Jason Garrett preaches about making plays and in the 2014 season there was no shortage of players doing just that. You could compile an extensive list of all the great plays this team made which were a big part of accomplishing the four win improvement over the previous year. When I took a close look at all the games Dallas won that were decided by one score or less I found something interesting about the guys making the big plays at crucial moments – many of them were the new guys.
Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and examine some key plays from a few of the new Cowboys.
Defeated the Rams, 34-31
Midway through the third quarter, the Rams led 21-17 and were driving down the field. On fourth-and-inches at the Cowboys 15-yard line, the Rams tried to punch their way through with Zac Stacy, but Anthony Hitchens would have none of it as he flew into the Rams backfield and made the stop. This play was a big momentum changer. Instead of the Rams keeping the drive alive deep in our territory, DeMarco Murray took off for 44 yards a couple plays later and just like that the Cowboys were the ones threatening to score.
Hitchens, who was making his second start of the season, made a play that opened the eyes of many naysayers who questioned Dallas "reaching" for him in the fourth round of the draft. He finished the game with 13 tackles, but it was this big fourth down tackle that turned heads. The play itself was impressive, but what was really fascinating was how he sniffed out the play like a veteran. Benny Cunningham was able to bust through on a similar play in the second quarter where Hitchens arrived a little late. He would not be late the second time. Hitchens said after the game:
"They ran it the first time and when I saw that formation I was going to shoot the gap."
Hitchens did just that. He shot the gap and he shot it good. He is a physical player and shows great instincts. The Iowa linebacker showed everyone why the Cowboys organization valued him so much.
Defeated the Texans, 20-17
We all remember the ridiculous catch Dez Bryant made in overtime to set up Dan Bailey’s game winning field goal, but do you remember what had happened a little bit before that which allowed Dallas to get the ball back?
Arian Foster started overtime off with a 24-yard run that gave the Texans the ball near midfield. Houston would run two more running plays setting up a critical third down and two. As Ryan Fitzpatrick went back to pass, Jeremy Mincey was able to get pressure and hit Fitzpatrick as he was releasing the ball. The pass was incomplete and just like that, the drive stalled and the Texans were forced to punt.
This play doesn’t really stand out much because so much attention was given to the great catch by Bryant, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Following a season where the Cowboys defense struggled to make stops at the end of games, it was nice to escape a letdown. Once Dan Bailey uncharacteristically missed a game winning field goal in regulation I started feeling the bottom coming loose. And when Foster had that big run to start OT, doom was starting to set in. But Mincey was able to get to Fitzpatrick and ensure he wasn’t able to get a clean look to convert a key third down play.
Defeated the Seahawks, 30-23
The Cowboys defense had just finished making a stand as the Seahawks turned the ball over on downs. A Bailey field goal gave Dallas a seven point lead and a little room to breathe. The Seahawks would need to drive the ball 85 yards in only 65 seconds. This wouldn’t seem like much to throw a lot of worry at, but we all remembered how the Lions went 80 yards in 48 seconds in 2013. As favorable as things seemed, we were still on pins and needles. Rolando McClain put our minds at ease by dropping back and stepping in front of Luke Wilson to make the game cinching interception. McClain had already wowed us earlier in the season with a Matrix-like interception against the Titans in week two, but the significance of securing a resilient comeback against Seattle gave fans something to believe in.
Defeated the Lions, 24-20
"Almost" Anthony was almost a hero when Anthony Spencer sacked Matthew Stafford late in the fourth quarter of last year’s Wild Card game, causing the ball to come loose. Unfortunately, rookie DeMarcus Lawrence made a rookie mistake and tried to pick up the ball and run. Eight plays later, the Lions had moved into Cowboys territory and things started becoming nerve-racking. Lawrence redeemed himself by taking matters in his own hands and the ball out of Stafford’s.
This was a perfect example of Garrett’s "play the next play" teachings. It would be very easy to be rattled in that situation, but Lawrence kept fighting.
Seeing these types of contributions from our new guy’s make me excited to see what players like Greg Hardy, Byron Jones, and Randy Gregory can do in 2015. We tend to expect there to be some growing pains as players get acclimated to our system, but if last season was any indication – contributions in big moments may show up sooner versus later.