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Spagnola: Must Turn The Tables On Close Calls


FRISCO, Texas – None of this makes sense, none of it.

The numbers just don't add up.

Here the Cowboys are, the No. 1 offense in the National Football League, their 437.4 yards per game more than New England, Seattle, Kansas City, Green Bay or New Orleans, along with being No. 1 in third down conversions (51.4 percent).

For historical context, the team record for a 16-game season is 399.4 yards a game, or 6,390 total yards. The Cowboys are on pace for 6,999. Only once in club history have they ever been above 50 percent on third-down conversions, 50.2 in 1978.

Here the Cowboys are, the No. 7 ranked defense in the NFL, their 323.2 yards a game fewer than the likes of Green Bay, Philadelphia, the Rams and even Minnesota. The Cowboys are on pace to hold opponents to 5,171 total yards. Their opponents' third-down conversion rate of 30.9 percent ranks behind only New England's ridiculously low 18.9 percent and San Francisco's 30.2.

For further historical context, the Cowboys are on pace to hold opponents over 16 games to 5,171 yards, the second fewest over the past nine seasons by just 182 yards.

Yet, here we are, nine games into the season and those numbers don't translate, though still sitting tied for first place in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles, but with a middling 5-4 record.

Not what neither you nor they expected when breaking training camp in Oxnard, Calif., nor after the first three games of the season, wiping out the Giants, Redskins and Dolphins by a combined score of 97-54.

After all, their offensive line was whole again with the return of four-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick. They had added veterans Robert Quinn and Randall Cobb to the team. DeMarcus Lawrence had his shoulder fixed. Amari Cooper would have a full offseason and training camp with the team, as opposed to showing up last year in a trade during the Cowboys' Week 8 bye. Leighton Vander Esch was no longer a rookie. Likewise Connor Williams and Michael Gallup. And my goodness, they would have eight, count 'em, eight 2018 Pro Bowlers returning from last year's 10-6 team.

Yet, 5-4 heading into Sunday's noon start against the Lions at Ford Field.

"We're playing better," says Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, "and just haven't won some games."

True that.

Oh, there are even more contradictory numbers. Take Dak. The fourth-year quarterback is having a career year. Currently, he is No. 2 in NFL passing yards: 2,777 – on pace for a career-high 4,936. Only the Chargers' Philip Rivers has thrown for more yards so far this season. The Cowboys' franchise record, with two franchise quarterbacks in the Pro football Hall of Fame, is Tony Romo's 4,903 of 2012.

Dak's completion percentage is No. 2 as well at 68.3. Romo has the club's single-season record at 69.9, established in 2014. Dak also is ranked second in yards per attempt at 8.7. In franchise history for a single season, Roger Staubach is first at 8.92 in 1971, and Craig Morton is third at 8.79. And both of those guys were throwing to some guy named Bob Hayes.

To further highlight the year Prescott is having, he's already thrown 18 touchdown passes in nine games. That ranks tied for third in the NFL with guys named Mahomes, Cousins and Watson, and behind only Seattle's Russell Wilson (23), the league's leader in QB rating (114.8), and Detroit's Matthew Stafford (19), who won't be playing Sunday, out with a back injury.

Pretty impressive.

Then there is Cooper. His line reads: 53 for 848 and 7 TDs. Among NFL receivers at this point, his seven touchdowns tie him for second with Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, just one behind, uh, Detroit's Kenny Golladay. Cooper's 848 yards receiving ranks third, behind only New Orleans' Mike Thomas and Evans. His pace of 1,507 for the season would trail just Michael Irvin's franchise record of 1,603 (1995) and 1,523 (1991).

Then there is the defense. Quinn's 7.5 sacks leads the team, and he has played only seven of the nine games. Michael Bennett has made an impression after just two games.

We could go on and on with these numbers. But you get the idea. They just don't translate into 5-4.

Well, here is one theory why: They just have not won close games, have not closed the deals in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys average margin of victory is 19.8 points a game. Their margin of defeat is 4.5 points, and they've have had a chance down the stretch to conceivably win three of those four games they've lost, their largest margin of defeat being 10 to the Packers, with a missed 33-yard field goal with 1:41 left shy of being able to onside kick down just seven.

But in this league, it's hard to consistently win these close games. The NFL gods like to maybe even things out. Unless, of course, you are a hugely dominant team.

"Literally, two-thirds of the games played in the NFL are one-score games in the fourth quarter," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says. "That's for teams that make the playoffs and for teams that don't make the playoffs."

Take last year. The Cowboys won 10 games. But in those 10, check this out: They beat the Giants by 7 and one point with a last-second touchdown; they beat Detroit with a game-ending field goal by two; they beat Philly by seven, a touchdown breaking a tie with 3:19 left, and then in overtime by six with Cooper's deflected catch for a TD; they beat Atlanta by three on Brett Maher's walk-off 42-yard field goal; beat the Saints by three, hanging on for dear life in the end thanks to Jourdan Lewis' interception with 1:58 left; and Tampa Bay by seven, needing to recover an onside kick with 2:05 left to preserve the victory.

Just not easy. Eight of those 10 victories were by no more than seven points, with a ninth by nine over Washington. The only team the Cowboys dominated last year was Jacksonville, 45-7.

As Garrett repeatedly tells us, this is the NFL we live in. The majority of these games are decided within one possession. Can't win 'em all, can't lose 'em all. Last year, the Cowboys lost two of those one-possession types by three points, one in overtime to Houston and the other to Washington, with the game-tying field-goal attempt bouncing off the left upright with time expiring.

This year, three of their four loses have been one-possession games, 12-10 to the Saints, 24-22 to the Jets when failing on a two-point conversion with 43 seconds left, and now 28-24 to the Vikings, first unable to score more than a field goal after first-and-goal at the 6-yard line in the fourth quarter down 28-21, and then failing to convert a first down on three attempts, starting with second-and-2 at the 11-yard line, on the very next possession.

Close calls evening out?

See, what we forget is the close-call victories. Accepting, hey, that's what we do. Clutch team.

But then we linger mightily on the close-call defeats. Insisting this team chokes, and when losing so opens teams to an endless barrage of second-guessing play calls, decisions to kick or not kick a field goal, belaboring this fumble or that interception, this play call on a two-point conversion or that fourth-down gamble, and for sure, still cringing over yielding a 92-yard touchdown pass, me included on that one.

"That's certainly something we emphasize to our team," Garrett says of making the plays to win the close ones, "and have to rectify going forward."

As you see, that's how you end up 5-4 heading into Detroit on Sunday, the tangible numbers be damned.

"The game is about winning close ones," Garrett says.

The Cowboys just haven't this year, but in their minds they still are that close, leave a little space between your thumb and forefinger. Yet, they do know the score.

"We're the Dallas Cowboys, the expectations are going to be high," says Jason Witten, in his 16th season of these NFL wars. "We've got to handle the 5-4, not what we expected.

"But we know that everything we want is in front of us."

And the Cowboys are well aware close only counts when you win.