Spagnola: One 17-Second Hurdle Far Too High


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Seventeen seconds changed the course of this game.

Seventeen seconds very well could have changed the course of this once-promising but now debatable 2019 season.

Just 17 bleeping seconds.

Why, the Cowboys nearly overcame playing without their two starting offensive tackles, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins.

They nearly overcame playing all but one series without two of their top three wide receivers, Amari Cooper, the NFL's second leader in receiving yards after five games joining Randall Cobb (back) on the sideline when a troublesome quad ended his afternoon.

They nearly overcame finishing the game without two of their top three cornerbacks, first Anthony Brown's day ending with a tweaked hammy, followed by Byron Jones sent hobbling off with another balky hamstring. And throw in the loss of defensive end Dorance Armstrong early in the first quarter, depleting the defensive line ranks to seven healthy bodies.

They also nearly overcame Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, in his first game since a case of mono sidelined him for the past three, throwing for 338 yards and one touchdown.

Or the erstwhile winless New York Jets scoring a season-high 24 points, with a season-high three touchdowns – all the in first half – with a season-high 382 total yards – more than doubling their previous four-game average.

Or Brett Maher, maker of three field goals, including the career-tying long from 62 yards, missing another shorty, this one from 40 yards.

Or another badly missed call in the end zone for a phantom offensive pass interference on Cedrick Wilson wiping out a Dak Prescott 4-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten that turned into a 32-yard field goal, a difference of four points, provoking even CBS analyst Tony Romo to remark, "That's a bad call," after watching the replay.

Probably sense the operative word here is _nearly_, since the Cowboys _nearly_ won another game, losing by merely two points, Jets 24, Cowboys 22, marking the first time since Games 9-11 in the 2017 season that they have lost three consecutive games. And get this, it's the first time they have lost two games by those measly two points in a single season since 1986 – 33 years ago – and now this happening twice in three weeks within a six-game span.

"We haven't played well enough to win, it's as simple as that," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said, taking the high road, though looking afterward as if he had been through a washer wring cycle for the second game in a row with his team first trying to recover from a 31-3 deficit against the Packers a week ago and then a 21-3 second-quarter deficit before 78,523 here at MetLife on a phenomenal fall Sunday.

All evening the Cowboys record at 3-3, yet still tied with the equally 3-3 Philadelphia Eagles for first in the NFC East, the two teams bumping heads this coming Sunday night at AT&T Stadium to presumably break the deadlock, short of a tie.

"It's unacceptable for us to give up that many points," Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith said of the 21 in the first half, and then limiting the now 1-4 Jets to just three in the second half, but those killer three coming with just 3:24 left in the game and a mere seven plays after the Cowboys had narrowed the score to 21-16.

You know, it really is unacceptable, and any way you cut it, that's 58 points in the past two games, 38 of those in the first halves. Last week susceptible to the run; this week susceptible to the pass.

But still, those 17 seconds, along with an untimed play, still totaling 17 seconds, created a chasm too wide for the Cowboys to hurdle in this game loaded with predisposed fear since at some point, and especially with Darnold back on the field, the Jets were going to eventually win one game. Just didn't want it to be you they beat.

So let's recall those mighty painful 17 seconds, just 3:51 left in the second quarter. The Cowboys were trailing a manageable 7-0, but having struggled mightily to move the ball with Cam Fleming and Brandon Knight starting at the tackle positions. And the Jets were blitzing the heck out of the Cowboys to make matters worse, Prescott getting hit as hard as we've seen in his career.

Second-guessers have a field day.

Because of their struggles to move the ball, Garrett decided they just couldn't pass up their first prime opportunity to score a touchdown with the ball on the precipice of the goal line, facing a fourth-and-2 from the Jets' 7-yard line. Nor should he have, sensing how this game was unfolding and knowing their offensive limitations with four of their best offensive players standing next to him on the sideline.

"We just felt like we had a chance to get it," Garrett said of eschewing the, well, we think, gimme field goal. "You want to be aggressive in that situation."

So the Cowboys went for it, thinking at the very least they could pick up the darn 2 yards and a first down. Dak kept the ball on the shotgun snap, running to his left from a three-receiver set. But both tackles were defeated at the line of scrimmage, and Dak was smothered by defensive end Leonard Williams and safety Jamal Adams for a loss of 1.

Jets ball.

And oh, what a ball it was, making you think Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, who trotted out before the game with the Jets celebrating their All-Time Team, had transported his 76-year-old body back onto the field. For it took Darnold just one play,12 seconds, to hook up with wide receiver Robby Anderson for a 92-yard touchdown, the second longest in Jets history and the longest since 1986. And get this, an opponent's second longest against the Cowboys in their 60-year history, only two short of the 94-yarder from the Giants' Norm Sneed to Rich Houston in 1972 – 47 flipping years ago.

This a shocking about face, leaving an indelible pock mark on this game.

Just 17 seconds, the struggling Cowboys going from stubbornly trying to score a touchdown once inside the 10-yard line for the tie to suddenly trailing 14-naught, Anderson beating Chidobe Awuzie on a double move and safety Jeff Heath, in single-safety high coverage, not closing fast enough and just missing a diving tackle at midfield.

"I think it was a big spark," said Anderson, who finished the game with five catches for 125 yards when he had just 11 for 131 yards in the first four games. "Hopefully it's a turning point in our season. I think that play gave everyone a lot of energy. I think we gained a lot of momentum off of it."

You think?

The gamble was a wise one on Garrett's part because it wasn't until with just 6:30 left to play that the Cowboys scored their first touchdown on Ezekiel Elliott's powerful 5-yard run, narrowing the Jets lead to 21-16. And the second TD, on Dak's keeper from the 4, wasn't scored until 59 minutes, 17 seconds had expired, the quarterback running through Marcus Maye and Blake Cashman.

Despite all the struggles, Cowboys down just two, 24-22, and earning the right to go for two and the tie with just those precious 43 seconds left.

The Cowboys went three wide and one tight, then empty when Zeke motioned out. The Jets once again blitzed, this time Adams coming untouched right up the gut. Dak had no time to look around, trying to hit tight end Jason Witten on a quick hook at the goal line.

Marcus Maye was grabbing Witten from behind. Dak's pass came in understandably low as he was getting belted by Adams. Incomplete.

"They sent one more than we could block," said Dak of Adams crashing free, since all five lineman had picked up the five Jets defensive players rushing, before nobly adding, "I've got to put the ball in a better place."

As for Witten, somewhat upset with the no-call while on the field, he said, "It was a bang, bang play. They blitzed in the middle and (Dak) tried to hang in there as long as he could."

That's two plays, the one on fourth down from the 7, and this one for the tying two, at least five points if not nine left on the field.

Thus, 24-22, the Cowboys barely losing. Again.

Those 17 seconds not to be forgotten.