Generally, after any close NFL game, fans can point to one or two plays that made the difference between winning and losing. The same is true after a season that came close to a playoff berth but fell short. We’ll review five plays that, had they turned differently, might have meant more games for this year’s edition of the Dallas Cowboys.
Week 4: Ryan Switzer’s sexond-quarter muffed punt fumble against the Rams
The 2-1 Cowboys looked in control of their week four contest against the Los Angeles Rams when punter Johnny Hekker booted one with 8:44 remaining in the second quarter. Dallas led 17-6 and had forced the Rams to punt from their 37. The Dallas offense had yet to be stopped on their first three drives, totaling 220 yards and 17 points. Pro Football Reference’s win expectancy formula gave the Cowboys a 90.1% likelihood of winning when Hekker kicked the ball.
Rookie Ryan Switzer, however, muffed the punt. The Rams recovered and quickly converted the gift into a seven-yard touchdown pass from Jared Goff to Cooper Kupp. Suddenly, the Cowboys’ once comfortable 11-point lead had been reduced to four.
The Rams would go on to score on six of their next seven drives, exposing the Cowboys defense. The Dallas offense was productive, racking up 440 yards, converting 7 of 14 third downs and putting 30 points on the board. However, the one turnover ended up being the difference in the game.
That would be the first of consecutive games where the Dallas offense would put up 400+ yards and 30+ points and lose; those are usually recipes for easy victories. Instead, Dallas lost both games to fall to 2-3 and reduce the team’s margin of error the rest of the season.
Week 5: Aaron Rodgers’ 18-yard scramble on 3rd-and-8 with 29 seconds remaining
The Dallas offense again had a terrific day against the Packers, racking up 408 yards, holding the ball for 35 minutes and scoring 31 points. The team’s final points, however, came with 73 seconds remaining and gave the Cowboys only a three-point lead. This meant Aaron Rodgers would have another opportunity to torment Cowboys fans and he did just that.
The key play in the Packers’ 75-yard touchdown drive came on a 3rd-and-8 play from the Dallas 30-yard line with 29 seconds remaining. Rodgers is immediately flushed out of the pocket and scrambles left. Benson Mayowa makes a diving lunge but comes up just short.
David Irving, in his first action of the 2017 season, seems to have an angle on Rodgers but also just misses the Green Bay veteran. The real issue, however, is both Jaylon Smith and Anthony Hitchens abandoned right-side contain to defend the same outlet back. With neither defending the edge Rodgers scrambled uncontested to the first-down marker and beyond; realize he has to reach the blue line in the image above just to reach the line-of-scrimmage. It was a monumental blunder that doomed the Cowboys as Rodgers threw the game-winning touchdown pass two plays later.
Had Rodgers been stopped the Packers would have been forced to attempt a field goal and, at best, would have managed a regulation tie.
Week 10: Brice Butler pass interference call negates successful fourth-down, fake-punt conversion against Atlanta
The Cowboys game against Atlanta ended in a 27-7 rout, yet midway through the second quarter the Cowboys were in position to take control of the game. Holding a 7-3 lead with just over 11 minutes remaining in the first half, the Cowboys faced a 4th-and-8 from the Falcons 37-yard line. With kicker Dan Bailey sidelined Jason Garret made the conservative decision to punt. I didn’t like the call at the time.
Garrett, however, had a trick up his sleeve as the puntisher Chris Jones pulled up from punt formation to throw a perfect pass to gunner Brice Butler. The completion would have set the Cowboys up with a first down at the Atlanta 21. Instead, Butler was called for a questionable offensive pass interference penalty, negating the first down and ending the scoring opportunity.
The way Atlanta dominated the final 40 minutes of the contest makes this a questionable entry in this series. However, had Dallas enjoyed a 7- or even 11-point lead the absence of Tyron Smith at LT might have been mitigated with more conservative play-calling (or even, dare I suggest, some help for Chaz Green defending against Adrian Clayborn).
We’ll never know, but the Cowboys’ best chance for victory in that game ended when Butler was flagged for pass interference.
Week 11: Anthony Brown drops uncontested, near-certain pick-six against Eagles
Following the disappointing loss to the Falcons, Dallas needed a win at home against Philadelphia to maintain any hopes of a second consecutive division title. And through 29 minutes they looked on track, clinging to a 9-7 lead late in the half. With 21 seconds remaining Carson Wentz threw from his own 21-yard line but David Irving deflected the ball.
The wounded duck of a pass flew high in the air, directly towards Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown. The second-year player had struggled mightily throughout the 2017 season but here was an opportunity to make a game-changing play. Brown had no one near him and nothing but green turf in front of him as the ball gently descended towards him. Here’s what happened:
The Anthony Brown play versus the Eagles. Would have put Dallas up 16-7 at the half! pic.twitter.com/Em1uDiA0t6— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) December 18, 2017
Brown somehow stumbled, lunged, then misplayed the ball into a harmless incompletion. Any competent NFL cornerback turns that play into an easy six points and the Cowboys would have enjoyed a 16-7 halftime lead.
We’ll never know what the outcome would have been had Brown made the play. It’s possible the Eagles run over the Cowboys on both sides of the ball just as they did without Brown making the play. Sure would have been nice to find out.
Week 16: goal-to-go sequence midway through fourth quarter resulting in missed field goal against Seattle
Despite everything that had challenged the Cowboys in 2017, with 8 minutes remaining in their week 16 tilt against Seattle they were in position to overcome it all. Yes, they were down 21 - 12, but they enjoyed a first down at the Seattle three-yard line. A touchdown would put them into position to win with a stop and then a field goal. Considering they had held the Seahawks to under 150 yards, this wasn’t an insurmountable challenge.
Ezekiel Elliot had run 24 times for 97 yards at that point in the game. Only six of those 24 rushing attempts yielded less than three yards so asking him to gain three yards on four attempts seemed perfectly reasonable. The Cowboys, of course, have built their identity on running the ball with a physical, talented offensive line and the All World talents of Elliott. Further, Dak Prescott and the offense had floundered throughout the day, with Prescott throwing for less than 150 yards at that point. It seemed the simplest, surest way to a touchdown would be to give the ball to Elliott (four times if necessary) as he’d almost certainly get the requisite yards on one of those plays, right?
The Dallas brain-trust thought otherwise. First, Dak was given a run-play option where he kept the ball for a 1-yard gain. Okay, that’s acceptable. On second down, surely they’d just hand it to Zeke and power it over. No. Instead, Prescott rolled right on a play that never seemed to have a chance and Jason Witten was flagged for holding. Now at the 13-yard line Prescott was sacked, followed by a short pass completion and then a Dan Bailey missed field goal.
In one of the most horrific sequences you can imagine the Cowboys season effectively ended.
What do you think BTBers? Were these the five plays you’d like to have back? What did I miss? Let us know in the comments.