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Ref debacle overshadowed ‘atrocious’ problems for Cowboys

In Sports
January 03, 2024

ARLINGTON, Texas — In some respects, the Dallas Cowboys won an important qualifying race with an untied shoe. That’s what the 20-19 win over the Detroit Lions represented Saturday — watching the Cowboys seize a victory despite tripping down the stretch on an all-too-familiar loose shoelace.

Throwing, throwing and throwing, when game management called for at least some element of running the ball. It was a strategy that gifted the Lions at least 40 seconds with a clock stoppage late in the fourth quarter. Then deploying a Swiss cheese zone defense on Detroit’s final drive, despite Lions quarterback Jared Goff clearly struggling against man-to-man coverage over the course of the night.

These would’ve been this week’s talking points in Dallas, rather than the 8-0 home record or 16-game home winning streak. The Philadelphia Eagles and coach Nick Sirianni? They’d be double-bunking with Cowboys’ Mike McCarthy in the head-coaching dog house.

“[C]owboys coaching decisions are atrocious. Clock management malpractice,” former NFL general manager Randy Mueller posted on X.

“[A]bsolutely mind-boggling play calling,” echoed Mike Tannenbaum, another former high-ranking league executive.

Fortunately for Dallas, the disgust was ultimately drowned out by an officiating crew that couldn’t be out-botched. But the late-game nosedive certainly leaves behind some of the “it’s always something” residue that has become so familiar to the Cowboys’ fan base, particularly where it concerns McCarthy, who continues to be relentlessly stalked by his penchant for poor game-management decisions.

The Cowboys are in position to win the NFC East and clinch the conference's No. 2 seed — but not free of the mistakes that could ultimately trip them up dearly. (Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

The Cowboys are in position to win the NFC East and clinch the conference’s No. 2 seed — but not free of the mistakes that could ultimately cost them dearly. (Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

For a Dallas team that has the talent to race anyone in the league, this continues to be the loose shoelace that invites disaster. It was more apparent than ever with the Cowboys leading 17-13 when they presumably had sealed a win with an interception of Goff deep in Lions territory with 2:05 left in the game. The Lions had two timeouts remaining, but Dallas had an opportunity to burn clock and kick a field goal, then give Detroit the ball back with less than a minute in the game and no timeouts.

Instead, what unfolded is the stuff of McCarthy anti-legend. The Cowboys were wrongly penalized 15 yards for tripping, followed by an 11-yard pass from Dak Prescott to CeeDee Lamb that forced Detroit to burn a timeout with 1:54 left. The next play was inexplicable. Despite already being in field-goal range and with an opportunity to force Detroit to expend its final timeout, the Cowboys threw the ball rather than running it. The result was an incompletion that guaranteed the Lions would get the ball back after Dallas had shaved off only 19 seconds, leaving Detroit with 1:45 to work with — ample time for the 75-yard touchdown drive that ensued.

“The thing there is we’re trying to put it away,” McCarthy explained afterward. “I mean, obviously, you call plays you feel good about, but you know, first down was a struggle for us all day. I can’t tell you how many second-and-longs we had, and the [tripping] penalty we had on first down, I got to see it. I’m trying to still get in striking distance on third downs. That was the thought [on that pass].”

“That’s on me, honestly,” Prescott said of the moment. “Other options right there. Brandin [Cooks] had the right route, ran the right route when it was played. They brought zero [blitz]. I’ve got to do a better job on that one. That’s where we were talking about the roller coaster of emotions. That’s one where I put my team in that situation throwing that ball there. That’s one I promise you that will keep me up at night — tonight, for sure. I’ll have to flush that thought. The defense ultimately saved me.”

Prescott didn’t elaborate on precisely which part of the decision was his, though it appears McCarthy designed the play for an underneath route, rather than the deeper sideline route Prescott attempted. Regardless, the element of risk on any passing play — even a simple underneath route — carried the possibility of an incompletion and a stopped clock. Perhaps McCarthy simply trusts Prescott, his defense and his kicking game that much. But it’s still his job to play the percentages correctly when he has a clear clock advantage on the table. This time, he chose poorly.

Of course, even the defense didn’t make it simple. After the Cowboys kicked a field goal for a 20-13 lead, Goff shredded Dallas’ zone defense the last two minutes, scoring a touchdown and setting up the 2-point conversion fiasco that engulfed nearly everything after it. In that stretch, Dallas ran a standard front, sending four pass-rushers and dropping the remaining seven defenders into space. This despite Goff’s struggling against extra pressure nearly the entire night. Certainly defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is a bright spot for the Cowboys, but his unit’s performance against Detroit’s two-minute offense — when it absolutely needed to show up — is at least mildly concerning.

“That’s something we got to look at,” Cowboys edge rusher Micah Parsons said afterward. “For me, it’s frustrating. I don’t know what’s going on. I know everybody see what I’m facing, but we got to look at it and get better from it. To be a championship team, we got to get those type of stops.”

On a micro level, it could feel like nitpicking a Cowboys win over a quality opponent. But the reality is that when you take a step back, McCarthy’s problems with clock management and some of his play-calling miscues remain consistent. Even a team as complete as this one can be undone by some familiar mistakes — despite having stars up and down the roster and an experienced quarterback playing the best football of his career.

At some point, McCarthy is going to have to break through to another level with the Cowboys. If he can’t accomplish it this postseason with this roster, it’s fair to start wondering if he can ever get the job done. Especially when he keeps making familiar mistakes that undermine both himself and his team. The next time around, there likely won’t be a major officiating blunder providing cover.

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