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Spagnola: Not Running Out Of Gas The Only Hope


ARLINGTON, Texas – And all the momentum, all the emotion the Cowboys recently mustered up ended in embarrassing sorrow.

Washington 41, Cowboys 16.

The Cowboys must hope all they lost is a game here on Thanksgiving Day at AT&T Stadium, their eighth in 11 tries, and before the eyes of a national television audience.

Cringe now.

But they might have lost the season, losing any hope of making something out of this lousy 2020.

Cringe again.

Not only do the Cowboys drop to 3-8 with a resounding thud, but even worse, to 1-3 in the equally lousy NFC East. Yeah, I know, they might only trail the 4-7 Washingtons by one game. But the problem is they've now lost both games to the Football Team, meaning if this would come down to tiebreakers they really are now two games back with only five games remaining.

The reason for such dire straits?

Either the Cowboys got too cute.

Or they grew too desperate out of their own anxiety.

Might have been a little bit of both.

The amazing thing about this game, Washington beating the Cowboys for only the second time in 10 Thanksgiving Day matchups, is with 2:32 left in the third quarter the Cowboys only trailed 20-16, and were a dropped pass in the end zone from being tied 20-20.

And we turn to wide receiver Amari Cooper, who might have said it best afterward, seemingly emotionally drained, "We tried the best we could to fight through the adversity."

He means going through the emotional roller-coaster of coming off a big win over Minnesota on Sunday, and then finding out Markus Paul, the team's beloved strength and conditioning coach, suffered a medical emergency Tuesday morning in the weight room and was rushed to a nearby hospital.

Then those draining lingering hours afterward, Mike McCarthy canceling Tuesday's practice and the team then finding out late Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours prior to kickoff, that Paul passed away at the age of 54.

"I just think we suffered a tremendous loss and we were obviously saddened by it," Cooper said. "I honestly couldn't put it in words. I don't know how to describe it in terms of how it affected us on the field. I would just say we lost our head strength coach, a guy that we all loved, and then we still had a scheduled game that we had to come out and play.

"So, we obviously had to attend it, and we tried to do the best that we could to fight through it mentally."

And it appeared they just might, taking the opening kickoff right down field for a field goal, then answering Washington's touchdown with one of their own, Andy Dalton's 54-yard touchdown pass to "Coop" giving them a 10-7 lead.

But doggoneit, and I pointed this out on Wednesday, writing, _How much must one team endure?_

Was told afterward by someone walking down the hallway at The Star, don't even ask.

Well, I shouldn't have. Because even though this was the first time in eight games the Cowboys were starting the same five on the offensive line two consecutive weeks, and there seemed to be some pregame solidarity with that banged up unit, all standing on the line in attention for the tribute to Markus and then one by one hugging each other in a circle after the national anthem, things splintered.

Just six plays into the game the Cowboys lost starting left tackle Cam Erving to a knee injury, he the third different starter this season at left tackle and seemingly for an extended period of time with a sprained MCL. Again.

Unbelievably, five darn plays later, down goes the team's Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin, who successfully had been moved to right tackle in Sunday's game, the veteran glue to this unit. Gone, calf injury, sounding as if for multiple weeks now.

Back to the past. Brandon Knight, who initially took over for the injured Tyron Smith and Erving at the start of the season, comes in to play left tackle. Terence Steele, the undrafted rookie who was finally replaced by Martin at right tackle after struggling mightily as would be expected, is back at right tackle. Joe Looney already had taken over for rookie center Tyler Biadasz, who basically won that starting job with Looney injured. And Conner McGovern was making his second NFL start at right guard, and might as well be a rookie since he spent all of 2019 on IR.

What a mess.

And Washington knew it. Remembered how they ravaged the Cowboys front the first time around with their talented front four up against the inexperienced Cowboys with Martin missing that game, too. Well, here they came, with their five first-round draft choices on that front.

And I swear this Cowboys coaching staff, surely being accused of making some bonehead gambles, saw what was transpiring. Poor Dalton. His time in the pocket was decreasing greatly as the game went on, suffering three sacks, seven QB hits and the Cowboys nailed six times on tackles for losses.

So tied 10-10 with 5:22 left in the first half, facing fourth-and-inches at their own 34-yard line, McCarthy gambled. He went for it. But not with a QB sneak or Ezekiel Elliott. A quick pass to CeeDee Lamb, blatantly interfered with by Ronald Darby breaking up the ball. No call. Worse, tight end Dalton Shultz, after throwing Chase Young to the ground while pass blocking, then tried to bury him. Personal foul, 15 yards.

Washington ball at the Cowboys' 19. Touchdown Washington.

Follow that would be another gamble from the 50 on fourth-and-1. Dalton converts. But the drive stalls at the 14-yard line. Field goal. But that's OK, right? Cowboys ball to start the second half.

More adversity. Zeke, trying to dive for extra yards and a first down, loses the ball. Wasn't even hit at his own 33-yard line. Field goal Washington, 20-13.

More adversity.

Even with something good happening, Jaylon Smith intercepts an Alex Smith pass at the Washington 47, appearing on his way to tying up the game, if not for wide receiver Terry McLaurin chasing him down at the four. And here is where your offensive line comes into play.

Zeke run, minus-2, barely able to take the handoff in time. Time to try some trickery. End-around to Lamb, looking to throw the ball. Sack. Minus-4. Quick screen left to Lamb. Incomplete. Field goal, now down that 20-16.

And here comes the ballgame. McCarthy knew he needed to steal a possession somewhere. The Cowboys had stopped Washington the previous possession. But Tress Way punted the Cowboys dead at the 12-yard line. The pressure was mounting. And on a third-and-3 from their own 31, Dalton was sacked. Fourth-and-10 from the 24.

Time to gamble again, 12:21 left in the game?

"I was starting to project how many series we had left in the game," McCarthy said the next day. "Our run defense was part of that evaluation. … That's why I felt the need – the opportunity would be there for us to make a big play.

"Especially the way the flow of the game was going at that point.

As for owner Jerry Jones the next morning:

"Our coach and our coaches thought we were teetering, and we were having real limitations in certain areas and we needed, the old proverbial, to pull one out."

So time for some tomfoolery.

Tried a direct snap to upback Darian Thompson, who flips the ball to Cedrick Wilson coming around. Khaleke Hudson and Cole Luke didn't get sucked in. Wilson wanted to throw the ball, but option one was covered (punter Hunter Niswander) and option two, well, with a guy in his face, Wilson didn't see C.J. Goodwin floating down the right sideline all by himself. So he tries to run. Gets smothered.

Washington ball at the Cowboys' 23-yard line. First play Antonio Gibson goes untouched for a touchdown, 27-16 Washington, exactly what McCarthy was sensing going on with his run defense.


When asked about the gamble, McCarthy defended his call, saying, "You obviously understand on fourth down calls what your options are. You either convert it or don't convert it. You always know that going in. There's flow of the game and all those things that factor into the decision."

Yeah, and the flow was going upstream. Prior to that gamble, Washington had gone touchdown, field goal, touchdown, field goal, interception, punt, then touchdown, touchdown.

The defense began crumbling. Diminishing returns happening on the offensive line. Dalton under pressure. Couldn't run.

You know, this team just ran out of gas.

How much must one team endure?

"I can't say enough about how the team went out there and competed," McCarthy said on Friday. "And I'll say this, truly honest here: I had no idea how we were going to play, and that's a feeling you never have as a coach.

"We started the game, and immediately had some adversity and our guys kept battling. They gave it everything they had, and I appreciate that."

So should everyone else.

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