping the clock with 36 seconds left and costing the Cowboys a timeout – were willing to run the clock down on purpose for that 56-yard field goal.

Oh, no. They nibbled with a 4-yard pass to Cedrick Wilson, playing in place of Gallup, to the 41. Now 33 seconds left. Then Pollard runs for 3 yards, second-and-6 at the 38, clock is running, ticking under 30 seconds.

Plenty of time to run another play, with a timeout left, to inch closer for at least a more reasonable field-goal attempt while draining the clock. And that's when things got just a little bit crazy. McCarthy said they had a personnel mix up, Pollard was coming off the field when he wasn't supposed to. And then, as McCarthy said, "The clock went off the board."

The clock?

Yeah, as the clock was running after the Pollard run, I was thinking, OK, they are taking some time off so they don't leave Herbert time for a comeback, the way Tom Brady used the final 1:24 of the season opener after the Cowboys had taken the lead 29-28 to drive for the game-winning, walk-off field goal.

But wait, enough is enough. Run another play. Try to get like 10 yards and then call time out.

"The clock situation was just different," McCarthy said. "I've never had a clock go off the board on me like that. On the second down, we're trying to chip away and get a shorter field goal. We were going to attempt a third-down play, kicking on the fourth was the time frame we were in, I think 17 seconds. We were right on the threshold."

Evidently, he and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore were looking up at the clock high above on the SoFi's immaculate video board in the round. But as happens, once a play is over the board up there goes into replays, crowd shots, whatever.

Now, Dak said he knew exactly what was going on. He was watching the stationary clock on the end zone ribbon.

"We intended to run a third-down play," McCarthy said.

Well, when it became obvious there wouldn't be enough time, they decided they might as well drain the clock down to the three seconds and send Zuerlein out there for the 56-yarder.

Bet you held your breath, right?

Good thing that's not what Zuerlein was thinking, having wiped the slate clean after his misses in the opener.

"It's more about trusting the process," the veteran kicker said. "You don't throw out your swing because you missed a kick. You go and practice and figure out what you did wrong and you try and correct that. That's all it really is. Just be confident and trust the swing."

He did. No swing and a miss. Even from that far out.

And at least Zuerlein wasn't in a win-or-else situation. If he had missed, overtime then, although that's always a precarious situation, many times the game turning on the coin-flip outcome.

So atta-boys all around. To Dak. To the Tony-Zeke combo. The offensive line, with Zack back and Steele hanging tough. To the defense, only once all last year giving up no more than 17 points in a game. And with Parsons playing a lot of defensive end, mostly standing up, fist-bumps to Jaylon smith and Leighton Vander Esch playing a whole lot more snaps at linebacker than in the opener, Smith finishing with a team-high nine tackles and LVE next with seven, one for a loss, a QB hit and having recorded the Cowboys' first sack of the year, coming 88 minutes into the season.

Then, too, those two takeaways, giving them six in two games, four of those now interceptions. Why, they didn't get their fourth pick until the 11th game last year and their sixth takeaway until Game 8.

And a big hand to Parsons, playing defensive end for the first time since high school when he _was_ a defensive end. His first sack of the season turned second-and-goal at the 7 into third-and-goal at the 25, eventually forcing Tristan Vizcaino's game-tying field goal.

"I really wanted Herbert," Parsons said, "and I finally got him."

Yes, he did. And the Cowboys finally got that first win. And it's also their fourth in the past six games, going back to last year winning three of the final four. And they didn't get their first road win last year until their fifth try and they only had two overall.


"It is big, us coming out and getting this team win with a lot of our big-time players not on the field," Pollard said, and he could have added on the road to boot. "It shows the team that we all can do this. We're all that we have."

And by gosh, they 'bout needed every one of them in this one, including all of them blue-clad folks in the stands, too.

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