Last year, the Cowboys played 12 games (plus some of another) without Dak Prescott and had to alternate between Andy Dalton, Garrett Gilbert, and even Ben DiNucci while constantly rotating backup offensive linemen and suffering with a terrible defense. This is to say that there were plenty of bad games last year, but Sunday’s 30-16 loss to the Broncos was easily the worst game of the Mike McCarthy era.
Dak Prescott had the worst game of his career, showing a lot of rust after not playing the last two weeks, and his talented pass catchers struggled to hold onto the ball. Ezekiel Elliott suffered a knee contusion, Terence Steele looked lost at left tackle, the defense got steamrolled on a routine basis, and even the Cowboys’ punt block went against them. To say it wasn’t their day would be an understatement. Just about every play in this game was bad for Dallas, but these five plays were especially harmful to their chances.
Cowboys run outside and come up short on first fourth-down attempt
Tony Pollard set the offense up nicely on the opening drive with a 54-yard kickoff return but they quickly drew a fourth and one on the Denver 38-yard line. In an attempt to not squander the great starting field position, and in accordance with the analytics models, Mike McCarthy opted to go for it.
Ezekiel Elliott got the call with an outside run to the right that was promptly bottled up for a loss of one yard. There shouldn’t be much question on the decision to go for it, but the play call itself was a bit suspect:
Outside Zone on 4th and 1 converts at a low % compared to other run concepts. #Cowboys get stuffed there.— Ryan Paganetti (@PaganettiRyan) November 7, 2021
And just like that, the Cowboys gave the ball to the Broncos. Denver didn’t score on the ensuing possession, but it was a shame to squander such a good kick return and ended up setting a terrible tone for the offense.
Dak Prescott nosedives a pass to Cedrick Wilson on second fourth-down attempt
The Cowboys offense seemed to wake up on the next drive, traveling 58 yards to reach the Denver 20-yard line before getting a fourth and two. Once again, the analytics suggested to go for it, even though a field goal would have given Dallas the lead.
McCarthy opted to go for it and Prescott looked to have Cedrick Wilson open on a shallow crossing route. But the ball pretty much went straight into the dirt. It was so uncharacteristic for Dak that the broadcast crew spent several replays trying to determine if the ball had been tipped.
It hadn’t, and was just a harbinger of what was to come: a terrible, horrible, no-good day for Prescott and the Cowboys. Once again, a promising offensive drive resulted in zero points, and the Cowboys wouldn’t see the red zone again until there were four minutes left in the game.
Trevon Diggs’ pass interference penalty gifts Broncos a touchdown
After the Cowboys’ second drive ended in a big goose egg, the Broncos offense came to life. Teddy Bridgewater flipped the switch that activated the Mike Nolan Defense slider and the Broncos swiftly moved down the field.
But on third-and-goal from nine yards out, Bridgewater tried to hit Courtland Sutton in the endzone, only for Trevon Diggs - who again went without a takeaway - to knock the ball away. But a flag flew, as Diggs had gotten there a second too early.
Since it came in the endzone, the penalty gave Denver a first-and-goal from the goal line, making a touchdown almost inevitable. Two plays later, that inevitability became a reality.
That whole blocked punt fiasco
The Cowboys walked into the locker room at halftime down 16-0, which wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Things could easily be turned around, and for a moment it felt like it had been.
Denver got the ball to start the third quarter and a Micah Parsons sack on third down brought up a fourth-and -14 from Denver’s own 17-yard line. That’s when John Fassel drew up a perfectly-timed and perfectly-executed punt block. That is, until the officials pulled out one of the most obscure rules in the book:
In #DENvsDAL, the punt is blocked & goes beyond the line of scrimmage, where it's touched by the receiving team. Since the receiving team touches the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, the kicking team is eligible to recover the ball. DEN recovers the ball, but cannot advance it. pic.twitter.com/bcdUEGu3Jd— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) November 7, 2021
Nahshon Wright touching the ball past the line of scrimmage gets counted as a muffed punt, and usually muffed punts occur well down the field. What seemingly nobody knew is that a muffed punt results in an automatic first down, something that would only be a factor in this specific type of play. Truly, nothing was going the Cowboys’ way on Sunday.
Amari Cooper picks the worst time to have his first drop of the year
Amari Cooper caught the game-winning touchdown last week right after using a tennis ball to massage his bum hamstring, which led to a week of much-deserved appreciation for the stellar wide receiver. That appreciation also yielded the fact that Cooper had yet to drop a pass this year.
Call it the Pro Football Focus jinx, because Cooper dropped one Sunday and did so at the worst possible moment. After the blocked punt fiasco gave new life to the Broncos’ drive, they extended their lead to 19 with a field goal. That put extra pressure on the Cowboys to respond. But on third-and-one at their own 40-yard line, Prescott threw a perfect pass to a wide open Cooper for the first down and the ball just fell off his hands.
That forced the Cowboys to go for it on fourth down, and a scramble drill led to a poorly thrown pass to CeeDee Lamb, but it never should’ve happened in the first place had Cooper made the catch. It was a play that simultaneously epitomized the Cowboys’ entire performance and effectively ended any chances of coming back in this one.
We did our best to put together all of the highlights from Sunday’s Dallas Cowboys loss to the Denver Broncos. You can watch them on the Blogging The Boys YouTube Channel. Make sure to subscribe to our channel (which you can do right here) so you don’t miss any of our videos.