Small Mistakes Add Up to Epic Cowboys Defeat

So, of all the paths I saw yesterday's Cowboys - Packers game taking....I never envisioned a situation where the Cowboys were down 21-3 with 5 minutes remaining in the first half. At that point the statistics looked like this:

According to Pro Football Reference's Win Probability calculations the Cowboys had an 8.6% likelihood of winning at that point. As a fan it seemed like 0%. I honestly felt at that point the second half would be meaningless as the Cowboys had combined foolish mental mistakes with a helpless defense to put the Cowboys into their largest deficit of the entire 2016 season.

And yet, with 0:44 seconds remaining in the game those same win probability calculations gave the Cowboys a 76% likelihood of winning. The Cowboys, despite facing unchartered territory had fought back to put themselves into position to win the game.

This is a testament to the #Fight mentality that Jason Garrett had nurtured in the team since the first day of mini-camps. The Cowboys had been knocked from their game plan of controlling the ball, keeping Aaron Rodgers off the field and physically dominating the Packers. But they adapted, made a few stops on defense, never abandoned the run game and managed to find themselves with the ball at the Packers 40 yard line with one timeout, 49 seconds remaining and down 3 points.

And it was at this point the Cowboys made their last of a half dozen mental mistakes that, in aggregate, cost the team a very achievable victory.

This particular mistake has been discussed quite a bit already. At that point these are the three Cowboy's objectives in decreasing order of importance:

  • Gain position to kick game-tying FG
  • Insure Packers are not allowed enough time to kick game-winning FG
  • Score touchdown to win game

Now, you could argue that list should look like:

  • Gain position to kick game-tying FG
  • Score touchdown to win game
  • Insure Packers are not allowed enough time to kick game-winning FG

But with 49 seconds AND a timeout AND the recognition you can't leave significant time on the clock, the play-calling that followed was inconsistent and, in my opinion, misguided. The first down spike to stop the clock left Dallas with 2 plays to gain 10 yards, 49 seconds and a timeout. They then ran two pass plays, both stopping the clock, to take only 5 seconds off the clock and leave the team's timeout unused.

This is simply inefficient use of clock and timeout resources. Had Prescott not spiked the ball but instead called a play...10-12 seconds likely run off the clock, leaving the team with 35 or so seconds and wherever the ball ended up. This would have been the safest route as far as insuring the Packers wouldn't have time left over as it would have removed approximately 15 of the remaining 49 seconds.

Had the team instead taken their timeout they would have had 3 plays to move the ball the needed 10 yards. This would have been the most aggressive approach as far as thinking touchdown as they would have had a full 49 seconds and a 1st down situation.

Instead, by taking the spike, Dallas found themselves needing a few yards to insure a field goal and only two plays to gain those yards. They then used two pass plays, which gained the yards for a FG attempt, but not a first down and taking only five seconds off the clock. The 3rd down call, in particular, was a poor decision. The team needed only 3 yards for a 1st down and still had a timeout in pocket. A rushing attempt was just as likely to gain the first down as a pass AND had the added benefit if it came up short of forcing Green Bay to use one of their two remaining timeouts. The combined decisions to spike the ball on first down and throw a pass on 3rd down were simply not smart.

They were the final mental blunders of a game that saw the usually disciplined, mentally smart Cowboys make a number of such errors. Let's examine:

We all know the Packers scored touchdowns on their first three drives of the game. But the Cowboys came close to stopping them on the first drive. But facing 3rd-and-five near mid-field the Cowboys couldn't get substitutions on and off the field quickly enough and Rodgers quickly took advantage, getting an easy off-sides call and gimme first down. That was mental mistake number one. However, the Cowboys compounded the problem by somehow not being set on defense on the very next play and had to use a time-out (which proved very costly, as we'll see in a minute). That was mental mistake number 2.

The Cowboys first offensive drive of the game looked promising but stalled after a Prescott sack on first down resulted in the team kicking a FG. The team again looked sharp on it's second drive, this time needing a score as they were already trailing 7-3. Instead, the coaching staff somehow sends Brice Butler in for a play where he's not supposed to be on the field. The unsportsmanlike penalty resulted in a 37-yard change of possession, negating a 22-yard gain. Facing 2nd-and-20 the offense punted 2 plays later. That was mental mistake number three.

Late in the second quarter and having closed the gap to 21-10 the Cowboys managed to pin the Packers deep in their own territory when Christine Michael misplayed the kickoff. A short run and an incomplete pass left the Packers facing a difficult 3rd-and-9 from their own 7 with just over 5 minutes remaining in the half. Again, however, the Cowboys were not set on defense and again they had to take a timeout, leaving them with only 1 remaining. This was mistake number 4.

This all manifested itself just a few minutes later. After stopping the Packers on the above-noted 3rd-and-9 the Cowboys used the resulting good field position to drive and kick a field goal. They then got another stop of the Packers, this time with a sack of Rodgers with 49 seconds remaining. But with no time outs remaining the Packers simply let the clock run down and finally punted with just a few seconds, ending the half. Had the Cowboys not foolishly used the two earlier timeouts they would have taken over the ball at their own 38 with at least 45 seconds left. In other words, the wasteful use of those timeouts cost the Cowboys a possession. (And for the record, the Packers ended up with one more possession in the second half and that possession was the difference in the game.

So....mistakes in the first half prevented the Cowboys from having a possible last possession and mistakes in the second half gave the Packers the possession they needed to win the game.

Little mistakes....big loss.

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