When it comes to results in the National Football League, they are generally all that matter. People and teams get remembered for winning, for lifting trophies and raising banners, and the margin for error can be incredibly thin.
As football fans it is easy to look back on certain moments, whether in a game or an entire season, and wonder what would have happened if the proverbial ball had bounced another way. What-ifs can be interesting to explore and that is exactly what Brandon Lee Gowton and I did on the latest episode of the NFC East Mixtape which you can listen to below. We drop a new episode every week on both the Bleeding Green Nation and Blogging The Boys feeds, subscribe to the Blogging The Boys podcast network on Apple devices here or on Spotify right here.
When it comes to this subject, many people turn to Dez Bryant’s catch, Jackie Smith’s drop, or things of that sort. Today we explore a different sort of hypothetical, one that could have had a dramatic impact if it did happen.
As the Cowboys are currently comprised their offense is their mainstay, the best part of their team. Much of the reason for this is boost that Amari Cooper injected when the team traded for him midway through the 2018 season, but what if Dallas never felt like they had to do that?
What if L.P. Ladouceur was never called for the snap infraction at Washington in 2018?
If you rewound the clock to Week 7 of the 2018 season, you would find the 3-3 Dallas Cowboys struggling against a division rival to get above .500 just before the bye.
The Cowboys opened their season with a loss to the Carolina Panthers that year and continued to flip-flop in between the loss and win columns. This was the first season the team entered without Dez Bryant as they had moved on from him late in previous offseason.
Obviously, the lack of a number one wide receiver is what led to Dallas feeling inclined to trade for Cooper. As a team they had their first 100-yard receiver the week prior in a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, but they were desperate from losing again and entering the bye week with a 3-4 record.
Here's L.P. Ladouceur's snap infraction, followed by the very next snap on the missed field goal: pic.twitter.com/rVB3HRtM9x— Landon Haaf (@LandonHaaf) October 22, 2018
Consider just how emotionally charged the Cowboys were back in 2018. After the aforementioned Jaguars victory, there were even rumblings that a contract extension was on the way for Jason Garrett.
Getting to the game in Washington, the Cowboys sent Brett Maher out to try and tie the game against their division rivals as they trailed 17-20. It would have been a 47-yard field goal attempt, but just-about-as-perfect-as-a-long-snapper-can-be L.P. Ladouceur was called for a “snap infraction” which pushed the group back five more yards. Maher missed by hitting the upright, and the Cowboys fell to 3-4 with a long flight home and bye week to think things over.
What if the Cowboys went on to beat Washington and therefore didn’t feel desperate the next day?
Let’s say that Ladouceur is never called for that penalty, and say even further that Maher ties it up, and go one more step to say that the Cowboys then win in overtime. It is certainly possible.
The tenor of the team would have been incredibly different the following morning as the Cowboys would have been 4-3 having won their last two games in a row, with the bye week serving as an opportunity for assessment with optimism fueling the air as opposed to doom and gloom. It is hard to imagine that they would have felt as up against a wall as they did to send their 2019 first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for Cooper.
NFL teams lie to themselves like this all of the time. They lull themselves into a false sense of security and belief in a false reality because, as it has often been said, winning cures all. If we are to assume that they would have felt confident enough in their wide-receiver-by-committee arrangement to not trade for Cooper, what would have happened after that?
The Cowboys went on to lose their first game with Cooper (Jason Witten’s return on Monday Night Football when the Tennessee Titans had their way with Dallas) so it is hard to believe that they would have won without himm. This would have put them at .500 through eight games.
What actually happened next was fairly remarkable as the Cowboys ripped off five wins in a row that ultimately served as the propelling factor for them winning the NFC East. Without Cooper’s heroics (particularly against Washington on Thanksgiving and in the second game against the Philadelphia Eagles) the Cowboys probably only win two or three of those games.
After that thrilling win over the Eagles, the Cowboys got blanked by the Indianapolis Colts and then beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (the win that sealed the NFC East) and the New York Giants to finish the season. Without Cooper as their top offensive weapon they likely finish somewhere around 7-9 or 8-8.
What would this have meant for Dak Prescott and Jason Garrett?
We know now that Dak Prescott is an elite quarterback. Without Cooper catapulting the offense that season, though, it is unlikely that any of the wide receivers (think about Tavon Austin, Deonte Thompson, Allen Hurns, and Cole Beasley) help him take the next step as a quarterback.
The Dak angle here is admittedly the most difficult to even speculate over because it’s not like the Cowboys even paid him that next offseason. What is more interesting to think about is how the organization might have handled Jason Garrett coming off of what would have been a second disappointing season in a row.
It is largely agreed that the team’s success in 2018 (and to a degree that five-game winning streak specifically) helped justify keeping Jason Garrett around into the 2019 season. If the team had fallen apart in 2018, perhaps the Cowboys would have moved on from him one year earlier than they ultimately wound up doing. Remember that they did move on from Scott Linehan after the 2018 season in favor of Kellen Moore.
Let us assume that the Cowboys did move on from Garrett in the early days of the 2019 calendar year; if so, who would they have pursued? These are the head coaches that were hired in that year’s cycle.
NFL Head Coaches hired in 2019
- Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers
- Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals
- Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos
- Freddie Kitchens, Cleveland Browns
- Adam Gase, New York Jets
- Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins
- Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It is certainly possible that the Cowboys would have still wound up with Mike McCarthy as he was technically available at this time and did interview for a couple of positions. The most intriguing option though isn’t even on this list and still holds the post that he did at this particular moment in time, Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley.
Consider that at this point in time Riley had just overseen a Sooners offense led by quarterback Kyler Murray. Their season did not end the way any Oklahoma fan would have wanted it to, but for the second year in a row Riley’s offense saw its quarterback win the Heisman Trophy. This is undoubtedly when his stock was the highest. It just so happened that at this particular time the Cowboys had no reason to move on from Jason Garrett given that they won the NFC East and a Wildcard playoff game.
But what if Ladouceur’s snap infraction never happened, Brett Maher made the field goal, Dallas won the game, and the Cowboys didn’t trade for Amari Cooper? Would Jerry Jones have felt the need to pursue Lincoln Riley in an effort to take Dak Prescott to the next level since we wouldn’t have seen what Dak actually did with Cooper? If we want to get really hypothetical, we could even say that Lincoln Riley’s Dallas Cowboys would have potentially used the first-round pick that they would have had on someone like Marquise Brown as the team would have been in serious need of wide receiver help.
What-ifs are ultimately hypotheticals and based on something that did not happen. But it is interesting to think about how close certain events and timelines were to unfolding and being reality.