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Spagnola: Should Have Known This Story Was Too Good To Be True

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Gosh darn, this had all the trimmings of a great holiday story.

         Cherub-looking quarterback Kellen Moore making his first NFL start here on a cold, rainy, dark, miserable Sunday afternoon.

         Inexperienced receiver Brice Butler playing a significant role for the first time as a Cowboy.

         First-year corner Deji Olatoye grabbing an end zone pick in his first NFL start, igniting the Cowboys fans huddled into Ralph Wilson Stadium.

         First-year nickel cornerback Terrance Mitchell breaking up a key fourth-down pass.

         Just-signed off the practice squad Casey Walker playing in his first NFL game, adding some heft to the middle of a defensive line being pummeled 40 times by the Buffalo running game.

         Second-year defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence recording a sack in his fourth consecutive game and seventh in the last eight for a team-leading eight.

         Darren McFadden rushing for 99 yards, just three short of his second 1,000-yard season in the NFL, inspiring for a guy who did not get more than 10 carries in any of the first five games.

         The Cowboys, more out of necessity than any sort of audition for next season, playing 16 players in no more than their second NFL season, seven of those actually starting.

         And there they were, hanging quite tough, trailing just 9-6 with 3:18 left in the third quarter and the ball at the Buffalo 26, first-and-10, in Dan Bailey makeable field-goal range, their furthest penetration since having to kick a field goal from the 4-yard line in the second quarter.

         OK, understood. They only were playing the Bills, the erstwhile 6-8 Bills who had lost their previous two games and four of the last five to fade out of playoff contention. But hey, the Cowboys had lost their last two and three of the last four, themselves mathematically eliminated from the low-rent NFC East. And, they were starting a fourth quarterback in a single season for the first time since 2001 and only the second time in franchise history.

         Oh, how this could have been one of those feel-good, post-Christmas storybook tales, maybe even a confidence booster for next year.

         But nooooo, this 2015 season of whatever can go wrong will go wrong rained on the Cowboys' own parade – again – the team heading home with a third consecutive loss and 10th in the 11 games started by quarterbacks not named Tony Romo.

          Bills eventually 16, Cowboys 6, the fourth time this season they have failed to score even one touchdown in a game, quite understandably now losing all four of those contests. This also is the fifth consecutive game the Cowboys have failed to score at least 20 points.

         Why, to that 3:18 point of the third quarter Moore had completed 9-of-20 pass attempts for 140 yards, with one of his passes dropped, one intentionally thrown away and one falling incomplete when the receiver fell, too.

         Not earth-shattering, but decent enough, having moved this impotent offense into at least field-goal range, if not touchdown range late in the third quarter of a tightly played game, certainly foreign territory for a team that had only scored four touchdowns in the previous 18 quarters.


         But here came the rain, figuratively and, well, literally since it had rained from the break of dawn all day here. Moore throws a quick slant pass to Butler, who by then had become his go-to guy, three catches for 64 yards, the three at that point already his single-game season high and matching his career high (2014, Oakland).

         The pass was a little behind and a little low. Bad combination. Butler managed to get his lankly arms back and his hands on the ball, but up popped the ball, right into the hands of awaiting linebacker AJ Tarpley for the can of corn interception on a play Moore and Butler had been burning the Bills on to that point.

         Drive killer.

         As it turned out, since the Cowboys never moved the ball further than the Buffalo 44 from there on, game killer.

         And icing that potential heartwarming, story, too.

         Oh, the young and inexperienced.

         At one point in the third quarter, here who was on the field for the Cowboys defense: rookie safety Byron Jones, first-year corner Mitchell, first-year corner Olatoye, rookie Randy Gregory, second-year end Lawrence and the rookie tackle Walker, just signed off the practice squad for Christmas.

         More than half the defense.

         And if you considered the offense, with second-year starter Zack Martin and rookie La'el Collins on the line, Moore starting at quarterback for the first time in his four-year career, rookie free agent Lucky Whitehead at times running at receiver, Butler playing his most snaps in the last nine games, just a third-year player, and the rookie Geoff Swaim playing at tight end as well, that's a whole lot of youth out there.

         A bright look at the future, but the pains that come with growth.

         And despite all that, despite the interception and ragged offense, the Cowboys continued to hang one, still trailing 9-6 until Buffalo speedster Mike Gillislee romped 50 yards for the game-clinching touchdown with just 2:25 remaining.

         Kind of a shame, no, but sort of the same story of this season, an offense that can't score and a defense that hangs and hangs, but can't seem to get that one more necessary stop down the stretch.

         "Some of those guys stepped up," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said of his relative NFL babies. "Obviously, Kellen got the chance to play the whole game at quarterback. I think we saw him do some good things. I thought he operated well in the game. It's unfortunate we didn't get enough going in the passing game to keep the drives alive and score some points.

         "It's a good opportunity to see those young guys play and compete. Good tape to evaluate. The big story of the game, I thought we did a good job scratching, clawing and hanging in there. But at the end of the ball game, we didn't do what we needed to do to win the game."

         Moore would finish just 13-of-31 for 186 yards, one pick and a passer rating of 48.6, sure making it look worse than it was, but showing signs he should be around next year to at least compete for the backup job.

         Once again the defense held an opponent to no more than 19 points for the seventh time, but winning only two of those with an offense scoring no more than 20 points in 11-of-15 games, Romo starting two of the four they did.

         So good on them.

         Just too bad the Cowboys couldn't have their cake and eat it, too … as far as storybook endings go.

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