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Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was correct to go for it on fourth down in overtime

There are multiple opinions on how Mike McCarthy handled the end of the game in Green Bay.

Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay Packers Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys lost on Sunday afternoon. The fact that they did so in a house of horrors for them, Lambeau Field, against the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, makes it all the more frustrating.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys have now breathed life into the Packers’ season which is a problem that we can worry about if things break that way in a few months. For now we are looking at this specific team but a lot of people are looking at one specific decision that they made.

After the Cowboys blew a 14-point lead they found themselves tied with the Packers heading into overtime. Dallas wisely called tails, it never fails, and won the toss and therefore began the extra period with the ball.

We discussed everything from Sunday’s game on the latest episode of The Postgame on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

Overtime began with promise for the Cowboys as they moved the ball down the field fairly effectively. After running three plays Jalen Tolbert lined up offside, which seems impossible for a wide receiver but so be it, and a handful of plays later they were staring at 3rd and 3 from the Green Bay 35-yard line.

Dak Prescott’s pass on third down was incomplete (some have argued that CeeDee Lamb was interfered with, but ifs and buts and you know the drill) which led to a decision. Mike McCarthy made one to go for it on an all-critical fourth down, and ultimately, his team failed. The Packers marched down the field and soon enough kicked the game-winning field goal.

In the immediate aftermath there seems to be some disagreement on what the right decision was.

The case to go for it

Speaking simplistically for a moment, you play to win the game and all of that jazz. Mike McCarthy clearly wanted to secure victory and that is significantly easier with the ball in your possession. As noted the Cowboys offense had traveled all the way into Green Bay territory at that point in overtime so to expect them to pick up three yards, even though they failed the play before, was not exactly the highest ask ever.

To be clear, “going for it” obviously means trying to earn a first down in the name of keeping the drive alive to go down and score a game-winning touchdown. The other argument, which we’ll get to shortly, is that Dallas should have kicked a field goal and then tried to protect a lead or salvage a tie, but as noted McCarthy didn’t show up to punt (metaphorically speaking).

At that point in the game the Cowboys defense was floundering. They had surrendered 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter which tied the game and were being had every which way on the ground. This was not quite Bill Belichick going for it deep in his own territory against Peyton Manning back in 2009, but it seems obvious that part of the logic here was to try and avoid trusting the Cowboys defense which is a strange thing to say but here we are.

Personally, this was the best choice possible. Obviously we all wish Dallas would have been successful but McCarthy deserves applause for trying to end the game on his terms.

The case to kick the field goal

The other path was for the Cowboys to kick a field goal, make it, and then stop the Packers from scoring a touchdown which they would have needed to win. In this scenario, a tie is still in play which is better than a loss.

But the Packers were moving rather easily as mentioned. Green Bay scored on touchdown drives that traveled 76 and 89 yards, respectively, in the fourth quarter alone. While it seemed unlikely that Dallas could have stopped them from doing that again, in a world of infinite possibilities they could have which means that had they made their own field goal they could have won by playing defense.

ESPN’s model slightly preferred a decision to kick the field goal as opposed to going for it, but the margin by which is pretty small. Still. though. if we are leaning on technicalities then the “correct” decision was to go for it. but this really is almost a true judgment call.

The Cowboys have one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers in Brett Maher (I am as surprised as you are) and have played like one of the league’s best defenses for most of this season. It would not have been unreasonable to rely on those qualities, but again, that would have been surrendering a bit of control and putting your fate in the hands of Aaron Rodgers which has not exactly worked well for this franchise.

We can all agree that the call on third down could have been better

Even if you would have rather kicked the field goal the fact remains that the Cowboys chose to go for it. It would stand to reason that the team knew that they were going to go for it on the fourth down that they did ahead of time unless they lost yardage on third down which is what makes that third-down call so interesting.

Dak Prescott threw it incomplete to CeeDee Lamb on third down as we mentioned at the very top, and while some will scream about how pass interference should have been called, the question that many want to know the answer to is why the Cowboys did not run the ball.

At that point in overtime the Cowboys had run the ball four times, although two were negated by penalty:

  • Tony Pollard for 7 yards
  • Tony Pollard for 7 yards
  • Tony Pollard for 9 yards (negated by Jalen Tolbert offsides)
  • Malik Davis for 16 yards (negated by Connor McGovern holding)

It was 3rd and 3, and literally every time the Cowboys had run the ball in overtime they had gained over twice of the needed yardage (although again two of those plays were called back). Hindsight is obviously 20/20, but it sort of feels like this was the right play especially if they knew they were going to go for it on fourth down.

Again, it is easy to second-guess, but if there was a fully thought out plan that 3rd and 3 at that point was two-down territory then it stands to reason that running the ball made sense before the stakes increased on fourth down. It is hard not to assume that the Cowboys reacted in the moment on fourth down, but perhaps this is just the plan that they felt best set them up to succeed.

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