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Spagnola: The Sorrow Of Hollow Possessions


TAMPA, Fla. – You knew it, didn't you? You just knew it.

Bad news was on the horizon here at Raymond James Stadium Thursday night when the Cowboys were forced to settle for a Greg Zuerlein 48-yard field goal to take a 29-28 lead.

Should have been a joyous moment. Instead came this sinking feeling. There still was 1:24 left on the clock.

And them others, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, those defending Super Bowl champs celebrating their title in grandiose fashion with flags, fireworks and walking trophies onto the field prior to the game, had Tom Brady on their side.

Like 84 seconds. A lifetime in this game of football for one so skilled. Yep. You just knew it.

And darn if Brady didn't do it again, driving the Buccaneers 57 yards to set up Ryan Succop's game-winning 36-yard field goal with two seconds to spare.

Man, the Cowboys had more first downs than the Brady-led Bucs. They had a higher percentage of third-down conversions, 52.9 percent to 45.5. They had more total yards, 451 to 431. They had more rushing yards, 60 to 52. They had more passing yards, 403 to 379. They had more takeaways, four to one, a plus-3. They possessed the ball for nearly 10 more minutes, 34:27 to 25:33.

But the Bucs had more of what counted most. Points. Two, the Cowboys losing, 31-29, in this highly entertaining NFL season opener before 65,566 spellbound folks.

But the Bucs didn't beat the Cowboys. Gosh darn it, the Cowboys, heavy underdogs in this opener, most betting on Tampa Bay to whoop last year's 6-10 team, beat themselves.


Say what?

Help me out, "Coop."

"When you have opportunities to score, you have to score," said Amari Cooper, who contributed two of the Cowboys' three touchdowns. "Can't win in this league kicking field goals."

How 'bout you, Dak?

"We've got to be better at it, point blank, period," the Cowboys main man, Dak Prescott said of red-zone failures, though reminding one and all doubting Thomases over his health and game-readiness just what the Cowboys missed in those final 11 games last year. "We can't settle for field goals and we've got to score touchdowns, especially with the talent we have. Whether it's running or throwing, we've got to find a way. We have to create some scheme, a little bit more scheme, and we'll go out there and execute better as well.

"We left some plays out there."


No, points. Lots of them. By my count, 15. Um, 15 plus 29 equals 44. Should have run the Bucs right into Tampa's bay.

Can't miss a 31-yard field goal that Greg Zuerlein did. That's three.

Can't settle for a field goal when you're first-and-10 at the Bucs' 21-yard line. That's four.

Can't miss an extra point, bouncing it off the upright. That's one more.

Can't come up empty at the end of the first half when reaching first-down at the Tampa Bay 21 with 1:15 left. That's at least three more.

And darn sure can't settle for a field goal when you're first-and-goal at the Tampa Bay 8-yard line. That's four more.

Add it up. Three plus four plus one plus at least three plus four more equals 15. Too many sorrowful possessions.

Mike McCarthy's stomach must have been turning while re-watching the tape of this one on the late-night flight home, knowing his team stood toe-to-toe with the champs. His quarterback, who had not played a game in 333 days or had a preseason-game snap, stood toe-toe with the Great One, trading haymakers back and forth – the two combining for 782 yards passing, most ever since the inception of this Week 1 kickoff game in 2002.

"I thought our guys fought like hell," McCarthy said.

They did. Dak did, and how foolish those insisting Dak would be rusty, that he might not even have been 100 percent recovered from the fractured and dislocated ankle of Oct. 11, 2020, or the mildly strained latissimus muscle keeping him out of the final three weeks of training camp.

In your face, Dak completing 42 of a career-high-tying 52 attempts, three touchdowns, one interception on a tipped ball that could have been caught by CeeDee Lamb and a passer rating of 101.4. Ha, and he even ran the ball four times, judicially though, for another 13 yards. Why, 13 of those completions went to Cooper for 139 yards, on the road, mind you. Another 104 yards to Lamb, but of all things he came up with a few uncharacteristic drops after his highlight-reel training camp, along with a couple of questionable routes.

Maybe now them pessimists will believe Dak when he says he's good to go.

"I don't say things just to say things," said Dak, not confrontationally but in all honesty.

But in the end, much like last year, the Cowboys needed to score at least 30 points to win. Twenty-nine wouldn't do.

Last year, the Cowboys gave up at least 31 points eight times. They managed to win three of those. But remember, in their last 15 wins, six last year, eight in 2019 and the last game of the 2018 season, the Cowboys scored at least 30 points. Haven't won a game during that stretch scoring less.

Now they have given up another 31.

Here was this revamped, seemingly revitalized defense's biggest problem: They did not get enough pressure on Brady. Yeah, OK, at times the ball was coming out quick. But sure didn't on that 47-yard bomb to Antonio Brown. Had the time of day in the pocket.

While the Cowboys did total four takeaways, one though, a half-ending 50-yard Hail Mary attempt that nearly turned into a Glory Be return by Jourdan Lewis, they did not sack Brady once. Only really touched him twice. Remember that talk about getting Brady off his spot? He sure didn't have to move much at all, completing only 32 of 50 passes but for 379 yards and four touchdowns.

The old football man still's got it, and never more obvious than in that game-winning 57-yard drive. Surgically he went 8 yards to Giovani Bernard. Then 4 more to Bernard. And just when the Cowboys appeared to have him backed into a corner, facing second-and-9 at his own 38-yard line, he finds his buddy Rob Gronkowski, he of two touchdown grabs, for 20 yards to the Cowboys' 42.

Then the back-breaker: Second-and-10, still at the 42, goes 24 yards to Chris Godwin, who got away with a Michael Irvin-esque separation shove on Lewis to the 18 with just 24 seconds left. Like seven plays, 57 yards. Ballgame, with Succop, after three purposeful time-consuming Brady throw-aways, hitting the 36-yard gimme for the win. If this was match play in golf, he would have been instructed to just pick it up.

So what could have been a storybook start to the 2021 season for the Cowboys, ends up being an old, sad tale. Giving up too many points. Struggling in the red zone, one of four, and oh-for-one in goal-to-go efficiency. Close, but no Cuban-rolled cigar.

Funny thing, all the factors most were worried about, Dak's ability to play, Connor McGovern having to start in place of COVID-infected Zack Martin, a run defense having to start rookie Osa Odighizuwa in place of the IR-ed Neville Gallimore at defensive tackle and the likes of Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh feasting on the middle of the Cowboys line, never came to fruition.

Suh totaled a half-tackle. Vea zeroed out. The Bucs ran for a modest 52 yards. McGovern held his own. And while Dak was pressured at times, he was only sacked once in a glad-to-have-you-back offensive line performance.

And Dak, as those of us having been watching him predicted, was Dak for sure.

Even afterward, when asked what he told Brady on the field after the game, he remained a defiant Dak.

"I think I told everybody we'd see them again," he said, a not so veiled reference to the playoffs. "And that's just the confidence that I have in this group. The expectations I have is this is a playoff team that is going to make a big push this year. We've got to continue to get better, and we'll make a step from tonight and we'll find a way to get better tomorrow."

And most of all, quit beating themselves.

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