Spagnola: Inability To Close This Cowboys Defense's Worst Nightmare

IRVING, Texas - This is nuts.

        The Cowboys defense is taking a beating from most everyone, me included, being presented as reasons 1 and 1A, along with the lack of backup quarterback play, for the horrendous 4-12 season that the Cowboys produced in 2015, the third-worst 16-game season record in the club's 56-year history.

         Why, that defense produced a league-low and franchise-low 11 takeaways, also setting the franchise record-low with only three fumble recoveries and the fewest opponent forced fumbles in a season (11). The 11 takeaways were 20 less than their second-ranked league total in 2014.

         That same defense sacked opposing quarterbacks 31 times. Sure, three more than the previous season, but this after spending the past two second-round draft choices on pass-rushing defensive ends. They also took a character chance on free-agent defensive end Greg Hardy, hardly worth their while, at least for his suspended-shortened 2015 season.

         These are the main reasons why most, me included, are promoting the drafting of a defensive player come April 28 with the fourth overall pick. Either selecting someone, as we like to say, who can get to the quarterback (defensive end) or who can take the ball away from the quarterback (cornerback).

Also, why are so many opposed to re-signing cornerback Morris Claiborne or paying Brandon Carr's $9.1 million base salary, me not included on either, since someone has to play cornerback in 2016, especially when considering Orlando Scandrick is returning from reconstructive knee surgery. There is not much else on the roster if Byron Jones is considered your starting free safety.

         But upon deeper analyzation of this defense while considering these aforementioned shortcomings, check some of this out:

         The Cowboys in the 12-4 season of 2014 had the NFL's 19th-ranked total defense. This past season the Cowboys defense finished 17th, a modest improvement.

         In 2014, the Cowboys gave up 5,681 yards, 355.1 a game. This past season, 5,570 yards, or 348.1 a game, for perspective just a measly 13 yards more than their struggling offense averaged.

In 2014, the Cowboys gave up 5.8 yards a play. This past season, 5.6 yards a play, and only 0.1 yards a play more than they very own impotent offense averaged.

In 2014, the Cowboys opponents scored 43 touchdowns and kicked 16 field goals, finishing with a grand total of 352 points. This past season, Cowboys opponents scored 41 touchdowns and kicked 30 field goals, totaling 374 points, or 1.38 more a game, sort of negligible.

So what-the-what with this defense taking so much heat?

Upon further dissection here was the deal:

This defense couldn't close.

Oh, these Cowboys would play well or fairly well for like three and a half quarters. Sometimes three and three-fourths. A few times even four quarters. But when it came time to close out a victory late in the fourth or in overtime, the Cowboys defense folded time and time again.

In seven of their 12 losses, the Cowboys allowed their opponents to either drive to tie the game or win the game on their final full possession of regulation or win the game on the first possession of overtime. Crazy, right?

Let's examine the two overtime games.

First, at New Orleans, the 26-20 loss. Over 58 minutes, 9 seconds, the Cowboys allowed the Saints 20 points. But on the Saints final drive of the game, after driving themselves to tie the game at 20, the Cowboys allow the Saints to march 68 yards in eight plays to set up what should have been the game-winning field goal they implausibly missed from a mere 30 yards with 12 seconds left. Then, after losing the overtime coin flip, the Cowboys defense allows New Orleans to go 80 yards in two plays for the winning touchdown on a busted coverage.

Then there was the 33-27 overtime loss to Philadelphia. The Cowboys held the Philly offense to just 20 points, the Eagles also tacking on an interception for a touchdown. But here we go. With the game tied 24-24, the defense allows the Eagles on their final full possession of the game to drive 45 yards on six plays in 1:07 to kick the field goal giving them a 27-24 lead. And while the Cowboys returned the favor, Dan Bailey's field goal with two seconds remaining tying the score, the Eagles, in nine plays, went 80 yards with the first possession of overtime for the win.

Remember the Tampa Bay game? The Cowboys modestly led 6-3 with four minutes left to play, having held Jameis Winston to but a field goal for 56 minutes. But on the Buccaneers' final full possession, the Cowboys allowed them to drive 51 yards in 10 plays for what turned out to be the winning touchdown with only 54 seconds to play.

Same with Seattle, right? After 53 minutes, 19 seconds, the Cowboys led the defending NFC champs and turns out the league's 2015 fourth-ranked total offense, 12-10. But here goes the Cowboys defense again, allowing the Seahawks to drive 79 yards in a ridiculous 17 plays for the winning field goal with just 1:06 remaining.

Yet another egregious collapse at closing time.

 Same in the 19-16 loss against the Jets. After tying the game at 16 with 1:55 to play, three of those Jets points at the time set up with an interception at the Cowboys 24, the Dallas defense allows them to drive 58 yards in eight plays to kick the winning field goal with 36 seconds left.

And even in the 16-6 loss at Buffalo, the game was just 9-6 with 6:53 to play. But there the Bills went, 92 yards in nine plays, scoring the game-clinching touchdown on their final full possession with 2:25 to play.

 Gosh, even in that 19-16 victory at Washington, the Cowboys allowed a struggling Redskins offense on its final full possession to drive 43 yards in four plays following a kickoff return/penalty worth 56 yards to tie the game at 16 with 44 seconds remaining. Only this time the Cowboys managed to get Bailey in range for the game-winning 54-yard field goal with nine seconds left to avoid impending overtime.[embeddedad0]

Same in 27-26 season-opening victory over the Giants. After drawing within 23-20 late in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys defense allowed the Giants to drive 79 yards in 13 plays for a field goal to go up 26-20, though leaving enough time (1:34) for Tony Romo to drive the Cowboys right back down the field for the winning touchdown. And even in the 20-10 victory over Philadelphia in Week 2, the Cowboys allowed the Eagles to drive 80 yards in 11 plays on their final full possession to score their only touchdown of the game with 1:21 left.

Only one time all season did the Cowboys defense shut down an opponent on the final full possession in crunch time, at Miami while leading 24-10 in the final game Romo started and finished. Up 24-14 with 1:04 left, the Cowboys defense sacked Ryan Tannehill twice in four plays, the Dolphins actually losing 30 yards on the possession.

And if you remember the 28-7 loss at Green Bay, this was a 14-7 game with 11:18 to play. But that Cowboys defense gave up touchdowns on the Packers' final two possessions, yielding drives of 12 plays, 84 yards consuming 6:34, and then after giving up the ball on downs at their own 38-yard line allowing the Packers to drive for another score in 25 seconds.

If you add up opponent total yards on final full possessions in regulation, two more in overtime and those two at the end of the Green Bay game, that would account for nearly a mystifying one-fifth of the total yards the Cowboys defense gave up in 2015.

Go figure.

Certainly not enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks can be blamed. Definitely not near enough takeaways, too. Rarely, if ever owning a two-score lead late in games to provide a cushion. Maybe just plum tuckered out by game's end. Maybe some of that. Maybe all of that.

But for sure, this was a defense absent of closers.      

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