Ignore the final score, because it’s misleading. This was a humiliating loss for the Cowboys. The Browns have long been the most dysfunctional team in all of football, evident by the fact that they’ve had eight different head coaches and 17 different starting quarterbacks in the last ten seasons. But Cleveland steamrolled Dallas in AT&T Stadium, taking a 41-14 lead into the fourth quarter.
Sure, Dallas did just enough to make it a close game at the end and boost some TV ratings, but this game was over long before the team decided to start playing football. What’s worse is that it wasn’t even a case of being beaten by a better team, as was the situation last week in Seattle. Instead, this was a Cowboys team shooting themselves in the foot time and time again, and a Browns team that was happy to take advantage. These five plays in particular cooked the Cowboys.
Jaylon Smith’s unnecessary facemask flips the field for Cleveland offense
Dak Prescott had just thrown his second touchdown of the first quarter and it was clear that the offense was humming. So long as the defense could make a few stops, this would quickly become an insurmountable Cowboys lead.
For a moment, it looked like that may actually happen too. A holding penalty on the Browns brought up a first and 20 at the Browns’ own 38-yard line. Running back Nick Chubb had to leave the game on that same play, potentially marking the start of a very rough day for this offense. Then Jaylon Smith made a boneheaded decision:
This is the definition of a useless, idiotic penalty by Jaylon Smith to extend the drive, on 1st and 20 nonetheless. Just stupid. pic.twitter.com/avY2tOQqpj— Saad Yousuf (@SaadYousuf126) October 4, 2020
Smith didn’t even need to get involved on this play, let alone be grabbing anything that could have led to a facemask penalty. It also came on what would have been a mere five-yard completion. Instead of second and 15, the Browns received a first down at the Dallas 42-yard line. It simultaneously took away the negative effects of the holding penalty and flipped the field. The Browns went on to score a touchdown, tying the game at 14-14.
Myles Garrett (predictably) punks Terence Steele
Terence Steele really doesn’t deserve the vitriol that probably went his way in this game; this is an undrafted rookie who had no preseason and was asked to start at right tackle immediately. It’s unfair to expect anything more than what we’ve seen from him.
And perhaps that goes to the decision-making of Mike McCarthy and Joe Philbin for keeping Steele in at right tackle and not putting the more experienced Brandon Knight in after Tyron Smith’s return. Either way, Steele got predictably beat bad by Myles Garrett, who easily put himself in position to strip the ball from Dak Prescott’s hand as he was in his throwing motion.
The Browns recovered the fumble and set their offense up just 34 yards away from paydirt. Not surprisingly, it took just four plays to score and take a 21-14 lead. The bad beat led to Steele being benched for Knight, who did incrementally better, but it was a turning point of the game that prevented a confident, in-rhythm offense from going down and retaking the lead.
Ezekiel Elliott fumbles away the game
After all the talk that’s picked up about letting Dak Prescott air it out everywhere, commentators spent most of the past week insisting that Ezekiel Elliott still needed to be a focal point and that you “can’t win ball games by throwing that much.” So much for that idea.
Right after the Browns capitalized on the strip sack to take the lead, Dallas had yet another opportunity to march down the field. But they made the mistake of giving the ball to Zeke on first down (which is already a very low-value play) and the $90 million running back made matters worse. After ripping off a 24-yard gain, Elliott decided it was a good time to remind everyone how loose his hands have been this season and coughed up the football as he was being tackled.
The Browns recovered the ball and their offense came back on at midfield. With hardly any time to rest and facing another shortened field to defend, the putrid defense gave up a touchdown in six plays. The opportunity to make it a 21-21 game suddenly turned into a 28-14 game in under two minutes. This was the point that took the wind out of the Cowboys’ sails, and they wouldn’t regain it until far too late.
Greg Zuerlein’s strange kickoff bucks all logic
That aforementioned wind in the sails came back in the form of a thunderstorm, and suddenly the score was close. Defying all rules of physics, the Cowboys managed to score 24 unanswered points in three drives and cut the lead to a 41-38 score. I still don’t fully understand it, but it happened.
But with just under four minutes left on the clock and two timeouts (their own and the two-minute warning) in their pocket, the Cowboys decided to try some sort of onside/squib kick. They lined it up like the watermelon kick that helped win the game against Atlanta, but kicked it about the distance of a regular squib. Cleveland made an easy recovery and advanced it to the 50-yard line.
I’m not sure what the mindset was on this play, but it gave the Browns that much more free reign to run aggressive plays. And they ran a reverse to Odell Beckham Jr. that went 50 yards to the endzone, effectively ending the game. Jaylon Smith’s attempt to recover the blocked field goal, which turned into two points for Cleveland, served as the exclamation point on how stupid this whole game was. But that kick in particular was a confounding decision that only hurt the Cowboys unnecessarily.
Amari Cooper’s lazy route lets Denzel Ward make a game-ending pick
There wasn’t really any remote chance of still pulling off the comeback, with Dallas now down 49-38, but Prescott didn’t want to hear it. Just as he had done all day, Dak engineered a drive that went all the way down towards the endzone.
With just over 100 seconds remaining, he tried to throw a touchdown to at least present the possibility of another onside kick. But Amari Cooper jogged his slant route, which allowed the cornerback in coverage, Denzel Ward, to jump the route and make the pick. Cooper later explained what he was thinking on that play and took responsibility for it, which counts for something.
I’ve always admired Amari Cooper’s honesty and insight in his post game pressers. This quote is regarding Dak’s int at the end of the game where Cooper looked like he gave up on his route. pic.twitter.com/m0t8Xm8X4J— NFL Beat Writers (@32BeatWriters) October 5, 2020
But the pick was made and it officially ended the game, dropping Dallas to 1-3 on the season. Another round of late-game heroics from Dak Prescott makes the final box score easier to swallow at first glance, and gives McCarthy the chance to talk positively about the team’s resiliency, but everyone knows this team accepted defeat before they even went into the halftime break. The only positive? Dallas gets the 0-4 Giants next week.