Mike McCarthy: When Trying Too Hard Backfired for the Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys entered 2020 with high expectations — I picked them for the Super Bowl and an MVP season for Dak Prescott. While a Week 1 loss in Los Angeles on Sunday night doesn’t crush those hopes, it was one of the more disappointing debuts, a 20-17 final that played out much like many of the losses the Cowboys had in 2019.

It’s almost like head coach Jason Garrett never left, but his replacement, Mike McCarthy, may have been too eager to shed his past reputation with a decision that proved costly for Dallas.

Down 20-17 with just under 12 minutes remaining, the Cowboys eschewed a 29-yard game-tying field goal attempt to keep the offense on the field for a 4th-and-3 play at the Los Angeles 11. Prescott threw short of the sticks to rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb for only a 2-yard gain and the Cowboys turned the ball over on downs. They never got the ball past their own 34 on their next two drives and no more points were scored in the game.

That’s now 15 straight drives (spread across seven losses) where the Dallas offense has failed to tie or take the lead of a one-score game in the fourth quarter going back to the 2018 divisional round loss to the Rams.

The beginning of the end for McCarthy in Green Bay was the 2014 NFC Championship Game in Seattle when he made too many conservative calls for field goals early in the game despite great field position. He never was able to shake that reputation, and in his first game back after a year off from coaching, he may have tried too hard to show that he’s changed with this first big decision of his Dallas career.

McCarthy defended the call by saying he wanted to create more momentum and that “the conservative play is to kick the field goal, but I felt good about how we were moving.”

Believe it or not, but had Garrett still been the Dallas coach, this game likely would have gone to overtime. Garrett would have kicked the field goal to knot it at 20, clapped like they just won the Super Bowl, and the game where both offenses were not turning their opportunities into points would have gone on.

This was only the 12th game in NFL history where both offenses gained at least 380 yards, but zero points were scored in the fourth quarter. Sean McVay’s Rams were also involved in the 11th such game, a 24-10 win over Cincinnati in 2019.

But McCarthy went for it where a field goal actually would have been the better call. The Cowboys dialed up a play that clearly wasn’t trying to score a touchdown, but instead get the first down. Even that is arguable with the placement of the ball short of the sticks, but we’ll put that on Prescott and Lamb. The fact is Dallas was taking a risk to maybe get a first-and-goal situation. The drive still could have ended up with a field goal attempt for all we know. A sack or holding penalty on the very next snap could have easily led to that. So it’s not like the Cowboys were in a touchdown-or-bust situation where even a failure has the Rams backed up in front of their own end zone.

While there were still nearly 12 minutes left, that argument cuts both ways. It is defensible with that much time that they could still have multiple opportunities the rest of the way. However, it is not a sure thing that they’ll get the ball back down 20-17. It could be 27-17 too. Also, a 24-20 lead with that much time isn’t a lock to win the game as the Rams would have chances to still win with a touchdown too. Ultimately, it was not essential for the Cowboys to get a touchdown on this drive, so they should have just kicked the short field goal (not a lock, but close) and tied the game.

This call is really one of a kind in recent NFL history.

Since 1994, teams have faced 4th-and-2 or longer in the red zone while trailing by 1-3 points in the fourth quarter 349 times. A whopping 346 of those teams decided to kick a field goal.

Two teams (2003 Jaguars vs. Colts, 2005 Titans vs. Cardinals) botched their field goal process (snap/hold) and didn’t get a kick off, let alone score. Only three offenses actually stayed on the field:

  • 2009 Raiders vs. Broncos: Down 16-13 on the first play of the quarter, Darren McFadden was stopped after a 2-yard run on 4th-and-goal from the Denver 3.
  • 2017 Browns vs. Jets: Down 10-7 with 13:03 left, Isaiah Crowell was stopped after a 1-yard run on 4th-and-2 at the NYJ 4.
  • 2020 Cowboys vs. Rams: The only play of the three that came outside the 4-yard line.

Those other two decisions were more defensible than Dallas’ decision. While Cleveland’s play wasn’t goal-to-go, it was still an attempt to score or get the ball inside the 2. It failed, and the Jets actually drove 97 yards for a touchdown that basically put the game away.

That’s a great example of what makes fourth-quarter decision making so difficult and important. When the margin for error shrinks so much due to time, you can’t pass up sure things that often. The field goal to tie should have been a sure thing for Dallas. There could even be an advantage to tying the game instead of going up 24-20 if it means the Rams would be more conservative on offense if it was 20-20.

McCarthy has at least 15 more games to make up for this one, but it’s hard to believe after one game I’m already writing that The Clapper would have better served Dallas for one night. While now is not the time to panic, this game does add to the collection of Dallas’ failed 4QC/GWD attempts since 2018 that all have something else in common: the Cowboys never scored more than 24 points.

9/9/2018CAR (A)L 16-8
10/7/2018HOU (A)L 19-16 OT
10/21/2018WAS (A)L 20-17
11/5/2018TENL 28-14
1/12/2019LAR (A)L 30-22
9/29/2019NO (A)L 12-10
10/13/2019NYJ (A)L 24-22
11/10/2019MINL 28-24
11/24/2019NE (A)L 13-9
12/22/2019PHI (A)L 17-9
9/13/2020LAR (A)L 20-17

If the offense isn’t rolling in the first three quarters, there’s not much hope to expect them to turn it around in the fourth quarter. McCarthy was arguably the premiere front-running coach of the last decade, so it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of this season goes.

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