Spagnola: Paying Once Again For Transgressions

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Outmuscled.

That simple.

No team wants to hear that. No player wants to hear that. No coach wants to hear that.

But think about this, and look it’s hard, because the Cowboys, especially the offense, did a lot of really good things here Sunday night at an aroused up AT&T Stadium.

Dak Prescott threw for 397 yards and three touchdowns, and somehow managed to only get sacked twice in the face of all those blitzes the Vikings threw at him, along with getting hit nine times attempting passes.

Amari Cooper, four days after having an MRI on his bum knee, caught 11 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown, his full body leans on the sideline for three catches putting the Leaning Tower of Pisa to shame.

Randall Cobb had six catches for 106 yards, including a grand over-the-head grab for a touchdown that finally was not called back because of a penalty.

The offense totaled 443 yards, nearly 80 more than Minnesota and seven more than their NFL-leading average.

And the defense, having given up five scores on the Vikings’ first seven possessions, finally got a critical stop late in the fourth quarter, giving the Cowboys a chance for a come-from-behind victory.

But the Vikings, winners of four of their last five games, basically said, nope, not on our watch.

Vikings 28, Cowboys 24, the Cowboys losers of this 60-minute, arm-wrestle of a match.

Another one of those dirty, rotten shame losses haunting the Cowboys nine games into the season, making this three losses by a grand total of eight points, dropping them to 5-4 and into a first-place tie with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East.

The hurt in this one runs deep.

“We’ve just got to do better,” a disenchanted DeMarcus Lawrence said after suffering a third loss to a team with a winning record.

Now, there are a lot of reasons for this latest loss. Real reasons. Not second guesses. Not perceptions. But solid tangible reasons.

Yep, another slow start, the Vikings up 14-0 before all of the 91,188 folks had settled in their seats. This marks the seventh time in nine games the Cowboys have trailed at the outset, and for the fourth time they have been unable to crawl out of the hole, even though they managed to tie the Vikings, 14-14, only to allow a 67-yard drive in the final 1:54 of the first half for a Vikings’ Dan Bailey chip-shot 26-yard field goal for a 17-14 lead.

The Cowboys could \not\ run the ball. Not even a little. Ezekiel Elliott could only manage 47 yards on 20 carries, his longest run but 6 yards, and it wasn’t as if the Vikings were playing eight in the box. They handled the Cowboys’ running game with seven-man or six-man fronts with the Cowboys trying in three-receiver sets, too.

And get this: For only the third time in the franchise’s now 60-season history, the Cowboys did not have even one measly run for a first down, the most current occurrence Dec. 30, 2007, when the Cowboys didn’t even bother to play the majority of their starters in the meaningless final game loss to Washington in that 13-3 season.

You want to know what else?

To find the first and only other time that has occurred, you have to go back to Nov. 11, 1970, against Philadelphia, like right at 50 seasons ago to the date. For real.

Then there was the Cowboys inability in the second half to stop the run. The Vikings piled up 153 yards rushing in the game, and the NFL’s leading rusher, Dalvin Cook (991 yards in 10 games), after running for just 27 yards on nine carries in the first half, went for 73 on 14 second-half carries before losing 4 yards on his final three with the Vikings simply trying to run the clock down in the final minute and the Cowboys out of their timeouts.

Nothing fancy. Just lined up and said, \mush.\ You will be hard-pressed to see as many runs out of two-tight end formations in an NFL game. Or two-tight end, one-fullback formations. Or three tight ends and one wide receiver formations. Just bullied their way past the Cowboys, reminiscent of last year’s losses to Indianapolis and the L.A. Rams in the playoffs, and then this year’s losses to New Orleans and Green Bay. Remember Aaron Jones?

Wonder what the anal analytic dudes think of that old-school strategy?

As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the game, “They came out here and physically took it to us.

“Can’t say enough of how ‘Zimm’ coached them up.”

He refers to Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, the 13-year Cowboys assistant, including the last seven as the defensive coordinator, who could care less what the numbers geeks have to say.

But certainly the focus for this loss will be the three-play sequence late in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys, trailing, 28-24, having driven from their own 6-yard line to a second-and-2 at the Vikings’ 11. You remember the movie, \The Longest Yard\? Well, these will go down as the \longest 2 yards\.

Hold on for a second. Before we go here, let’s back up a bit. The Cowboys were trailing, 28-21, with two seconds left in the third quarter. They would drive 69 yards to a first-and-goal at the Vikings’ 6-yard line. Zeke picked up 1 yard on first down. Then defensive tackle Shemar Stephen pressured Prescott so hard that he had to throw the ball away. And then on third-and-goal at the 5, Dak tried to rifle the ball into the end zone for Jason Witten. But safety Harrison Smith collided with Witten, who fell to the ground, along with the pass, incomplete, the Cowboys having to settle for a Brett Maher field goal, failing to score on a goal-to-go opportunity.

Uh, leaving four huge points on the field. Do the math in the end.

So that brings us to the second-and-2 at the 11-yard line, now just 1:33 to play. And here is where Dak said, “You don’t want to leave too much time on the clock for them, so I’m not going to question the calling.”

He’s not, but guarantee you everyone else is. Maybe the Cowboys got a tad too greedy here, wanting to score the go-ahead touchdown, but just not right away. For the next play was a Zeke run out of three-wide, with the Vikings in a 4-2 front. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly, lining up on the left side, comes through clean, teaming with linebacker Eric Kendricks to tackle Zeke for no gain.

Now third-and-2. “It was just an RPO,” Zeke says, referring to a run-pass-option. Dak chose the run, handing off to Zeke. But big problem.

Defensive tackle Ifeadi Odenigbo was playing run the whole time because, as he says, “I could just tell by their stances that there might be some run play. They thought they had a vulnerable spot and so right before the play, I thought they were going to run some play at me. I was able to do a quick move inside the guard.”

He means Cowboys left guard Connor Williams. He got an initial hit on Odenigbo with his right shoulder but moved on to find a linebacker. Center Travis Frederick was moving to his left, but didn’t get there soon enough, and the backup defensive tackle nailed Zeke for a 3-yard loss, back to the 14.

“Really wasn’t anywhere to go,” Zeke said quite truthfully. There wasn’t.

Yet one last time the Vikings outmuscled the Cowboys.

And on fourth down, still needing to get to the 9-yard line for a first down, the Cowboys went empty and Dak thought he had an advantage with Zeke running a little out from the slot. The slight advantage was closed by a diving Kendricks, deflecting the ball away around the 8 and sending the Cowboys season into critical care.

And how ironic, the franchise on the losing end of the first-ever “Hail Mary,” Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson, 50 yards for a playoff win that 1975 season, yet again were facing a Cowboys’ certain Hail Mary with 3 seconds left.

Dak let fly, and this time it was Zimmer doing the praying.

When asked what was going through his mind as Dak threw the ball, Zimmer said, “Please … please … Hail Mary full of grace.”

This time, the gods were with thee.

And the Cowboys were paying penance for going 1-for-3 in the red zone scoring touchdowns, and 0-for-1 in goal-to-go situations, kicking one too many field goals, then again, one too few.

Plus, worst of all, losing the tug of war on both lines of scrimmage.

Amen.

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