The Following is the 2nd in an 11-part weekly series throughout the summer that will focus on the eleven plays that shaped 2011 for the Dallas Cowboys. Every game, about 130 actual plays happen and over the course of a season that number can exceed 2,000. But, we have selected 11 and will pick one each week and break it down from standpoint of "X's and O's" and see what we can learn looking back. The plays are not ranked, simply presented as the season unfolded. We hope you enjoy.
Week 2. The game that after the season facts would suggest was easily the most quality win of the season. The Cowboys won 8 games in 2011. 7 of them were against teams that had lousy seasons and lousy records, and then a win over a team that would go on to be 13-3, and be one play from the Super Bowl.
We sure didn't know it at game-time, but the win in San Francisco would be an incredibly memorable day. It would be a back and forth struggle that would force the Cowboys to come from well behind in the 4th Quarter. It would be a day in which the Cowboys would have to scrap and claw with an undersized and undermanned offensive line, and their quarterback would pay the price with a broken rib and a punctured lung.
But, Tony Romo showed some of his best leadership skills of his career that day, when they couldn't keep him on the sideline. Jon Kitna played a few possessions before Romo rejoined the team in the huddle, engineering a furious comeback to force overtime and then ultimately win the game.
What makes it all the more remarkable was the fact that the Cowboys had virtually no healthy wide receivers. Dez Bryant was hurt against the Jets and would miss this game. Miles Austin was having a very productive day before the Cowboys lost him to injury on the last play from scrimmage in regulation when he ran the ball on 3rd and 2 after being lined up as the tailback. Justin Smith, who had a very big day against the Cowboys line tossed Kevin Kowalski to the side and then chased down Austin, twisting Austin's knee below his body and sending him to the injured list until the New England game a month later. Further, Laurent Robinson was watching this game from his couch as he had been signed Sept 7, released Sept 13, and then would be re-signed on Sept 20. This game was played on Sept 18, so he wasn't even in the organization.
Austin was hurt on the final play the Cowboys ran in the 4th Quarter. He was stopped short of a first down, and if the Cowboys had reached the marker (1-yard further) they would have likely gone for the win because 0:45 remained and they were inside the 49ers 30-yard line. But, instead they let the clock run all the way down and Dan Bailey nailed a 48-yarder to send the game into overtime.
The 49ers were given the ball to start overtime, but their drive was quickly snuffed out by a clutch sack by Jay Ratliff as he rushed by center Jonathan Goodwin on his way to Alex Smith. The 49ers punt it back to Dallas and that sets up the Cowboys at their own 22, with 12:57 left in overtime.
And that sets up the play that we wish to feature in great detail as an absolute home run.
Jesse Holley is most famous for winning Michael Irvin's reality show "4th and Long". The show had a grand prize that may never be available again, a spot on the Dallas Cowboys. It seemed insane that is taken as seriously as filling out your roster could be turned over to reality tv, but I suppose in some ways, it helps us understand why that period for the Cowboys (Wade/Jerry) could be referred to as the Lost Years.
The other reason Holley is famous among Cowboys fans before this play was that he appeared to be the reason for 2 punts getting blocked. Taj Smith blocked a punt in Indianapolis as he ran right by Holley in 2010, and then in Week 1 of 2011 at New York, his mis-read as personal protector allowed Joe McKnight to run right up the middle and turn the game in a blink of an eye.
So, to expect him to be the focal point of the biggest game as a wide receiver seemed extremely far-fetched.
And yet, with no Austin, no Bryant, and no Robinson, the Cowboys would take the ball in overtime with Kevin Ogletree split on one side and Jesse Holley on the other. Hardly Jerry Rice and John Taylor. And maybe this is why this play worked so well. Take a look a the full play here and then let's break it down:
The Play: 1st and 10, Cowboys own 22-yard line. 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). Balanced formation. The play is a very simple play action pass that is focused completely on making the safety to that side (#31 Donte Whitner) of the field step forward as he sees a run. Then, simply sprint past him and it is a throw and catch. It doesn't get easier once the ball is snapped.
Here is the formation from the wide shot - click on any photo to see enlarged version:
This is why the game of football is such a wonderful chess game. So much of this play is based on things that both teams know. Let's start with the fact that the 49ers are well aware that the Cowboys are out of wide receivers. This makes them focus on a player that has been pounding them the whole game, Jason Witten. It also makes them assume that on 1st Down and 10, the Cowboys are going to try to get some yards by running the football. Look at this shot. Romo is about to fake his handoff to Tashard Choice, and look at Whitner "eat the cheese". He is taking 2 or 3 steps towards the line of scrimmage. He knows that this is either a run or a shallow pass to Witten. Holley is a complete decoy - or so the 49ers believe. How different a posture would Whitner take if Dez Bryant or Miles Austin was over there? Likely a very different posture. Also, he would not be headed up to stop the run if this was a different down and distance. But, on 1st and 10, their tendencies and common sense tell them that the likelihood of the Cowboys going for it all on the first snap of Overtime are extremely low.
The photo below highlights the different way the safeties are playing for the 49ers. On one side, they are zoning with 3 players the two receiver threats of Witten and Holley. On the other side, it looks like it could be man on Ogletree with a deep safety over the top. They have no concerns about Martellus Bennett going out to run a route since they know that they have had to use him all day to help on Justin Smith and the 49ers front. But the depth of the other safety, Madieu Williams (#20) is such that you would think that maybe he is to take deep center. But, he is nowhere close to the midfield logo when Holley is running with the ball secured.
Dallas had run a few plays out of this formation and personnel on previous 1st Downs. One was a short route to Austin and one was a run wide to the right. This is textbook play calling that is often referred to as "running through a series". Each play has a series of options for an offense that can all be run from the same look. So, to further bait the trap, every time the Cowboys ran something out of this formation, it was short and causing the safety to play running north. It never occurs to any of them that a vertical right at the safety is about to happen. Check the depth of Whitner. He starts on nearly the 32. By the time Holley is in dead sprint, Whitner is turning at the 29.
Holley is eventually caught from behind at the 1-yard line by Whitner and the Cowboys must kick a field goal for the win. But, to set the trap and to spring it was a thing of beauty. On 3rd and long, the 49ers are waiting for it, but on 1st and 10, they used a game's worth of data to lull the 49ers to sleep and then hit the home run.
Now, let's look at it from the end zone:
Here you see all of the Cowboys OL selling run. They are picking up their men and running them outside as if it is the same outside zone play the Cowboys ran earlier. Look at the eyes of all of the Niners. Everyone of them is centered on Tashard Choice and closing down this standard run play. The linebackers know it is a run. So, does Whitner, the safety. He is locked in and ready to make a play. The only indicator here that something might be up is that the LG for Dallas (75-Derrick Dockery) is helping Free with Justin Smith. They don't need Smith to defy the Xs and Os and ruin this opportunity. That is an odd move for a guard to make on an outside run to the other side, but that is a key that will be lost in the blink of an eye. The beauty of the entire play is that it hits so fast that they really don't need much pass protection. The ball is not in Romo's hands very long.
And now, the moment of truth. The ball is in the air. Whitner's eyes are wide as saucers, and Holley is certainly seeing his entire life flash before him as the ball is in the air. If the catch is made, the game is won. And in this frame below, the fate is already sealed.
You wonder if the Cowboys would have been able to put together a long drive any other way. With a hurt QB, a poor line, banged up running backs, and no receivers, the odds of a 10 play drive weren't real good.
But, on this day, the Cowboys showed great resolve and beat a team that turned out to be much better than anyone expected. And this is a game where Jason Garrett made the perfect call at the perfect time. Then, an obscure player down the bench made a play when his number was called. Of all of the big plays of 2011 that went in the Cowboys direction, this one might be the best of the bunch.
Currently, Jesse Holley is looking for work and the Cowboys have moved on at the position. But, he certainly had his moment that will be remembered for quite a while in Dallas.