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.

NFL Quarterbacks: Franchise Records for Most Fourth-Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives

Nearly six years ago I posted a table of the franchise records for fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and game-winning drives (GWD) for the 32 NFL teams. Here is the update to that through the 2019 season, and remember this includes playoff games.

Franchise4QCGWD

Among the changes since 2014:

  • Bengals: Andy Dalton surpassed Boomer Esiason in both categories
  • Raiders: Derek Carr surpassed Ken Stabler in 4QC, but he still trails The Snake by one GWD
  • Chargers: Philip Rivers surpassed Dan Fouts in both categories
  • Seahawks: Russell Wilson surpassed Dave Krieg in both categories
  • Eli Manning (Giants), Jay Cutler (Bears) and Tony Romo (Cowboys) all retired, but still hold their franchise records

The 2020 season could be a massive changing of the guard with Eli’s retirement and the Chargers parting ways with Rivers. We also don’t know if Cam Newton will return to Carolina, so Jake Delhomme may still hang onto these records. We don’t know if Andy Dalton will ever start another game in Cincinnati, clearing way for the Joe Burrow era to begin. We don’t know if Tom Brady will add to his record amounts in New England. We don’t know if Brees will do the same in New Orleans. We don’t even know if Carr is truly safe in what will now be the Las Vegas Raiders to break that Stabler record.

Deshaun Watson beating those low bars set by Matt Schaub in Houston is likely to happen in 2020 or 2021. Other than that, don’t expect many changes to this table in the coming years. Patrick Mahomes will be expected to have all the Kansas City records, but these two could take a few more years. The Chiefs, Jets, Raiders and Eagles are the only teams that have different players holding sole possession of the 4QC and GWD records.

The bottom four teams (SF/TB/TEN/WAS) have records held by quarterbacks who haven’t played for those teams since the salary cap era began (1994). That’s not likely to change any time soon either.

Close Encounters: Super Bowl LIV

No matter if it was the NFL’s first season or its 100th, the stingy defense with the great pass rush takes down another prolific passer. The QB who walks into the building with 23 points is stuck on 10 in the biggest game of his career.

Because football…football never changes.

Record a Ron Perlman voice-over for that.

That Fallout reference was going to be my tweet tonight more than halfway through the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. That was my gut feeling around the time when the 49ers led the Chiefs 20-10 and Kansas City faced a 3rd-and-15 at its own 35.

For the first time in 36 games, I actually doubted Patrick Mahomes.

SBLIV

Then with just one snap, everything changed and the Chiefs are Super Bowl champions and Mahomes even walked away with the MVP award. It was one of the more dramatic fourth-quarter finishes in Super Bowl history even if the game itself wasn’t an instant classic.

So here is my Super Bowl LIV recap, my first game recap in ~54 weeks in a new section I’m calling what I have long wanted to call these recaps: Close Encounters

Mahomes: From Worst Game to Best Comeback to Champ Forever

The best player in football is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. That feels great to say after what’s felt like many years where it hasn’t been the case, and I’m grateful we never have to bother with the question of “can Mahomes win the big one?”

However, this was not a walk in the park for Mahomes like the first two playoff games. In fact, until those final ~7 minutes, it looked like he was having the worst game of his career in the biggest game of his career. But if there’s anything I absolutely nailed in my 5,000-word preview for this game, it was the very last paragraph:

There are a lot of areas that favor the 49ers, and I think historically the 49ers are the type of team more likely to win this game than a team like the Chiefs. There are just more ways for the 49ers to win while practically every positive outcome for Kansas City involves Mahomes playing really well. Then again, Mahomes is 9-0 in his career when his passer rating is under 90.0 because he’s the best at doing what the coach who succeeded Reid and preceded Shanahan used to say: f***ing score points.

Final: Chiefs 31, 49ers 27 (MVP: Patrick Mahomes)

Yeah, just score some f***ing points by any means necessary, and Mahomes has done that better over 36 games than any quarterback ever has. You sack him four times and he still puts up 31, even if the final touchdown was a killshot from the ground attack. You keep his passer rating under 90.0 (it was 78.1 in this game) by getting a pair of picks and he’s still 10-0 in his career with the scoreboard looking full.

He doesn’t have a weakness, but let’s look at how things progressed tonight because Mahomes had to lead the most significant late-game comeback of his career to pull this one off.

Mahomes started the game with a couple erratic throws for a quick three-and-out before rebounding well enough. Nerves in a first Super Bowl make sense. The 15-play touchdown drive that took up half the first quarter was in line with some of the great drive engineering he’s done this postseason with short passes. Not taking advantage of Jimmy Garoppolo’s interception and settling for a field goal was disappointing, but the Chiefs led 10-3 early.

The first big mistake of the night, at least coaching wise, was with just over two minutes left in the half tied 10-10. The Chiefs should have played this better with the 49ers getting the ball to start the third quarter. They essentially ran a series of plays that negated Mahomes’ existence. They ran the ball for 2 yards to get to the two-minute warning, then tried a trick play with Mecole Hardman that was blown up in the backfield for a 6-yard loss. How many tricks like that do you need with Mahomes? On 3rd-and-14, the Chiefs just ran a screen that was not effective on the night and the team punted. That was a really bad ending to the half and that wasn’t Mahomes’ fault at all, but he also wasn’t wowing us either like usual, so the game went to the half tied at 10.

Then in the third quarter, Mahomes recovered a fumble forced by Nick Bosa to set up 3rd-and-12. Mahomes has fumbled six times in the playoffs (five games), but has been fortunate not to lose any of them. But on the very next snap, he threw a terrible pass that was intended for Tyreek Hill and intercepted for his first ever postseason giveaway. That led to a 20-10 San Francisco lead and suddenly Mahomes looked rattled by the pass rush, the deficit, and the magnitude of the situation. He wasn’t attacking deep, or improvising big plays, and the short passing game was pretty well bottled up.

I’ve mentioned in the preview how the Chiefs had so many third-down drops in this postseason to kill drives. I can’t call what Mahomes did early in the fourth quarter a drop since he was so off target again to Hill, but the pass was tipped for an interception while the Chiefs were driving at the San Francisco 23. After seeing Mahomes step up from a decent pocket and still come up short on a pass to Hill, I was really convinced this was going to be a big scar on his resume. The 49ers were quick to challenge and the replay system correctly took away the 16-yard completion that should have been an easy one for Mahomes.

And then the play of the game on 3rd-and-15 happened. What a time for Mahomes to complete his longest pass (57.1 air yards) of 2019:

Without that play you would have seen a punt and probably a San Francisco win. It’s only the second time since 1994 that a team converted on 3rd-and-14 or longer in the fourth quarter (last time: Tom Brady to Julian Edelman vs. 2014 Seahawks on 3rd-and-14). Mahomes had to take such a deep drop to fire that one deep and Hill was free enough to make the catch. Game on. Three plays later, I thought the defensive pass interference call on third down was a good one since the defender made contact without ever playing the ball. That put the ball at the 1 where Mahomes found Travis Kelce for an easy 1-yard touchdown with 6:13 left to make it 20-17.

I made this thread in November to show that Mahomes has been much better than his 3-7 record (now 4-7) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities:

So with 5:10 left he had his chance and the Chiefs put the ball in his hands on seven straight plays. The deep throw for 38 yards to Sammy Watkins made it look like the Chiefs might score too quickly again, but it came down to a 3rd-and-goal at the 5 this time. Kelce cleared some room and Mahomes just had to throw a short toss to RB Damien Williams, who did enough to cross the plane for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:44 left. I’m not 100% sure he broke the plane with the ball before stepping out, but that was the ruling on the field and there wasn’t anything conclusive enough to say he didn’t score. The Chiefs led 24-20 and put it in the defense’s hands again to much success. Williams delivered the deathblow with a 38-yard touchdown run to give us a 31-20 final.

Mahomes was really the default MVP in this one. He finished as a passer with 26/42 for 286 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT. He rushed nine times for 29 yards and a touchdown, though he actually lost 15 yards on three kneeldowns when the Chiefs ran the clock late. So he was effective as a runner once again. I can understand people wanting Williams as MVP for the late touchdowns, though he didn’t really need to score the last one. He could have gone down after the first down at any point and the Chiefs would have ran the clock out and won 24-20. I swear I’m not just bringing this up because my #1 bet was Chiefs by exactly 4:

kc4

(My real bet was $20 to win $500, but this still hurts)

So it wasn’t the cleanest game for Mahomes, but he was money in crunch time. He led the team to 24 points on their first eight drives, or 3.0 Pts/Dr against the best defense in the NFC. That’s nothing to take lightly. Most quarterbacks would have imploded against that pass rush, but Mahomes stepped up on back-to-back touchdown drives.

But make no mistake about it — 3rd-and-15 changed everything in this one and that throw was vintage Mahomes, the first NFL player to ever win an MVP and Super Bowl MVP before he was 25 years old. Hats off to him for capping an incredible first two seasons.

The Chiefs Did What!?

Some stats are hard to believe, but this one takes the cake:

The Chiefs trailed by 10+ points in all three playoff games, but still won all three games by 11+ points.

If you know my work, you know I don’t like using the final score to judge the closeness of a game. Things are going to be especially misleading for this downright historic Kansas City playoff run. The Chiefs trailed 24-0 to Houston before winning 51-31 and never even trailing in the second half. The Chiefs trailed by 10 twice to Tennessee and won 35-24. The Chiefs trailed 20-10 in the fourth quarter before beating the 49ers 31-20.

It’s the first time a team has three double-digit comeback wins in the same postseason. Think about that for a second.

  • Winning three straight games after trailing by 10+ points would be a crazy NFL feat (the 2013 Patriots did this Weeks 12-14).
  • Winning three straight games by double digits AFTER trailing by double digits would be an insane feat.
  • Doing that as your Super Bowl run is inconceivable and I am using that word correctly.

The Chiefs are just the third team to win a Super Bowl after trailing by more than 14 points in the postseason, joining Peyton Manning’s 2006 Colts (18 points down vs. Patriots in AFC-CG) and Tom Brady’s 2016 Patriots (25 points down vs. Atlanta in SB LI). The Chiefs are now the fifth team to win a Super Bowl after trailing by double-digits in the fourth quarter during the playoffs:

The Chiefs are the second team in NFL playoff history to enter the fourth quarter down by double digits and win the game by double digits. The Eagles did it to New Orleans, 36-20, in 1992.

Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy G: The San Francisco Blame Game

When it comes to Super Bowl collapses and heartbreak, Kyle Shanahan and Dan Quinn probably know it better than anyone now. Shanahan and Quinn shared the 28-3 collapse in Atlanta, but Quinn also saw the 10-point lead disappear to the Patriots with the 2014 Seahawks. Now Shanahan sees a 10-point lead disappear to the Chiefs in this one, and this graphic is particularly hard to swallow:

I really don’t want to rehash 28-3 tonight, but let’s just say Shanahan didn’t finish the game as badly this time. If anything, he didn’t do enough in the first half and that hurt. A few too many screens and horizontal passes slowed down the 49ers, who were much better at using Deebo Samuel in motion and getting quick-hitting plays from the middle of the field instead of testing the Chiefs on the edges. In fact a couple of screens turned a promising opening drive into a field goal instead of a touchdown. Jimmy Garoppolo threw a bad pick under pressure early, but overall he wasn’t playing that poorly for Shanahan. The offense looked deadly in the second quarter after gaining a first down on five straight plays, including a touchdown to tie the game at 10.

But things fell apart a bit after the two-minute warning. I mentioned Reid’s shortcomings in that part of the game, but Shanahan did even worse with clock management. He had three timeouts but failed to use one to stop the clock after KC’s screen pass failed. So instead of saving about 100 seconds and two timeouts for Garoppolo, he saved three timeouts and 59 seconds. Then he remained conservative with two runs to set up a 3rd-and-5 with 20 seconds left. Garoppolo delivered a 20-yard completion, then seemed to follow it up with a great 42-yard bomb to George Kittle. However, that was wiped out for offensive pass interference. I thought it was a pretty soft call for a little hand fighting that is let go quite often in this league. That felt pretty cheap to me and cost the 49ers three points, but the bigger question is why the hell wouldn’t you try to save as much time as possible and shoot for a double score against Mahomes?

So that was bad for Shanahan, but he and Garoppolo came out strong from the half and took that 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter with 11:57 left. Look, you have to keep scoring when you play Mahomes. There weren’t any errors this time like calling a pass on 3rd-and-1 deep in your own end with a 16-point lead, or not just running the ball after a Julio Jones catch when you’re up 8. That didn’t happen here. The 49ers did call three pass plays on second down with a lead, but I can’t fault the calls there with the Chiefs obviously expecting the run. And let’s face it, the running game wasn’t that outstanding on the night as most of the best plays were unconventional tricks with Samuel.

Garoppolo also completed the first of those second-down passes, which proved to be the only first down the 49ers offense would get in the fourth with a lead. Pressure definitely had an impact on Garoppolo with not only the pick, but also a few batted balls. NextGenStats had Garoppolo as 0/7 passing with two picks while under pressure on the night. He was 20/24 otherwise for 219 yards. Ouch.

Garoppolo was off in the fourth quarter while the Chiefs were surging to that 24-20 lead. Still, you don’t mind the situation of having the ball with 2:39 left and 85 yards away from glory. In fact, it’s probably the situation quarterbacks dream about for years. Garoppolo has been pretty good at comebacks in limited opportunities, but he definitely will regret the 3rd-and-10 pass from the KC 49 with 1:40 left. Emmanuel Sanders got behind the defense, but Garoppolo overthrew him deep. On 4th-and-10, there wasn’t much of a chance and Garoppolo was dumped for a sack. Two plays later, Williams exploded for a touchdown and it was basically game over. Garoppolo’s second pick looks worse in the box score than anything else.

This game did not swing on many plays, so I really look at what each QB did on a third-and-long in the fourth quarter as being very decisive to this Super Bowl. Mahomes was able to deliver deep on his 3rd-and-15 to save the day, but Garoppolo was off the mark on his attempt despite an open receiver. So I really don’t want to jump on a “Shanahan can’t finish off a big one” or “Garoppolo will never win them a Super Bowl!” narrative when the margin is that small. Had the defense, the strength of the team for most of the year, did its job first on 3rd-and-15, we’re probably asking if Andy Reid will ever win a ring and wondering what the hell happened to Mahomes on the big stage.

Now an extra field goal on the board for the 49ers probably would have changed that drive, but again, that was a big blunder in the first half. I can’t crush Shanahan for how he called the game late, and I don’t think Garoppolo’s performance is one to crucify, but he just didn’t redeem himself in the way that Mahomes did.

The NFC has been a lot tougher to get back to this point too, so I’m not sure the 49ers are in an advantageous spot in 2020, especially given the strength of their division. Don’t discount the Cardinals getting really good in a year or two. We already know about Seattle and the Rams still have talent. So this is a tough blown opportunity for San Francisco.

Andy Reid: Hall of Famer… and Dynasty Starter?

Finally, we’ll end on a positive note as this win should wrap up a spot in Canton for Andy Reid. I’ve made my clock management jokes like everyone else, but he’s been arguably the best coach not named Bill Belichick this century. It wasn’t a perfect night for him, but good on the two fourth-down calls and now he has the ring to go along with the seventh-most wins and his winning percentage is over 61%. If we’re putting Bill Cowher in, then we’re absolutely putting Reid in, right?

In fact, Reid just shattered a Cowher record by winning his first Super Bowl in his 21st season, by far the longest wait a coach has had to earn his first championship. Cowher needed 14 years with the Steelers, which is still a record for one franchise, but Reid spent 14 years with the Eagles before winning in his seventh season with the Chiefs.

HC1stSBW

We know Mahomes has only been the starter for two seasons, but this highlights a five-year playoff run for the Chiefs that finally resulted in that coveted ring for Reid. It’s similar to other recent five-year runs to the top from the 2011-15 Broncos and 2008-12 Ravens. The 2002-06 Colts also needed a fifth-straight playoff trip to go the distance in the Tony Dungy-Peyton Manning era.

So does the dynasty talk already start tonight? We know this happens when a franchise QB wins one Super Bowl. We saw it in back-to-back years with Drew Brees (2009) and Aaron Rodgers (2010), but neither has even made it back to the Super Bowl. The last young franchise QB to win his first ring was Russell Wilson in 2013, and while the Seahawks made it back the next year, we know how that ended and they haven’t been past the divisional round since. We’re still in the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion (2003-04 Patriots).

The sky seems to be the limit for Mahomes and Reid together. We have seven months to talk about 2020 and repeating so let’s save it, but I am happy to see a new champion that is a joy to watch.

Whether it’s on this blog, another website, or maybe in a PDF you’ll order from me, I hope to bring a lot more analysis (and perhaps random musings) in 2020. Like Mahomes and scoring points, I’m a writer and I just need to write as often as I can while I can.