IRVING, Texas — It was hard to determine who did a better job defending Jon Gruden's plays at the end of the game Sunday, the Cowboys players or the Bucs coach.
In their 13-9 loss at Texas Stadium, six Bucs drives ended in Dallas territory, including three inside the 20 and another at the 23.
All they had to show for them was three Matt Bryant field goals.
And yet the Bucs had a chance to win with the ball at the Cowboys 23 and two timeouts.
Unfortunately for them, quarterback Jeff Garcia never took a shot at the end zone, and the game ended when he threw incomplete under heavy pressure with 13 seconds left.
Gruden, however, saw nothing particularly wrong with Garcia not launching the ball all the way to the paint.
"We had some plays called that were shots (into the end zone)," Gruden said.
"But just because we have a shot play called doesn't mean the shot is open. So I defend that with that. But when you see that style of coverage (four defenders across the secondary), we're going to continue to use our clock and use our timeouts and try to get near the goal line where the shots become optimum. We moved the ball into position. Unfortunately, their pass rush was pretty good there at the end of the game."
It was the first time the Bucs, who fell to 5-3 and into second in the NFC South, failed to score a touchdown since the 2007 season opener at Seattle. Perhaps more alarming was the Cowboys (5-3), behind 40-year-old quarterback Brad Johnson, put up 172 yards of offense, the fewest in a win in team history.
"It's disappointing we didn't get in the end zone," Garcia said. "We worked extremely hard during (last) week to find ways to execute, to put ourselves in the best position, to find ways to get points on the board; and not just field goals, we want touchdowns."
Garcia, 28-of-44 for 228 yards, had the hot hand early. But the Bucs failed to take full advantage of multiple scoring chances.
Running back Earnest Graham was stuffed for no gain by nose tackle Tank Johnson on third and 1 from the Dallas 18 on the first possession, resulting in Bryant's 36-yard field goal.
On second and 10 from the Dallas 14 just before the end of the first quarter, Garcia completed a pass to Antonio Bryant to the 5. But officials ruled Garcia crossed the line of scrimmage before passing. The penalty helped lead to another field goal.
"I knew I was close, but I feel like I have a pretty good feel as to where that line of scrimmage is," Garcia said. "In retrospect, I think maybe that's a time where I just tuck it and get the first down myself. I think I could've got the … yards I needed at the time.
"The (Graham run on) third and 1, that hurt because those are situations we take a lot of pride, especially the offensive line, in converting those situations and continuing drives."
And so it went.
Another trip was spoiled when Garcia was sacked for 8 yards late in the second. Rather than try to pin the Cowboys deep with a punt, Gruden opted to have Bryant try a 51-yard field goal even though he entered Sunday 2-of-8 on tries of more than 50 yards for his career.
"The guy's a good kicker," Gruden said. "It was a perfect day to kick. He shows no problem whatsoever making it, and we knew points were going to be precious.
"If I had to do it again, I'd do the same thing."
Bryant missed, giving the Cowboys the ball at their 41 with 2:23 left. The ensuing drive was gift wrapped by four Bucs penalties that resulted in first downs and capped with a second left when Roy Williams outjumped Phillip Buchanon on a fade pass for a 2-yard touchdown.
Johnson, who was booed for most of the day, finished 19-of-33 for 122 yards and three sacks. But he did not turn the ball over.
"If we can get a 2-yard run, we'll take it," Johnson said. "If we can get a 4-yard pass, we'll take it.
"Let's not turn the ball over against the Bucs. I was with them. We won a championship. I've seen them do it for the past 10-12 years. You do not give them a chance to score on a short field and play from behind. They're a tremendous team."
But nothing was more frustrating for the Bucs than their final possession. Starting at their 26, they converted two fourth downs and one third down.
Needing a touchdown to win, the Bucs had a first down at the Dallas 23 with two timeouts. But rather than throw the ball in the end zone, Garcia kept throwing it underneath.
He completed a crossing route to Jerramy Stevens for 1 yard. Then he was forced to throw the ball away after pressure by defensive end Greg Ellis.
On third down, he checked the ball down to Ike Hilliard for 4 yards. Following a timeout, on fourth and 5, Garcia threw short and incomplete to Stevens.
"We had some great plays called. We had some receivers running open," Bucs receiver Michael Clayton said. "It was just a little, minor slip-up in protection.
"If we had half a second, we'd get this play and we're riding home with smiles on our face. But it didn't happen."
Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud @sptimes.com.