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Spagnola: Paying Dearly For Going Off-Script


PHILADELPHIA – You know that age-old saying about how one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch?

Well, the Cowboys found out beyond a shadow of doubt that one bad quarter of football in the NFL will test the limits of your resiliency, will turn the undaunted into daunted and spoil what had been an early season lark.

In fact, in 20 minutes, 44 seconds of football time Sunday night here at an electrified Linc and in the city where the U.S. Constitution was signed, the Cowboys violated their very own 2022 scripted constitution that had carried them to a four-game winning streak without their starting quarterback Dak Prescott.

Play great defense. They did enough for nearly three quarters of football against the NFL's No. 2 offense. Not good enough. Ah, but this game of NFL football demands four quarters.

Don't commit turnovers. Well, they did so three times, their first during the erstwhile four-game losing streak, every dang one of them costly, along with a failed fourth-and-1 gamble in their own territory.

Run the football to control the clock. They didn't run for squat in the first half, 45 yards.

Make sure your backup quarterback doesn't single-handedly need to win the game, sort of like what took place the previous Sunday in Los Angeles, when 101 passing yards, just 10 completions and a mere 10 first downs were good enough to win a game against even the defending Super Bowl champion Rams. In this one they demanded more than they received.

Play solid special teams. Well, aside from a holding penalty and being offsides on a kickoff, they almost did, Turpin Time nearly bailing out this unconstitutional performance by the Cowboys on a couple of occasions, a slip to the ground likely costing him his first NFL touchdown on the opening kickoff.

Dig no holes so deep a challenged offense can't dig out. Guilty of another constitutional violation.

Thus, the Cowboys got buried but good before 69,897 mostly Eagles fans jacked up as early as late afternoon, already tuning up their patented booing chords with the Cowboys moving from their downtown hotel to the awaiting buses parked on the curb heading to Lincoln Financial Field, where double thumbs down and double middle fingers up were greeting them.

Eagles 26, Cowboys 17.

About the only good things to take place when breaking your four-game winning streak, falling to 4-2, two games behind the still undefeated Eagles (6-0), and into third place in the NFC East behind the 5-1 Giants, too, and being humbled in this bitter and growing more bitter rivalry, were these:

The Cowboys didn't give up. Never gave up, having trimmed a 20-0 deficit to 20-17 in the fourth quarter, causing many a seat in the stadium, as well as any of those high-flying Eagles seated on the benches, to be squirmed in.

And, if a pre-, pregame throwing session means as much as a 50-throw performance appears, Dak will be ready to jump back into practice with both feet and sure seems like two healthy thumbs too when the Cowboys resume on Thursday in preparation for the upcoming Detroit game. QB1 was that impressive throwing the ball for roughly 25 minutes, spinning that sucker with his usual velocity and marksmanship accuracy, first throwing against air, then throwing to receivers running routes.

Oh, and taking snaps from real centers, only a bare minimum of that black elastic athletic tape merely holding everything tight around the bottom of his thumb and his wrist, doing nothing to hamper his throwing.

Told me he graded himself "an A, but want to get to A-plus."

Passed my inspection, and that of his inspecting coaches and members of the front office, one and all, especially Dak, breaking out in smiles at the conclusion, head coach Mike McCarthy declaring, "I thought he took the next step."

Might have been a helluva night if not for that 20-minute uncharacteristic gap that cost them this game.

"Just goes to show that you've got to play all four quarters," Cooper Rush said after the first NFL loss of his six start NFL career. "You can't start that slow."

Slow as maybe those new-born sea turtles emerging from their birth nests and crawling in the sand toward the ocean, for sure.

After giving up no more than one touchdown in each of their first five games of the season, the Cowboys, with not much going on offensively, allowed the Eagles to march 80 yards on 15 plays, hogging the ball for 7:36 and converting two fourth downs – the second on a fourth-and-4 from the 10-yard line on a neutral zone infraction – for a touchdown at the outset of the second quarter for a 7-0 lead.

Followed by a calamity of errors.

Rush was intercepted for the first time this season on a tipped ball thrown into double-coverage on the very next play from scrimmage, setting up Jalen Hurts' 15-yard touchdown pass to an in-motion A.J. Brown on a busted coverage. Suddenly 14-zip in a span of 4:07.

Then after deciding not to challenge a short-sheeted spot by a half-yard on CeeDee Lamb's third down catch, a failed fourth down gamble from their own 34 set up the Eagles for a 51-yard field goal after gaining but one yard to help their cause less than three minutes later. Now 17-naught.

And as if that all were not enough, Rush was intercepted a second time on the next possession leading to another Jake Elliott field goal. Now 20-nothing with still 1:47 left in the half.

But, and we know a loss is a loss, the Cowboys at least didn't throw in the towel. They began the long dig out, and to their credit nearly found daylight 21 seconds into the fourth quarter, Rush hitting rookie tight end Jake Ferguson (with Dalton Schultz ruled out after complaining of knee soreness) on a seven-yard pass, he deftly navigating his was into the end zone. Now 20-17, 14:39 left to play.

"I think there is always value when someone cracks you in the jaw and you fight back and have a chance to win the game," McCarthy said of the staged comeback. "Absolutely. That is what this league is all about. And frankly you can't get to where we want to go without going through it."

This is where the defense had to excel after forcing the Eagles to punt on their two previous third quarter possessions. But with the pressure on, and Hurts going shotgun on the next 13 plays, the Eagles converting three successive third down-plays, Hurts completing four of four passes for 43 yards and running three times for 10, all ending with his seven-yard TD pass to DeVonta Smith.

The 24-year-old QB has grown up.

"That's what I love about him," Philly head coach and play-caller Nick Sirianni said of Hurts. "He just goes and plays the next play and made a big play on third-and-4, I think, when we didn't have anybody open and made a play with his legs. He controlled the offense. He used the clock. I've said this before: He was in complete control and communicating with what our message was to the offensive line or the running backs in that scenario."

Then this happens. Rush gets intercepted the third time, but this time not his fault. He gets belted by defensive end Brandon Graham, who had done little to that point in the game with 5:16 left to play, only an assisted tackle. But Graham cleanly beats Cowboys rookie left tackle Tyler Smith, and if that doesn't happen, Rush is going to hit a wide open Lamb for a 60-yard touchdown pass with still five minutes to play.

But Graham hits Rush just as he's throwing the ball, the wobbling pass coming up short. Short enough for safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson to make a diving interception.

Turn out the lights.

The Cowboys eventually ran for 134 yards, only two less than the Eagles. Rush did end up throwing for 181 yards, 34 more than Hurts, who was sacked four times to Rush's zero.

But two of the three interceptions led to 10 points. The third cost the Cowboys a touchdown. Add it up. The Cowboys lost by nine. And the other Eagles field goal came after the Cowboys were stopped on fourth down, trailing 14-0 and feeling the need to gamble.

This time the Cowboys could not overcome, having deviated too far from their winning blueprint, too heavy of a burden.

And usually there is punishment imposed for breaking the constitution.

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