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Spagnola: This Looked All Too Familiar


FRISCO, Texas – Arrrgghhh.

Am I right?

Best I can do using King's English.

New year, same as the old year. And you'd hate to think this is in the Cowboys DNA, though it's only a one-game sample for this 2020 season, albeit just the opener in a year many thought the season would never open. And as new head coach Mike McCarthy said afterward, this one game only proves the Cowboys won't be going 16-0.

But think about it. As that ol' saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Like, what were the main reasons the Cowboys didn't win more than eight games in 2019, despite having the NFL's No. 1 total offense and the No. 2 passing offense?

Well, they didn't win one game last season scoring less than 30 points. Not one, and they didn't score 30 points Sunday night at that fancy SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., where a fan-less stadium didn't afford the Los Angeles Rams any sort of home-field advantage.

And in those close shaves last season, ending up one-possession games, separated by no more than eight points, the Cowboys were 1-6, losing two games by two points, two games by four points and two games by seven points, winning just the eight-pointer.

And here we go again, losing 20-17 to L.A. in a game that was just begging to be stolen by Dallas. A game in which the Rams had the ball for 13 minutes, 26 seconds more than the Cowboys, produced 42 more total yards, more than doubled the Cowboys' 25 percent third-down conversion rate, outrushed Dallas 153 to 136 and scored points on four of their first five full possessions, and the one they didn't resulted in a shamefully missed 29-yard field-goal attempt banging resoundingly off the left upright.

Yet …

And here we go again – again – after suffering through mediocre field-goal kicking for 13 games last year, the Cowboys lose by three after new kicker Greg Zuerlein goes 1-for-2, though the miss was from 53 yards, but again, in just a three-point loss.

Then the coaching decisions, where the Cowboys were criticized often last year for being too conservative, and then in this one, down 20-17 with still 11:46 left to play and facing a fourth-and-3 from the Rams 11-yard line, McCarthy boldly decides to go for it on fourth down, trying to give his team a chance for the lead instead of settling for what would have been a near-automatic 29-yard field goal – shorter than even an extra point these days. And of all things, a drag route to rookie CeeDee Lamb gains just 2 yards, calling it himself a "mistake by a rookie."


Do not scoff at such a suggestion. Because what comes next enters us into the Twilight Zone.

You saw it. We saw it, having to cover this game off television screens here at The Star since COVID-19 protocols put limits on the size of the team's travel party and expanded caution into safety. Saw it real time. Saw it slow-mo. Saw it from the front, and saw it from the back. Saw the overhead. Over and over again.

Kidding me, still trailing 20-17 with just 31 seconds left, facing a third-and-10 from their own 34-yard line, Dak Prescott buys some time and decides what the hey, throws deep down the left sideline, one of the few nine routes the Cowboys tried to complete. Basically is was one of those 50-50 balls, may the best man win.

And there is Michael Gallup, running step for step with Rams top cornerback Jalen "Brinks Truck" Ramsey, the two hand-fighting while tracking the ball. Ramsey is trying to block Gallup's right arm. Gallup is gaining leverage with that arm on Ramsey's chest. Gallup separates and when Ramsey loses a step, he throws his head back _after_ he was beaten, faking as if Gallup pushed off. But all he did was hold him off.

Flags come out, not when the separation occurs, but after Gallup catches the 47-yard pass and stumbles to the ground inside the 20, a good 10 yards after the contact. Maybe the delay was caused by officials replaying the play in their heads since they no longer have the ability to replay a play that begged for video review. Who knows?

If ever the Cowboys needed a sky judge.

Now look, I realize this is L.A. Hollywood is not far off. Neither is Universal Studios. Ramsey should be nominated for an Oscar. Best Actor in a Stunt Role. And the officials bought it.

Said McCarthy after the game, prefacing his comments with not having seen the replay, "Looking at it live, it looked like two guys hand-fighting. It was well executed. I was surprised there was a call there, either way. I'm obviously very disappointed in the call, particularly at that point in the game. I thought they let both teams play tonight, and you just don't usually see that particularly at a critical point in the game."

Even Dak, try as hard as he may to be politically correct when talking of the play, said, "We had a bad call, er, an unfortunate call I should say, on the ball to MG."

No, Dak, you should say what you said.

Worse, when answering pool reporter questions over the play that would have left the Cowboys first-and-10 around the 15-yard line with 21 seconds left to third-and-20 from their own 24 thanks to the 10-yard penalty, referee Tony Corrente said, "I can tell you it was clear and obvious on the field, of a hand into the opposing player. A full arm extension that created separation. In all situations that would be called. We're not going to allow that at any time of the game."

When pressed if there might have been anything the defensive player did, too, trying to impede Gallup's progress by locking down his right arm, Corrente disagreed, of course, "Clearly. There were two officials from two different angles that had a very good look at it, and they didn't hesitate whatsoever. It was that clear and obvious."

Maybe to those two, until they see the replay, since NBC's officiating analyst Terry McAuley begged to differ with that analysis on the TV broadcast after having the benefit of replays, saying, "I see a clear extend and separation. I don't see him forcibly push him off."

Yeah, neither did the rest of us.

But these types of things seem to happen to the Cowboys, yet that's what happens when consistently playing in these tight, one-possession games. One play. One decision. One call. That's all it takes to tilt the balance of the outcome of one-possession games.

And it's a shame. Dak played well enough to win this game, his 92.5 QB rating much higher than counterpart Jared Goff's 79.4. And even at that mediocre number needed the benefit of a bunch of swing passes to backs and screens to wide receivers. Ezekiel Elliott ran for 96 yards and had 127 yards from scrimmage on 25 touches.

Now, who suggested that with McCarthy around, Elliott's touches will go down? Raise your hand high.

And Amari Cooper caught 10 balls for 81 yards – and who said he can't play on the road?

And what about Aldon Smith, he the one reinstated after missing the past four seasons under NFL indefinite suspension. All Smith did was tie for the Cowboys' lead with 11 tackles, one tackle for a loss, one sack and two QB hits on 54 snaps (74 percent). And in this, his first game played since Nov. 15 of 2015.

Plus, how about this: The Cowboys actually had an interception by a cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie picking off Goff, an assist going to Smith for heavy pressure, all setting up a Zuerlein field goal.

But no matter what, the Cowboys didn't win a game many thought two months ago would never be played.

"No. 1, you have to win, and we needed to find a way to win that game tonight, and we didn't get that done. We've got to make sure we walk away from this opportunity and learn from it, and be better for our home opener that's in seven day," McCarthy said of Sunday's upcoming game against Atlanta at AT&T Stadium. "That's the reality for where we are. The only thing we won't accomplish is a 16-0 season, that is the only thing that is guaranteed.

"Everything else is in front of us."

And that's a good thing. Because looking back appears all too familiar.

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