The Cowboys’ controversial late game against the 49ers has already worked
The Cowboys certainly drew their fair share of criticism after losing to the 49ers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, but it may have been amplified by the closing seconds of the game. You know what I’m talking about: Dak Prescott’s odd tie where the Cowboys didn’t have enough time to time the ball.
The decision to call a designed run with 14 seconds remaining and no timeouts was heavily criticized, but Mike McCarthy explained that it was a play the team had practiced many times for this situation before. But Prescott didn’t slide in time and the official didn’t place the ball in time for the spike to count.
Had they gotten that spike in time, however, Prescott would have had a hit to throw for a touchdown 24 yards instead of attempting to throw Hail Mary 41 yards. The logic was simple, but the execution was not. This led McCarthy to insist it was a good call.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said the final game was the right call.
— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) January 19, 2022
That comment, of course, extended McCarthy’s online trolling. However, Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News found a Vikings-Jaguars one-game play in Week 13 of the 2020 season that is essentially the same concept as what Dallas was trying to do.
The Jaguars-Vikings referee simply touches the ball while the Cowboys-49ers referee picks it up and places it. Possible reason: where C Tyler Biadasz spotted him. The ball is a little too outside the hash end than usual. See his ball compared to a few games before pic.twitter.com/adKvz0hJZv
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) January 20, 2022
In that game, the Jaguars and Vikings were tied at 24 apiece and Jacksonville started at their own 41-yard line with 13 seconds left in the game and no timeouts. Minnesota anticipating a Hail Mary, they gave the ball to their running back, who picked up 15 yards. The Jaguars approached the line of scrimmage in time, the officials quickly spotted the ball and spiked it with one second remaining.
Jacksonville ended up missing the field goal from 62 yards and they ultimately lost in overtime, but it was an example of what the Cowboys were looking for. Obviously, McCarthy or Kellen Moore saw this play unfold and recognized it as a good way to gain extra yards in these kinds of late-game desperation attempts.
If this example wasn’t enough to convince you of the logical effectiveness of such a piece, there is also data that also supports the thought process. Kalyn Kahler of Defector Media looked at the success rates of Hail Mary attempts at different distances and, well, the results are telling:
The first thing to note here is that the success rate of all these attempts is very low, which is indicative of the nature of Hail Mary anyway. Most of the time, a Hail Mary doesn’t work for the offense, but that’s why it’s called a Hail Mary. It’s a last ditch attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The margin of error on these games is practically non-existent.
With that in mind, any improvement in the odds of success is significant here. And for the Cowboys, throwing a Hail Mary from the San Francisco 41 would have about a 4% chance of working. The draw moved the ball to San Francisco’s 24, so running a play from there would have given the Cowboys a 5.8% chance of scoring.
This is not an insignificant improvement when it comes to a Hail Mary attempt. The Cowboys had a much better chance of throwing a 24-yard touchdown than any sort of 41-yard heave or lateral catch play. Plus, consider that seven of Prescott’s touchdown passes this year — nearly 19% of his touchdown throws — have come on throws of 24 yards or more, and it’s easy to see the value in running the kind of game. that Dallas did.
Now there were other ways the Cowboys could gain more yards and cut the field in half. They could have tried another quick drop to Cedrick Wilson to throw at someone else to get yards then out of bounds, or they could have just run a route combination that takes someone like Amari Cooper or Dalton Schultz out of bounds. Or they could have thrown in a few Hail Mary passes. But the Cowboys had this one in their back pocket and had practiced it before. Perhaps with the way the game had been going, especially with regards to a general breakdown in pass protection, McCarthy and Moore thought now was the time to break this game up.
The key, of course, is execution, and that’s what this end game lacked. Whether it’s Prescott not going down sooner or giving the ball to the official, or the official not being close enough to the game to quickly spot the ball, the things didn’t go as planned and the Cowboys have to live with that now. But McCarthy is absolutely right that the call was correct. Rather, blame it for the lack of execution, but not for the thought process.