Not many people want to be like Mike. McCarthy, that is.
The Cowboys were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday courtesy of old foe San Francisco, falling to the 49ers at home 23-17. The game went all the way, with a highly controversial final play that ultimately doomed the Cowboys as the clock expired. But, as it happens in football, it is never just one decision that makes or breaks a game.
To that end, as is the custom for Mike McCarthy-led games, this one was full of surprises and decisions that, well, probably shouldn’t have been made. Whether it was penalties in crucial situations, a serious lack of discipline from his players, or decisions on the field that he ordered or allowed to happen, the Cowboys’ head coach played a big role in the outcome of the game.
Here are some of the more questionable decisions that may have influenced the outcome:
Strange use of timeout
McCarthy is known for incomplete clock management. That was evident in the first half on Sunday.
With time running out in the first half (about a minute left) and a third and 19 with the clock ticking, Dallas opted not to use a timeout to put themselves in a more favorable position for the next play. Instead, Dak Prescott and Cedrick Wilson couldn’t connect on a pass. Wilson appeared to have been blinded by the sun.
Dallas was also down 16-7 at the time and was getting the kickoff of the second half, which would have put Dallas in prime position to double down. Instead, he kicked with 35 seconds left. San Francisco started at their own 3-yard line.
Cowboys WR Cedrick Wilson: “It’s one of those things you can’t do anything about. I turned around and couldn’t see Dak or the ball.” https://t.co/3qVYVmsNp4
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 17, 2022
This is where things get even weirder: McCarthy called two of his three timeouts with the 49ers apparently trying to run out the clock to get to the half, perhaps hoping Dallas would get the ball back for one last shot in a clearance return. .
None of the sequence made much sense: if you were determined to score, why not call the time-out on the third try? Why rush into that call?
Weird 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 really strange.
On the next first down, Dallas kept their punt unit on the field, but obviously wasn’t going to punt. Instead, he was trying to trick the 49ers into calling a timeout in the midst of the confusion. The 49ers didn’t, and with about 18 seconds left on the play clock, the Cowboys’ offense ran onto the field to execute a play.
Mike McCarthy speaking on an Apple Watch: “We tried to fake a punt twice in a row to get them to spend time out, then we had a delay in the game and then we settled for a long field goal anyway. Send help.”
—Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) January 17, 2022
The play clock expired and the Cowboys received a delay-of-game penalty. Later play calls were uninspiring, and the Cowboys ultimately opted to kick a 51-yard field goal.
That leads to. . .
The dubious field goal
When he gets a chance to kick a field goal to take him from a two-point game to . . . a two point game, you just have to do it.
After the fake punt sequence detailed above, the Cowboys finally settled for a 51-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein. 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 why it shouldn’t have done it on fourth-and-7 from the San Francisco 33 to get in position to score a touchdown. Instead, he settled for the field goal to close the gap to 23-10 with the fourth quarter just around the corner. That’s still a 13-point deficit, better known as a two-point game.
You certainly put your team a little behind the 8-ball if you try, fail to convert and the 49ers score on the next possession after being given good field position. But the logic seems retrograde: Why take a chance on the fake punt, which could put the 49ers in great field position, but decide against it a few minutes later when he’s in better field position and needs a touchdown? None of that makes sense.
In McCarthy’s defense, the difference in winning odds for kicking the field goal versus attempting it was negligible, according to ESPN. It’s not necessarily about a higher chance of winning though, as he was putting his team in a spot to get closer.
Our model matched the field goal attempt.
WP go: 3.6%
WP Kick: 4.0%
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) January 17, 2022
And McCarthy was somewhat rescued by an ill-timed interception by Jimmy Garoppolo on the next drive. The Cowboys would score a touchdown to set the game at 23-17. In the end, that was the end result.
Still, the decision to kick was not the best.
The game delay after the fake punt and then a 51-yard FG to cut the lead from 16 to 13 with less than 12:00 left could be McCarthy’s Mona Lisa.
— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) January 17, 2022
That last game call
McCarthy and the Cowboys got very, very cute on the final play of the game. It was a gamble at best, and a downright disgusting and pointless play at worst.
With the clock ticking and the Cowboys needing a touchdown to win, an engineered quarterback draw gave Prescott 17 yards. Unfortunately, the clock kept ticking and Prescott didn’t have time for one last shot into the end zone.
Needless to say, there was a lot of confusion – and anger – surrounding that game call. McCarthy, however, stood his ground after the game.
“That was the best option. … It’s like anything else. Do you want to run the Hail Mary play from the 50-yard line, or do you want to run five verticals from the 25-yard line? That was the call. It’s the right call,” he said.
However, there are more than a few questions that need to be asked:
- Was it McCarthy’s call to run that play or offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s?
- Did the game end because time expired after the race, or did Prescott’s spike after the race officially end the game?
- Why run the ball there, instead of taking two shots in the end zone?
No matter which way you look at it, it seemed like a pretty bad decision.
Well, there’s always next year, Cowboys fans.
MORE: What exactly happened on that last play?