FRISCO, Texas – Well, at least they tried. Tried real hard.
Why, no one can fault this defense. For a change. Those guys that had given up a league-high 243 points in the first seven games played their hearts out. Only allowed on their own 15 points, giving the Cowboys a chance to steal a win on the road in an NFC East game.
Only gave up 119 yards rushing, a far cry from their 178.3 average coming into the game and considering they gave up 54 of those in the first quarter.
Had a season-high four takeaways, and actually for the first time since the season opener (plus-1) won the turnover differential at plus-2 and registered multiple turnovers in one game for the first time this season. Also produced four sacks, four tackles for losses and six QB hits
Rookie Trevon Diggs picked off two passes, the Cowboys first interceptions since the season opener. And get this, the last time the Cowboys had one player with two interceptions in a game was Jeff Heath in 2015 against Tampa Bay. And if we really want to get particular, Terence Newman is the last Cowboys corner with two interceptions in one game, doing so twice in 2011 against Buffalo and Philadelphia.
Oh, and also, get this, while Diggs had two interceptions in one game, in six of the past seven seasons two interceptions led the team – for the season – and the one that didn't, was only three by Jeff Heath in 2017.
And heavens to Betsy, the Cowboys actually had a halftime lead for just the third time in eight games, 9-7, which was somewhat of a victory since in the five games they trailed at halftime, they were outscored 116-45, including 43-6 in the previous two games.
"Just a tough ballgame," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said a couple of times. "I feel for our players.
"We took a step in the right direction in a number of areas."
But unfortunately, getting better didn't count Sunday night in Philadelphia. And you don't get points for "coming close."
Nope, no matter the Cowboys battled. No matter they were trying to do something with a rookie quarterback starting his first NFL game they had done only once previously in their entire history, and that's win a game with a rookie QB starting his first non-strike season game and playing more than a half. You have to go all the way back to Roger Staubach winning his rookie starting debut in 1969.
Golly, Eagles 23, Cowboys 9.
If only Dak had been there. Maybe even Andy, too. The Eagles were ripe for the taking. Oh, this 2020.
Cowboys now 2-6, saddled with a three-game losing streak heading into next Sunday's game against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (7-0) at AT&T Stadium. Yet, still just one win behind the East-lead Eagles (3-4-1).
All leaving veteran defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence saying, "It's very frustrating."
But this was the type of game the Cowboys needed to play to have a chance of winning with rookie, seventh-round draft choice Ben DiNucci making his first NFL start, having just his first full three days of practice working with the first-team offense and no preseason snaps. Look, of course he was going to struggle. That was to be expected, DiNucci completing 21 of 40 passes for just 180 yards, getting sacked four times and losing two fumbles.
But here is how close a shave this game came down to, and to me, two highly critical plays.
First, with 7:40 left in the third quarter and the Cowboys still leading 9-7 on the strength of three Greg Zuerlein field goals of 49, 49 and a 59-yard wind skimmer, the Cowboys had driven from their own 31 to a second-and-8 at the Philly 26. They had run the ball seven consecutive times for those 43 yards.
But in a game the Cowboys not only tried several misdirection plays, along with Ezekiel Elliott running the ball from the wildcat formation, the Cowboys might have tried to get fancy one too many times, a handoff to Zeke going one way and then pitching the ball deep behind the line of scrimmage to wide receiver Cedrick Wilson on an end-around he might have intended to throw the ball. But he had no chance, Fletcher Cox alluding the block of rookie tackle Terence Steele to drop Wilson for a drive-killing 10-yard loss.
"The key to the play is we didn't block it," McCarthy said. "It was a 3-technique, so we had a mistake there in the interior."
That led to Zuerlein's 52-yard field-goal attempt against the 18-22 mph winds that took an ugly right-hand turn wide right, giving the Eagles the ball at their own 42. The Eagles then promptly drove 58 yards for a touchdown and two-point conversion to take a 15-9 lead with 1:54 left in the third.
But here came the Cowboys again, starting at their own 25 with 11:18 left to play, methodically driving right down the field, DiNucci completing 4 of 4 passes for 28 yards, the Cowboys piling up four first downs and sitting third-and-6 at the Philadelphia 21.
The Eagles were coming with a blitz, and it readily appeared the Cowboys had a free play when linebacker Duke Riley stepped into the neutral zone. But no call. Even usually PC McCarthy said, "We thought it was offsides … that's why the ball was snapped early."
Replays show it was. Again, no call. And the play and the game went downhill from there. Linebacker T.J. Edwards blitzing, with a free run at DiNucci, sacked him for a 10-yard loss as the ball came out. On the ground defensive end Vinny Curry recovered the ball with the Cowboys Connor Williams on top of him. Play over.
Uh, no. No whistle. And when the ball came loose again, and was kicked backwards, Eagles safety Rodney McLeod scooped and scored, racing untouched 53 yards for a touchdown that surely was going to be called back. It wasn't. Not even after video review.
"It looked like he was possibly down," McCarthy said, the view from the video board showing Curry indeed had possession of the ball.
Well, officially he wasn't down by contact, and now it's 21-9. Ballgame.
Blame it on 2020. A shame. Because the Cowboys had the script down pat to win this one.
Play well defensively. They did.
Grab a couple of takeaways. They got four.
Hold the Eagles to something in the teens. They did, 15.
Scrape together a few field goals, maybe a touchdown. They got three field goals, but no touchdowns – now in consecutive games.
Keep the score a one-possession game into the fourth quarter. They did.
Minimize DiNucci's mistakes. They had, until that sack-fumble-recovery-touchdown return.
Heck, the Cowboys outgained the Eagles 265-222. Rushed for more yards 133-119. Even had more yards passing 180-123, and that was fifth-year veteran Carson Wentz over there, his two touchdown passes equaling his two interceptions.
But as DiNucci lamented after the game, when you cross the 50 you've got to score points. The Cowboys crossed midfield eight times, but were only able to come away with three field goals. Worse than that, losing a fumble when sitting there first-and-goal at the 3-yard line, along with failing to convert a fourth-and-2 at the Philly 35.
And there are no consolation prizes in football.
"Whether you lose by one point or you lose by 20 points, and you have 100 turnovers or you have no turnovers, it sucks," Leighton Vander Esch said. "It's a simple answer. Being a competitor, you don't want to lose, and I don't like losing."
And even though the Cowboys have now lost five of their last six games, it never gets any easier. No matter how close you came.