It never should have been this close. It never should have come down to one critical play at the very end. And it definitely shouldn’t have been so close that the team’s chances of winning rested on the ability of a reliably unreliable officiating crew to do their jobs.
This seems to be the general sentiment around the Cowboys following their 25-22 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday. It’s a correct one, too. The Cardinals had a long list of important players who weren’t on the field for this one and were losers of their last three games. Playing host in AT&T Stadium, this was a game the Cowboys should have won easily but didn’t.
And yet, despite all their countless errors throughout the whole game, the Cowboys made a play that gave them a shot to win. On the Cardinals’ final drive, Dallas had already been forced to use their remaining two timeouts when Chase Edmonds lost the ball. The Cowboys made a clear recovery, but the officials ruled he was down by contact.
Their lack of timeouts prevented Dallas from being able to challenge it, and the officiating crew did not initiate a review of their own despite having a new mechanic put in place for this year to catch exactly these kinds of mistakes. Instead of giving the ball to Dak Prescott and asking him to run a two-minute drill - in which the quarterback has been surgical for his entire career - with a chance to win or at least tie the game, Arizona kept the ball and ran the clock out.
Somehow, this botching of the NFL’s officiating review process isn’t what’s being discussed now. The prevailing narrative seems to be that head coach Mike McCarthy mismanaged the clock - a common critique leveled at him - and that’s the reason the Cowboys lost this game.
Mike McCarthy calls too many timeouts to use a challenge when he needs it. Welcome to the McCarthy era, Cowboys fans. DMs are open if you ever need to talk it out— Justis Mosqueda (NFL Owner) (@JuMosq) January 3, 2022
Not only does this fly in the face of the NFL’s actual data regarding timeout usage by head coaches, which has McCarthy as one of the better clock managers in the NFL, but it’s completely ignorant to the reality of how this game unfolded. Yes, the Cowboys were unable to challenge the uncalled fumble because they had used all of their timeouts. But looking at when those three timeouts were used makes it hard to argue that any of them were bad decisions. Let’s take a look:
Timeout #1 - 4:04 in 3rd Quarter
Late in the third quarter, the Cardinals were up 19-7 and had found their way into the red zone. It was imperative that the defense hold them to a field goal here and keep it a two-score game, albeit a more difficult one by needing a two-point conversion. A touchdown would have virtually eliminated any chances of coming back, and those odds were already slim.
On third-and-five from the Dallas eight, Kyler Murray’s pass to the endzone was broken up and nearly intercepted by Jayron Kearse. That would have been huge for many reasons, with the takeaway in the endzone being the biggest one. Avoiding what comes next would arguably have been as impactful, though.
On fourth down, the Cardinals sent out their kicking team to attempt the field goal and Dallas sent out their special teams group in response. But the Cardinals also brought Murray onto the field, albeit a bit late, and Arizona lined up like they were about to run an offensive play.
The Cowboys scrambled to adjust but were unable to make any substitutions. Not wanting to see Murray run a play against the field goal block team - again, extending the drive or scoring a touchdown would be catastrophic for the Cowboys’ chances - McCarthy called a timeout. Arizona ended up kicking the field goal, and Dallas still had a shot.
Due to the Cardinals’ trickery here, McCarthy really had no choice. Calling a timeout was the correct call, unquestionably, because it avoided a near-certain catastrophe. Even if you suggest the timeout was a mistake, it was shown on replay that several Cowboys players also signaled for a timeout because they knew they were caught in a bad spot. In other words, even if McCarthy didn’t take a timeout here, the timeout was getting called.
Timeout #2 - 3:01 in 4th Quarter
After the Cowboys scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to cut Arizona’s lead to 25-22, they kicked the ball off to the Cardinals with four minutes and 42 seconds remaining. Dallas had two timeouts, as well as the two minute warning. They didn’t need to use those timeouts right away, but did need their defense to force a punt.
It didn’t happen. Arizona drove down the field and moved the chains. By the time Zach Ertz took a quick pass 11 yards for a first down at the Dallas 46-yard line, there were just over three minutes left.
McCarthy took a timeout, likely aiming to force Arizona to run as many plays as possible before the two minute warning. He also understood that his defense probably wasn’t going to make a stop at this point and they needed to preserve what were becoming precious seconds.
Timeout #3 - 2:51 in 4th Quarter
The Cardinals’ next play out of the timeout was a dump-off pass to Edmonds, who took it 11 yards down the field for another first down. It seemed as if the Cowboys thought Edmonds went out of bounds, thus stopping the clock, but the officials ruled he went down in bounds and the clock kept running.
At this point, McCarthy had to call another timeout. With 51 seconds before the two minute warning, Arizona would have to run two plays before the clock stopped again, giving the Cowboys a chance to stop them on third down (assuming they held tight on the previous two plays) and give Prescott the ball back with a little over a minute to work with.
McCarthy was also probably hoping for a takeaway, which actually happened on the next play despite not being called.
So which of these timeouts was a bad decision? Which one shouldn’t have been called? Hindsight is 20/20, but the reality is that all three of the second-half timeouts McCarthy took were necessary for various reasons. That it left him unable to challenge the clear and obvious fumble is exactly the reason the NFL altered their replay mechanics for this season. It just didn’t happen, inexplicably so, this time around.
In the end, McCarthy did everything right regarding clock management in this game, and he still got burned for it. It’s a good example of just how hard it is to win games in the NFL, what with all of the different variables that aren’t under one team’s control, and a reminder to treasure the wins you do get, ugly or not. The good news for Dallas is they’ve managed to get many more wins than losses this year, but this one still stings.