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Turns out the controversial end-of-game play the Cowboys called has worked before

Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore stole a play they knew could work.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Cowboys certainly drew their fair share of criticism after losing to the 49ers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, but it was perhaps amplified by the final seconds of the game. You know what I’m referring to: the bizarre Dak Prescott draw play where the Cowboys didn’t have enough time to clock the ball.

The decision to call a designed run with 14 seconds remaining and no timeouts was heavily criticized, but Mike McCarthy explained that it was a play the team has practiced for that situation numerous times before. But Prescott didn’t slide in time and the official didn’t place the ball in time for the spike to matter.

Had they gotten that spike off in time, though, Prescott would have had one shot to throw a touchdown from 24 yards out instead of attempting Hail Mary heaves from 41 yards away. The logic was simple, but the execution was not. That led McCarthy to insist it was a good call.

This comment, of course, extended the online trolling of McCarthy. However, Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News found a play from a Vikings-Jaguars game in Week 13 of the 2020 season that’s essentially the same concept as what Dallas was trying to do.

In this game, the Jaguars and Vikings were tied at 24 apiece and Jacksonville started at their own 41-yard line with 13 seconds in the game and no timeouts. With Minnesota anticipating a Hail Mary, they gave the ball to their running back, who picked up 15 yards. The Jaguars got up to the line of scrimmage in time, the officials quickly spotted the ball, and they spiked it with one second remaining.

Jacksonville ended up missing the 62-yard field goal and they ultimately lost in overtime, but this was an example of what the Cowboys were going for. Clearly either McCarthy or Kellen Moore saw this play unfold and recognized it as a good way to earn some extra yards in these kinds of late-game desperation attempts.

If this example wasn’t enough to convince you of the logical efficacy of such a play, though, there is also data that supports the thought process as well. Kalyn Kahler of Defector Media looked at the success rates of Hail Mary attempts from various distances and, well, the results are telling:

The first thing to note here is that the success rate for all of these attempts is very low, which is indicative of the nature of the Hail Mary anyway. Most of the time, a Hail Mary doesn’t work for the offense, but that’s why it’s called a Hail Mary. It’s a last ditch attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The margin for error on these plays is practically nonexistent.

With that in mind, any improvement in the odds of success is meaningful here. And for the Cowboys, launching a Hail Mary from the San Francisco 41 would have roughly a 4% chance of working out. The draw play moved the ball to the San Francisco 24, so running a play from there would have given the Cowboys a 5.8% chance of scoring.

That is not an insignificant improvement as far as a Hail Mary attempt goes. The Cowboys had a significantly better chance of throwing a touchdown from 24 yards out that any sort of 41-yard heave or a catch-and-lateral trick play. Furthermore, consider that seven of Prescott’s touchdown passes this year - almost 19% of his touchdown throws - came on throws of 24 yards or more, and it’s easy to see the value in running the kind of play Dallas did.

Now, there were other ways for the Cowboys to gain more yards and cut the field in half. They could have tried another quick dump-off to Cedrick Wilson for him to pitch it to someone else to get yards and then out of bounds, or they could have simply run a route combination that takes someone like Amari Cooper or Dalton Schultz out of bounds. Or they could have chucked a couple of Hail Mary passes. But the Cowboys had this one in their back pocket and had practiced it before. Perhaps with the way the game had played out, specifically with regards to a general breakdown in pass protection, McCarthy and Moore figured now was the time to bust this play out.

The key, of course, is execution, and that was what was lacking on that final play. Whether it was Prescott not getting down earlier or not giving the ball to the official, or the official not being close enough to the play to quickly spot the ball, things didn’t go as planned and the Cowboys have to live with that now. But McCarthy is absolutely right that the call was correct. If anything, blame him for the lack of execution, but not the thought process.