You know the play. It was one of the biggest ones from Sunday night’s Dallas Cowboys loss to the Minnesota Vikings. With barley any time left the Cowboys managed to force a Vikings punt that gave them a prayer (literally, as they’d soon dial up a Hail Mary) of a chance. Of course, all of this came after the Cowboys ran the ball on second and third down, but we’re moving past that for this conversation.
The Minnesota Vikings punted to the timeout-less Dallas Cowboys inside of the game’s final minute. As Dallas was down by four they needed a touchdown to win and with a Hail Mary being the team’s only real shot, they were going to need every possible yard to make it doable.
Tavon Austin is on this Cowboys team in large part for his return ability. It’s for this reason that when the ball was in the air, people had hope. And then all of a sudden Austin called for a fair catch. What on earth?
.@Vikings v @dallascowboys and with :24 seconds left @Tayaustin01 does what he was instructed to do. BUT, if the #Vikings take the “gunners” away and add them to the “max protection” should Austin have a green light to return? It might have been a “house call” #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/qM9K2RHF5M— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) November 11, 2019
Given the immediacy with which Austin called for the fair catch it seemed like a direct instruction from his coaching staff. Had Austin tried to return the punt himself he could have wasted time and at that point, time was incredibly valuable.
Looking at what was in front of Austin, tons of green. He seemed to have a potentially huge return staring him right in the face yet chose to fair catch the punt. Cris Collinsworth speculated about the fair catch instruction while on the broadcast and it makes sense. You don’t call for it that quickly unless you’re told to do so.
Naturally this was a huge talking point after the game. It’s hard to see the total situation without the All-22 film, but it’s possible to ask those in charge what happened. During his Monday afternoon press conference Jason Garrett said there was miscommunication among the Cowboys staff with regards to the punt return. You can watch the clip below.
“Yea we didn’t communicate that well enough. In that situation you’ve got a couple of different options. You can try to block the punt and we decided not to do that. We decided that we thought there’d be a good chance that we could get the ball around the 50-yard line. The biggest coaching point for Tavon was make sure you don’t bleed the rest of this time off by spending a lot of time trying to return the ball. So fair catch was very viable option. The part of it that didn’t communicate well enough was just simply if you do feel like you have a good return opportunity, take advantage of it. Catch it and go north and south and get as much as you could. We did a poor job as a staff making sure he understood that and hopefully we’ll learn from that experience.”
It sounds like the Cowboys were very explicit to Tavon Austin that time was of the essence. That’s good. That makes sense. But to be so obtuse and live in only one possible outcome is in fact a large miscommunication that was potentially costly to the team.
It’s unknown obviously who communicated what to Austin. But it’s clear that he was under the assumption that he had to fair catch it immediately. What a blunder.