Four Mike McCarthy decisions that may have doomed Cowboys in wild-card loss to 49ers



Not many people want to be like Mike. McCarthy, that is.

The Cowboys were bounced from the playoffs on Sunday courtesy of old foe San Francisco, falling to the 49ers at home 23-17. The game came down to the wire, with a highly controversial final play call ultimately dooming the Cowboys as the clock expired. But, as it goes in football, it’s never just one decision that makes or breaks a game.

To that end, as is custom with Mike McCarthy-coached games, this one was wrought with head-scratchers and decisions that, well, probably shouldn’t have been made. Whether it was penalties in crucial situations, a severe lack of discipline from his players or on-field decisions that he either called or allowed to happen, the Cowboys head coach played a big part in how the game turned out.

IYER: Dissecting the Cowboys’ playoff fail vs. 49ers

Here are some of the more questionable decisions that may have played into the outcome: 

Strange timeout usage

McCarthy is known for sketchy clock management. That was apparent in the first half Sunday.

With the time winding down in the first half (about a minute remaining) and a third-and-19 with the clock running, Dallas opted not to use a timeout to get itself into a more favorable position for the ensuing play. Instead, Dak Prescott and Cedrick Wilson couldn’t connect on a pass. Wilson seemed to have been blinded by the sun.

Dallas was also down 16-7 at the time and was receiving the second-half kickoff, which would have put Dallas in prime position to double up. Instead, it punted with 35 seconds left. San Francisco started on its own 3-yard line.

Here’s where things get even weirder: McCarthy called two of his three timeouts with the 49ers seemingly trying to drain the clock to get to the half, perhaps in the hope that Dallas would get the ball back for a last-ditch shot at a punt return. 

Nothing about the sequence made much sense: If you were determined to score, why not call the timeout on third down? Why rush into that call? 

Bizarre fake punt sequence

In the third quarter, the Cowboys pulled off a well-timed and well-executed fake punt that gave them a crucial fourth-down conversion. What happened next was truly strange.

On the ensuing first down, Dallas kept its punt unit on the field, but obviously it wasn’t going to punt. Instead, it was trying to fake the 49ers into calling a timeout in the confusion. The 49ers didn’t, and with about 18 seconds left on the play clock, the Cowboys’ offense rushed to the field to run a play.

The play clock expired and the Cowboys were assessed a penalty for delay of game. The ensuing play calls weren’t inspiring, with the Cowboys eventually opting to kick a 51-yard field goal.

That leads to . . .

The questionable field goal

When you have an opportunity to kick a field goal to take it from a two-score game to . . . a two-score game, you just gotta do it.

After the fake punt sequence detailed above, the Cowboys eventually settled for a Greg Zuerlein 51-yard field goal. Why, exactly? Your guess, fair reader, is as good as everyone else’s.

If Dallas was determined to run the fake punt to get the first down, there’s really no reason it shouldn’t have gone for it on fourth-and-7 from the San Francisco 33 to put itself in position to score a touchdown. Instead, it settled for the field goal to close the gap to 23-10 with the fourth quarter forthcoming. That’s still a 13-point deficit, better known as a two-score game.

Certainly, you put your team behind the 8-ball a bit if you do go for it, fail to convert and the 49ers score on the next possession after being given good field position. But the logic seems backward: Why risk it with the fake punt, potentially putting the 49ers in great field position, but decide against going for it a few minutes later when you are in better field position and needing a score? None of it makes sense.

In McCarthy’s defense, the difference in win probabilities from kicking the field goal vs. going for it was negligible, per ESPN. It’s not necessarily about added win probability, though, as it was putting your team in a spot to get closer.

And McCarthy was bailed out somewhat by an ill-timed interception by Jimmy Garoppolo on the ensuing drive. The Cowboys would score a touchdown to tighten the game to 23-17. Ultimately, that was the final score.

MORE: Jerry Jones is pretty disappointed after the Cowboys’ wild-card loss

Still, the decision to kick wasn’t the greatest. 

That final play call

McCarthy and the Cowboys got very, very cute with the final play call of the game. It was a gamble at best and a downright disgusting, nonsensical play at worse.

With the clock ticking and the Cowboys needing a touchdown to win, a designed quarterback draw gave Prescott 17 yards. Unfortunately, the clock kept running, and it didn’t leave Prescott any time for a last-ditch attempt at the end zone.

Needless to say, there was a lot of confusion — and anger — surrounding that play call. McCarthy, though, stood by it postgame.

“That was the best option. … It’s like anything else. Do you want to be running the Hail Mary play from the 50-yard line, or you want to be running a five-verticals from the 25-yard line? That was the decision. It’s the right decision,” he said.

There are more than a few questions that should be asked, though:

  • Was it McCarthy’s call to run that play or offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s?
  • Did the game end because time expired after the run, or did Prescott’s spike after the run officially end the game?
  • Why run the ball there, rather than take two shots at the end zone?

No matter which way you slice it, it seemed like a pretty bad call.

Well, there’s always next year, Cowboys fans.

MORE: What, exactly, happened on that last play?





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