Offseason | 2022

Spagnola: Why Playoff Loss Is Most Regrettable

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FRISCO, Texas – There is a line in Frank Sinatra's "My Way," released way back in 1969, that goes like this, making me think of the Cowboys' 2021 season:

Regrets, I've had a few.

But then again, too few to mention.

And I get it. The Cowboys in one season turned 6-10 into 12-5.

They went undefeated in the NFC East (6-0) to win their fourth division title in the past eight seasons and wound up with the best record in NFC games (10-2).

Qualified a fourth time in those eight seasons for the playoffs.

Led the NFL in total offense, second in passing offense, first in scoring, tied for first in turnover differential, placed now six players on the NFC Pro Bowl team, and would have been a seventh had Dak Prescott not turned down a replacement invite.

Prescott finished with the third-highest QB rating, his 37 touchdown passes ranking fourth, as well as his competition percentage.

Cornerback Trevon Diggs led the NFL with 11 interceptions, the NFL's highest total since Everson Walls' 11 in 1981. Football Player Micah Parsons' 13 sacks finished sixth in the NFL while setting a Cowboys rookie record, likely on his way to winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and in the conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year as well. Oh, and did you catch him winning the Pro Bowl 40-yard dash in Thursday's skills competition, smiling every step of the way as if he knew something those others had no idea?

Yep, all of that.

But all of that, every bit of that, only got them to this:

"We view this as the starting line," head coach Mike McCarthy stated after the Cowboys secured that 12th win and the third seed in the NFC playoffs.

Meaning hadn't come close to accomplishing what they intended to accomplish … yet.

Then, the Cowboys never got off the "starting line" in the first-round playoff game, and no pun intended, disqualified by the San Francisco 49ers for, uh, wait for it, a false start. Though scoring two of the four touchdowns the Niners had given up over the past 10 quarters at the time, having played the Rams, Cowboys and Packers, then giving up just two TDs to the Rams while losing the NFC title game, 20-17, in their third meeting this season.

And here is what the Cowboys will regret the most when looking back at this playoff loss to San Francisco to end what had been a promising 2021 season:

They wasted good health.

There aren't many guarantees in the NFL, and most of all no way is any team guaranteed good health. And when you have it, you darn well better take advantage of it. The Cowboys didn't. Kicked the bucket on this one.

Unlike last year when the Cowboys lost the likes of Prescott for 11 games, La'el Collins for all 16, Tyron Smith for 14 games, Zack Martin for six, Andy Dalton for three and parts of another, Chidobe Awuzie for eight, Trevon Diggs for four, Anthony Brown for six, Sean Lee for seven, Leighton Vander Esch for six, Randy Gregory for six, Blake Jarwin for 15 and Trysten Hill for 11.

This time, when they reached that first-round playoff game, they were as healthy as any team could have expected in what became the 19th week of the season. Now, my guess is Tyron was playing through that ankle injury but have been told he won't need offseason surgery. Gregory was playing through a knee needing a postseason cleanup scope that's already been performed.

And if you look at the Cowboys starting lineup in that playoff game against the Niners, only one of the projected 22 starters from the start of the season was missing: Wide receiver Michael Gallup, suffering the torn ACL in the Game 16 loss to Arizona, and now scheduled for reconstructive surgery this coming week. And it was the Cowboys' choice that veteran linebacker Jaylon Smith was no longer on the team.

But that's it.

And that serendipitous injury aspect is not lost on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who knows too many times he's finished a season without a key player, like last year without Dak, Tyron, Jarwin, La'el, Brown, Martin or Hill. Or take that 2013 season without Tony Romo for that final game of the season to decide the NFC East title and playoff spot, having to play Kyle Orton in that decisive game they lost 24-22 to Philadelphia.

Or maybe that 2007 divisional-round playoff game the No. 1 seed Cowboys lost 21-17 to the eventual Super Bowl-winning Giants with wide receiver Terrell Owns, who had led the team with 15 touchdowns that season, still trying to play through a painful high ankle sprain he suffered in Game 15.

Jerry knows good health is a terrible thing to waste.

"One of the things that's hardest to accept but is a fact as we went into the playoffs this year is how healthy we were and how complete we were of having our very best ready to play and the most and readiest to play as far as health is concerned physically that I've ever been associated with," he said from this week's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

"And so, it was so disappointing to miss that opportunity in those playoffs."

The loss gnaws at the Cowboys.

The lost opportunity of good health painfully hurts even worse because you can never count on good health going forward, as if one season bleeds into the next, just as that playoff run in 2018 turned into 8-8 the next and as the equally encouraging playoff run in 2014 turned into losing Romo for 12 games that next 4-12 season.

So yeah, regrets for this 2021 season?

Wasting good health is hugely regrettable.

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