Spagnola: Nothing wrong with taking a knee
INGLEWOOD, Calif. – And in the end, the Dallas Cowboys were on their knees, simultaneously giving thanks and running out the clock.
Cowboys 20, Chargers 17, by the skin of their chinny-chin-chins.
But as we've come to know in today's NFL – heck, this Week 6 in the NFL – a win is a win is a win. Go ask the Philadelphia Eagles, suffering their first loss of the season, 20-14, to the New York Jets. Go ask the previously indominable San Francisco 49sers, one week on top of the world as the best team in football after their 42-10 crushing of the Dallas Cowboys, yet the very next week on Sunday pulled down by the NFL's inevitable gravity, humbled by the Cleveland Browns, 19-17, suffering their first loss of the season.
So in the scheme of things, the Cowboys woke up Tuesday morning 4-2 going into their bye week, one game behind the Eagles in the NFC East and one game behind the 5-1 Niners, Lions and Eagles for the best record in the NFC overall following that humiliating loss to San Francisco just eight days ago.
And now on the seventh week of the season, the Cowboys will rest. Although certainly not on their laurels since this win Monday night at SoFi Stadium was anything but a classic.
Said head coach Mike McCarthy, “We did enough to win,” and later credited his team for having “a tremendous amount of grit.”
We should give the Cowboys that much. They had to overcome another slow start, immediately falling behind 7-0. They had to overcome giving up a 17-10 lead with 7:11 left in the game set up by some weird Keystone Cops play, trying to recover a punt that wasn't muffed, setting up the Chargers but 20 yards from the goal line.
And on top of that, against the 31st ranked NFL defense and 32nd against the pass, the Cowboys scored just 20 points, barely enough to post what veteran defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence labeled a “most crucial win.” Because the last thing they needed was to lose two straight games heading into the bye, or lose to their former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who they moved on from to allow McCarthy to coordinate the offense and call the plays, and “lean into the bye with a bad tase in your mouth.”
Yeah, like a case of acid reflux.
Instead, they survived a still struggling offense that the best McCarthy could describe as was, “We're getting there,” thanks to some late arriving first responders.
Take Brandon Aubrey, the rookie kicker hitting his 15th and then 16th straight field goals to start the season, the 16th one from 39 yards out the eventual game winner with 2:19 left to play. And don't take that for granted since San Francisco's rookie kicker Jake Moody missed from 41 yards out on his attempt at a walk-off winner.
“He's butter. He's ‘Butter' Aubrey,” said Dak Prescott when asked about the former soccer player. “He's smooth.”
No kidding, and this was the first test of his NFL career at a game-winner.
Speaking of Dak, the eighth-year veteran was quite instrumental in extending the Cowboys streak to 11-1 after losing a game since the start of the 2021 season, accounting for two touchdowns. The first came on an 18-yard scramble for the 27th and longest rushing touchdown of his career, and then breaking up a 10-10 fourth quarter tie with a beauty of a 2-yard TD toss to a streaking across Brandin Cooks that must have traveled a good 10 yards in the air.
As is Dak's nature after a subpar performance the week before, he returned in the next game to complete 21-of-30 passes for a season-high 272 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a QB rating of 109.3. Plus, hidden inside was a scrambling pass to a streaking-across Tony Pollard, who carried the ball for 60 yards to the Los Angeles 16, getting the Cowboys out of a third-and-11 hole and the impetus for the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Then there was Micah Parsons, playing both defensive end and linebacker with the Cowboys having to place Leighton Vander Esch on IR. He finally, finally racked up the team's first sack of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert with 1:29 left in the game after the Cowboys had taken that 20-17 lead. That play set up a third-and-10 at the Los Angeles 25-yard line.
Then on the very next play, Damone Clark, playing the most snaps of his young career while compensating for LVE's absence, comes barreling into Herbert as he's throwing the ball over the middle, the pass Stephon Gilmore intercepts to quell any last-minute Chargers heroics.
Also lending a huge helping hand with Vander Esch missing was Markquese Bell, the safety by trade playing 39 snaps (53 percent) at linebacker while finishing with seven tackles and one pass defensed.
And this defense, abused by the Niners for 170 yards rushing, 400 total yards and those 42 points, held the Chargers' No. 5 offense to just 272 yards and a mere 53 yards rushing, bottling up a returning Austin Ekeler to but 27 yards on 14 carries And, more importantly, holding Herbert and his 106.3 QB rating to just an 84.0 mark, doing so while causing him to do a lot of his work scrambling around in the pocket.
Hey, any time holding an NFL offense to just 17 points gives your team a chance to win. Especially considering this was the Cowboys' closest game of the season, a three-pointer when the previous three wins were by margins of 40, 20 and 35, with the two losses by 12 and 32.
Sometimes just got to grind one out, and this was a true grind since these NFL officials ended up calling a combined 20 penalties, 11 of those for 85 yards on the Cowboys. Yet they chose to rule there was no fair catch interference when KaVontae Turpin was run over by Ja'Sir Taylor since upon further review they ruled he was engaged with Jalen Tolbert, leading to a Chargers' recovery at the Dallas 20-yard line, setting up that tying touchdown.
“This is huge,” Dak said of the win, though one lacking esthetics. “That's actually what I told the offense when we were taking that kneel-down there on that first kneel-down. These are the games that we're going to be in. We've had some blowouts, and then we had some games that didn't go our way that were maybe a little over a score. And then one lopsided (loss). We haven't had close games, but this is what the NFL is about.
“That's all I said is we have to get used to this. We have to stay confident in this, understand that these close games – one-score, field-goal games, touchdown games – we have to believe in ourselves, finishing it on our terms with the ball in our hands. Thankful for our defense right there, getting us that ball, getting that turnover. We were able to do that.
“But that's the NFL. That's what the NFL is about; close games, winning the game at the end. Credit to everybody that played a part in this one.”
Dak, too, ringing up his 20th game-winning drive – 14 plays, 54 yards for Aubrey's game-winner, just four behind Tony Romo's franchise high of 24.
All good enough to take a knee … for more than the game-ending genuflection.