The Morning After - Nothing Changes Because Nothing Changes
During the good times, you never appreciate how difficult it is for your heroes to make you happy. You don't know how taking down their rivals was next to impossible, because they made it look pretty simple. You had Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin and the other team didn't. Simple. You win. You had Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, and Drew Pearson. Easy. You win again.
They made football look easy, even when it wasn't. If they didn't win the whole thing each year, they sure came close, it seemed. You didn't have to slay the dragon all of those years. You were the dragon. The NFL was your kingdom and Dallas Cowboys Football would live forever.
Over two decades later, we still have the tall tales of their conquests. We still have the momentos and the memories of those banners and trophies that make the franchise what it is today - one of the biggest brands on the planet. The mere value of the organization is such that there is nothing for sale that the franchise cannot afford 10 times over. This is verified by frequent projects that are erected all over North Texas that show the rest of the NFL that a sporting franchise doesn't have to stop at mere football. It can showcase art, architecture, and grandiose wealth in such a way that would make small countries jealous of resources and surplus.
But, as your grandmother would tell you, there are some things that money cannot buy. Evidently, conquering the NFL again is one of them. Given that this organization will continue to wander the wilderness for at least a 22nd season without so much as a trip to a NFC Championship game - let alone another Super Bowl - we can surmise that buying another "Sky Mirror" will have to suffice, rather than a new chapter of NFL dominance. When locals who already have their own children have never actually seen you crack the NFL's version of the "Final Four", then we realize the truth - that the current state of affairs continue to reveal that while the trophies will always sparkle, the need to expand the trophy case may once again be put on hold.
And so it goes for the Dallas Cowboys. Just when you think they cracked the code to find their way back, they come back to earth in a thud that makes you want to think about something else.
Lucky for you, it is Christmas. You literally have the greatest distraction day of the year available to you. Unless you were hoping to unwrap a nice playoff berth this morning.
That is not going to be possible. Once again, with everything to play for, this team proved they cannot win a home game when needed. Sure, they did take down three home wins this season. In September, they defeated the New York Giants. In November, the Kansas City Chiefs were taken down. And again, on the final day of that same month, they beat the Washington Redskins.
Unfortunately, they also lost to the Rams, Packers, Eagles, Chargers, and now Seahawks on home turf, which meant they went 3-5 at home. Playoff teams almost never go 3-5 at home and the Cowboys insured that stat will be safe because they are not going to the playoffs. If you want to feel extra depressed, you should know that yesterday was the 75th time the Cowboys have played a home game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, and during that spell they are a mere 39-36 overall (including playoff games). Take away that 7-2 in the opening season of the stadium in 2009 (the final full season of Wade Phillips), and since the first year of the Jason Garrett era the Cowboys hold a home record of 32-34. That would seem to be awfully problematic.
If you are wondering just how problematic, here you go. Since 2010, the Cowboys rank 24th in the NFL in home win percentage. They are better than just the Raiders, Bears, Rams, Redskins, Titans, Jaguars, Buccaneers, and Browns. But, when 5 franchises - the Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, Ravens, and Steelers are winning 70% or more of their home games, and you are winning 48% of yours, you see where the biggest issue sits.
They have constructed the greatest stadium that money could buy and allow the opponents to win more often inside it than they do. If any truth best describes the modern era of Dallas Cowboys football, this might be it.
So, there they were. Yet again, in a spot where maybe they could pull their disappointing season from the fire. The Cowboys held a halftime lead, but as soon as the 3rd Quarter began, the Cowboys 2nd offensive snap turned into a Seattle go-ahead Touchdown with an ill-advised throw from Dak Prescott to Ezekiel Elliott was tossed well over his head and into the path of an oncoming defensive back. 30 yards later, Justin Coleman is jumping into the Salvation Army pot and the Seahawks are ahead for good.
The offense was not done giving the ball away, however. After the first turnover where Dez Bryant allowed the ball to be punched away and after the second turnover where Dak airmailed a pretty simple pass to Coleman, they killed the buzz of the stadium late in the third quarter with a third turnover. This time, on 2nd and 12 from the Seahawks 25 - in a spot where the Cowboys were poised to take a lead, Prescott's short pass to Bryant on a crosser made the receiver reach back to catch it, but both hands were on the ball. We can debate whether the throw or the catch was more to blame, or we can offer the common-sense approach to the tandem this year: They both share the blame like they do the entirety of 2017. Anyone who wishes to isolate one's role from the other is grasping at straws and missing the very essence of the sport.
Dak Prescott has been very poor at times this season when so much was put on his shoulders. He did not quiet the critics who feared he was a product of the game situation for this team. If they keep him ahead of the score and ahead of the chains, he would be fine. But, put him in a spot where he had to do what QBs frequently must do - make lemonade out of lemons - they would reveal him to be rather limited at the highest level. He has taken a major step back this year and has to get guys like me who were very impressed with his football IQ a few weeks back to reevaluate our thoughts moving forward.
Dez Bryant has been poor for large swaths of the last three years. We have discussed why this is and the many logical reasons and excuses why he no longer measures close to the other elite receivers in the game. But, after a 3-year span of 3,935 yards and 41 touchdowns, he signed one of the richest contracts his position has ever seen. Since then, he is about to complete another 3-year span, which with 1 game to go, has 2,012 yards and 17 touchdowns. That no longer leads the industry - not even close. In fact, it is 15 yards more in that span than Terrance Williams and 58 yards less than Sammy Watkins. It ranks 42nd in the NFL which sounds about right, unfortunately. And nobody disputes his special play in the red zone leading to touchdowns galore, but he isn't even the top 20 in that stat over those three years and once again trails guys like Sammy Watkins, Kyle Rudolph, and Kenny Stills in touchdowns over that span (let alone DeAndre Hopkins who might tell you how important QBs are to his stats).
So, was that pass Dak's fault or Dez's fault? It doesn't matter. The organization counts on both of them and they both failed this season - despite their intentions.
To be fair, they aren't alone. Ezekiel Elliott is the golden boy who nobody who resides locally seems interested in holding accountable for his role in this season. He has been portrayed as a complete victim, despite his repeated behavior WHILE BEING INVESTIGATED. I'm sorry, but I won't be able to get past that fact for a long time that while the NFL is looking into your actions for discipline, you give them more actions to consider. It all seems incredibly dense, to be honest.
If that wasn't enough, when he returned to the field - with 200-yard projections dancing in his head - he forgot the part of his job that made some want to draft him so high. He is excellent at pass protection, we were told. He will always get that blitzing defender blocked. Well, unfortunately, with the season hanging from a thread, he busted on several blitzes yesterday. Apparently, the mental reps were not available in Cabo and he came back looking completely ill-equipped to know what the Seahawks had planned to rock Dak Prescott on 3rd downs. If Prescott looked a little rattled, it might have something to do with his RB not knowing who to block on no fewer than 3 different blitzes.
So, the moment that will forever be paired with this disappointing loss will go back to the 1st and goal at the 3-yard line in the 3th Quarter. Because of the three giveaways - all three put into the endzone as Seahawks touchdowns, by the way - the Seahawks were up 21-12. But, there was still time. Just get this 1st and goal into the end zone and perhaps everything will be fine. Surely, between the aforementioned touchdown makers - Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott - the Cowboys would get this lead down to 21-19 with plenty of time to save the day.
Instead, neither would touch the ball. Dak kept the ball on the RPO keeper for a yard. Then, on 2nd down, they decide to pass the ball on the rollout, but Jason Witten is called for a massive holding penalty because pass protection has been an issue all day long. Now, it is 2nd down from the 12. You are now out of running territory. On 2nd and 12, Byron Bell gets rolled like Chaz Green by Frank Clark and Dak goes down again. 3rd and goal from the 23 means no chance, and the day was made awful by a Dan Bailey missed FG from short range.
Perhaps, Dan Bailey's year is actually the perfect metaphor for the season. I am losing track now.
But, with the season on the line, neither Ezekiel Elliott nor Dez Bryant factor in. How this happens is anyone's sad guess. The Cowboys turned the ball over three times and come up short in a game that means everything.
Unfortunately, we have seen butchered offensive execution and self-inflicted wounds so often in the Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan era that we sometimes minimize their roles. But, as Troy Aikman said yesterday, if Dak Prescott is making decisions that you don't agree with as coach, then it is up to you to take those decisions back from him. This isn't that complicated unless you make it so.
And, repeatedly, under Jason Garrett, the Cowboys make the simple appear complex. You could do worse than him as your head coach, but I am under the belief that it seems time to consider doing better.
But, as always, the case when discussing Cowboys football, every time you try to follow the trail to the true culprit, the trail continues to a bigger culprit. Is it your QB? Or is it his boss? Is it your OC? Or is it his boss? Is it your head coach? Or is it his boss? Oh, yes. Here we are again looking at Jerry Jones again.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. We will not blame Tony Romo for this one or Wade Phillips or Dave Campo or Quincy Carter. Only one thing ties 22 years of Cowboys disappointment together and the stubbornness to try a different route.
Instead, we line up each July for another trip of speeding directly into the same concrete wall by January that this organization has so steadfastly defended all these years.
In fact, we just inducted that concrete wall into the Hall of Fame to verify that all the methods were correct.
It is so maddening and yet so familiar. Nothing changes, and therefore, nothing changes.
Go do something else today. It is Christmas.
And this Dallas Cowboys mess will be right where we left it tomorrow morning.
Sunday night may possibly have nothing to do with the final fate of the 2017 Dallas Cowboys. That doesn't mean it wasn't wildly entertaining or memorable from a pure drama standpoint.
These games are played for three-plus hours between two teams that don't want to give in to each other. They are often not separated by more than one play here or there. That is the sport and that is why we love it so much. For all of the off-field drama and stories that annoy us, plus the vague manner in which the league draws its on-field rules, it is still the best soap opera any writer could ever conceive. It is two teams of amazing athletes destroying their bodies in the pursuit of a win.
Even if that win does not stand the test of time.
The Cowboys survived Sunday night. They survived because they made one more play. Or maybe just the one play that matters. Or maybe the opponent just made the vital mistake at the wrong moment and the Cowboys were the beneficiaries of that gift.
Choose your own description.
Today, I wish to go back to that final drive and just look at each of the nine plays from a defensive standpoint to see how the Cowboys did survive and notch their third win in a row. They again held their opponent under 300 yards of offense (fifth time this year) but also failed to get a takeaway (fifth time) or sack (fourth time).
In fact, what was once a very promising season for sacks -- they were third in the NFL after eight games with 27, trailing only Jacksonville and Carolina -- has now disintegrated. Since the Kansas City game, the Cowboys have played six games and registered five sacks, which, as you may imagine, ranks 32nd in the NFL. During that same span of time, Tennessee has 27 sacks and the Rams have 22.
Their team total of 32 sacks still ranks 16th in the league, but the idea that the Cowboys were a sure bet to reach 40 for the first time in years is just a far-off fantasy again. They would do well to just get to last year's total of 36 in the last two games.
WEEKLY DATA BOX - AT OAKLAND
Several of the numbers above will please you. They did a nice job of limiting big plays, making sure Oakland got nothing easily and even fighting hard against the battering ram that is Marshawn Lynch. They failed on third downs many times and, with no sacks or takeaways (even those that hit them in the chest), flirted with losing a game in which the defense played pretty well.
Oakland obviously is depleted at the skill positions and, aside from Michael Crabtree, had very little. He isn't a top-tier receiver, but he has some very Dez Bryant-like attributes with his ability to win with strength on third downs and in the red zone. But beyond that, the Raiders found almost nothing.
DEREK CARR THROW CHART
Looking above, you can see the secondary was very strong. Derek Carr had almost nothing down the field and that would suggest the pass rush was effective, despite no sacks. You want it to be more effective, mind you, but Carr certainly didn't appear to have all day to throw from the pocket.
SEAN LEE - W.O.W.Y.
Sean Lee "With Or Without You" stats continue to impress. We know he is good and we know the Cowboys desperately rely on him (probably way too much), but we are going to have a full season of very impressive defensive days when he plays, and not so much when he doesn't. That, of course, begs the question of how this season would be different if he had perfect attendance, but I suppose every team has a sob story to tell -- and nobody wants to hear them.
SPLASH PLAYS - AT OAKLAND
I hate to make splash plays subjective -- and I don't believe I did, technically -- but there are two that are not as cut and dried as others. Chidobe Awuzie's third-down stop was a driving tackle that left Crabtree a yard short of the sticks on a third-and-8. Normally, positive yardage is not allowed, but if you get the team off the field with a tackle, I make a third-down stop a splash if deemed a strong personal effort. And the same goes for Jeff Heath on the final play. That was a five-yard gain by Carr and Heath did not technically cause the fumble. But, if you watched it, I assume we all agree it was an extraordinary effort by Heath to save the day.
SEASON TOTALS FOR SPLASH PLAYS
OK, let's look at that final drive -- from the first play to the last.
First and 10 at the Oakland 11, 1:38 to go. Carr quickly unloads to his left to Seth Roberts in the flat, in front of Anthony Brown. Brown is right there and bats the ball away. Good, aggressive break on the ball that prevents a short Oakland gain.
Second and 10 at the Oakland 11, 1:34 to go. Carr and Roberts go again, this time from the opposite slot, and Brown releases Roberts to the safeties. Roberts settles before he gets into Heath's area and is able to pick up 19 in a small window, qualifying as the longest pass play of the game that connected. You can see that Xavier Woods is more conservative than Heath because he has to account for the sideline man to his left running vertically. Heath is ready to pop Roberts if he continues, but he wisely sits down in the soft spot. First down.
First and 10 at the Oakland 30, 1:16 to go. Now Carr tries the right sideline to Crabtree. Awuzie does what he always does, and that is aggressively go up and make a play on the ball. He is so good right now and his confidence is only making him better. It helps to know that Crabtree has speed limitations, but Awuzie does not allow for any separation and doesn't want to give up any completions, either. A really nice player.
Second and 10 at the Oakland 30, 1:10 to go. Here is Crabtree's best move. In the middle against Lee, Crabtree simply pushes him to create space. That is some tight end strength there, but Carr is off with the timing and accuracy of the throw. Lee is looking for a flag, which seems to be a reasonable request. Incomplete.
Third and 10 at the Oakland 30, 1:05 to go. Carr wants Roberts again. Brown knows this and undercuts the route. The ball hits Brown in the chest. It may not be a pick-six, but even if it is not, it still ends the game then and there. Instead, as Brown has shown against the Rams and Eagles, opportunity falls to the ground. Nice play for sure, but these are game-changing moments that you can't let get away.
As you can see, Carr did not play well, but he also doesn't have the most dynamic options ever. And if the Cowboys are just going to rush four, that means they have a seven-man zone to make sure there are small windows. The pocket is collapsing and he has to get rid of it. Also, the Cowboys don't leave many escape routes.
Fourth and 10 at the Oakland 30, 1:01 to go. Huge moment, and the Cowboys still can't get home. They try the tackle-end stunt and DeMarcus Lawrence is closing fast, but almost like Aaron Rodgers last January, Carr steps to his left and is able to launch a pass 55 yards down the field to Crabtree. Heath sees an issue up at the 50 and that leaves Jourdan Lewis by himself with Crabtree. The ball is underthrown, Crabtree knows how to draw the flag and Lewis looks like he is a little panicked. Flag.
The end-zone view. Tyrone Crawford falling gives Carr the escape path, and then you see Lewis is the victim of the underthrown ball. Pass interference looks like the easy call and the Raiders get their fourth-down miracle.
First and 10 at the Dallas 15, 51 seconds to go. Here is a great pass rush off the edge by Taco Charlton and he almost gets home. Carr sees Cordarrelle Patterson on the sideline and takes the quick 7 there before Awuzie pushes him out of bounds.
Second and 3 at the Dallas 8, 44 seconds to go. This is a close call that looks like improvisation from Crabtree or a very rough-looking double move. Either way, he has Anthony Hitchens here and it is up to Heath to dive in and save the day. This is a tremendous job by Heath because he has to watch two threats and, if he is not on his toes, this might be the game-winner.
Heck of a play by Heath against a guy who doesn't lose in the red zone very often.
Third and 3 at the Dallas 8, 39 seconds to go. This is the play. Oakland has a timeout. The Raiders really just need three yards and the Cowboys are in big trouble. But, Dallas could make a stop and force overtime at least. Lawrence is over the left tackle and this is another "almost sack" for No. 90. He has to get Carr to the ground here, but Carr is pretty slippery. Once he does slip away, Carr seems to have a chance to get to the pylon. Look at Heath and all the things he has to consider before realizing that Carr is taking off. Awuzie has to stay with Jared Cook, or Carr will pass it to him. Then Cook looks like he is trying to impede Heath.
Again, I have no idea why Carr didn't just take his first down and get out of bounds. I think it is a horrible mistake by the quarterback to put the game on a reach for the pylon. He almost threw a pick a few plays ago, and then he does this. If I am a Raiders fan, I definitely feel like my $125 million quarterback let the team down on this final drive.
But from a Dallas standpoint, perhaps this drive gives you a better appreciation for Heath and this secondary. Rod Marinelli didn't blitz once and if Carr gets in, I likely would wish to discuss that with Rod. But they survived. It was quite a finish, and the Oakland quarterback gave the Cowboys a lifeline when it looked like they were in big trouble.
We have been writing these offensive summaries on Tuesday mornings since the 2008 season. The study has certainly evolved over the years, but when it started, the sole purpose was to try to figure out a little more about what is going on based on what the screen is telling us. We know the announcers are not treating the game like a teaching clinic because most of the audience is not interested in the Xs and Os and deep layers of football. We know that following the ball is how most people watch the game, and that seems to satisfy the majority of the audience. Great.
But the reason I started attempting to unlock layers of the NFL game was that I wasn't satisfied with the simplistic explanations we often get. I don't appreciate the catch-all phrases like "halftime adjustments" or "throw it deep," or even "call the touchdown play." I wanted to try to understand the game in terms of what each team is trying to do to the other and actually turn it into the mental chess game as it actually appears to the participants and coaches.
I do confess, however, that I assume the readers of this series have been with me for 10 seasons, too. And I am wrong. The point of this exercise should be to bring those along who are joining in along the way. I shouldn't assume that personnel grouping concepts are obvious to all involved, so at the risk of some reading this for the 10th time, allow me to review one of the most important concepts of enjoying football at a deeper level:
Offenses are attempting to gain advantages by showing defenses something, and then doing something different. Just like in baseball, in the showdown between a pitcher and a batter, deception is a massive way to overcome your opponent.
In football, we do that with formations and personnel groupings. I highly recommend you learn personnel groupings so they become second nature as you watch a team line up. Formations are important, too, but in my opinion, lesser so. Formations affect the 11 men on the field. Personnel groupings generally affect the entire opposing sideline.
Between every play, as you look at your phone or say something to your buddy, the teams are running guys on or off the field. The offense goes first and the defense studies its moves to counter with its own. That is why we track personnel groupings so carefully each week. We want to see what the offensive coordinator is trying, and in what situations he is trying it. The defense wants to know, too, so it puts the proper personnel out there to counter. To review, six players never change on the offense. The five offensive linemen and the quarterback. The other five players rotate quite a bit. Most every team passes with "11" personnel -- one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers -- so that would be their two-minute and third-down offense. Across the league, this is pretty uniform. Defenses see this and will bring on 5-6 defensive backs to defend it. Short yardage on the goal line is often "23" personnel -- two running backs and three tight ends. This screams run, so a defense will go get its big group to defend. Those are the two ends of the spectrum and there are a number of options in-between that try to tell the world either: we are definitely running, we are likely to run, we might run here, we are probably passing, or we are definitely passing.
And that is where deception gets involved. You tell the opponent one thing, and then you do something completely different.
The Cowboys have been finding success with this by using "13" personnel -- one running back, three tight ends and one wide receiver -- which is something they have historically run out of about 75-80 percent of the time, in addition to "22" personnel -- two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver -- and throwing passes when they think the defense has sucked too far up. When you want to see adjustments that have come to the front in the past few games during this win streak, I would say this one quickly comes to mind. First and 10, pound the rock, use play-action and see openings in the secondary with only one wide receiver in the game.
This is an example in the first quarter of showing personnel. This is 22 personnel. The Cowboys show run, then they right into the teeth of the Raiders and gash them. Alfred Morris does a great job of waiting on his cutback and completely fools Marquel Lee (No. 55) in the hole, then ends up with a 16-yard gain. This is what power football feels like when it is coming right at you.
So, here is the next play.
You are the linebacker. You tell me if this is a run or pass at first. You are looking at all of the same keys as the last snap. You see the personnel grouping -- 12 personnel this time. You are thinking, "This is now first and 10 and they just had success on the ground. We better get ready because they have seven run blockers up front." And that is when Dak Prescott can hit you with the play-action pass to a tight end who did not stay to block, but rather got behind your linebackers into a space where he is wide open.
Watch Lee (No. 55) on that video and see how he is sure it is a run again. And that is how you use deception to cross them up. You can't use it on third down because they aren't stupid. They know you have to pass it there or your drive is over. That is why deception on first down is how this game is generally won or lost.
Now let's see why the pass is so much easier from the other angle. If you pass in "run" situations, you accomplish the major goal of getting all the defenders shallow. This allows you to pass into lightly populated secondaries, where you are not outnumbered. You have three guys running vertically and they have three defenders back in a Cover 3. On third down, you often have three against seven. But on first down and in play-action, it can be three against three. When that happens, there are all sorts of route combinations that will easily free a man up. This time, you have Jason Witten running behind a vertical from Terrance Williams that clears out the corner on that side. Now, unless the shallow linebackers get a deep drop, the tight end is going to have the corner to himself. Witten does. Eighteen yards. As easy as you like.
Here is a moment a little later that fed off that same "run tendency" and a similar route combination to open up a similar opening in the Oakland secondary on yet another first-and-10.
This time it is 13 personnel and it is James Hanna leaking out -- just like he did against the Giants.
Again, watch that run fake. Watch the Oakland linebackers. See the window open because of the vertical wide receiver clearing out the corner on that side. And see Prescott hit that window. Passing is so much easier when they think you are going to run. Football 101.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Here we see the numbers from Sunday night. The offense needed to put up some numbers to win this thriller and it did just enough. The Cowboys really needed a touchdown on that final drive and should have done better at the goal line. They also had a really rough night on third down, but I would remind folks that this is a very good third-down team this season, ranking fifth in the entire league. They don't go 20 percent very often. In a league where the average is 38.9 percent, the Cowboys -- through all the adversity -- still sit at 43.4 percent, which trails only the Falcons, Eagles, Vikings and Steelers. Everyone else looks up at the Cowboys on the money down.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
Seldom do we see a day when there are 12 passes beyond 10 yards and six beyond 20 yards. The Cowboys saw some downfield opportunities and wanted to force the Raiders to defend them vertically. It caught me a bit off guard, given their reputation lately. It wasn't easy, but Prescott and the targets hooked up for some big moments. There were a few others left out there, too.
As you can see, when you are in "run" groupings, you still are running most of the time. That is the concept of deception again. You must convince the opponent you are doing one thing in order for the ambushes to work. But right now, you can see the Cowboys are most successful with multiple-tight end packages. This is when they give their passing game the best chance to work. The trouble is, that means Cole Beasley isn't even on the field, since he is almost exclusively an 11 personnel weapon. This explains his statistical falloff this year a bit, although in the interest of time, I won't elaborate too much on that right now.
Let's look at some more tape:
If first down is easy pickings for a quarterback, then third and long is just the opposite. The defense is ready for your passing concepts and wants to disguise its coverages to fool a quarterback/wide receiver. This time, it sure looks like there is confusion as Prescott wants Dez Bryant on the slant. The pass is too high and it looks like Bryant sees a zone (he is right) and that there is no chance on that ball. His effort looks bad here and he could have helped his quarterback save an interception, but he likely knows that the slant is against man coverage and this is a zone, so it should be more of a hook into the soft spot. Either way, it is not a great decision by the quarterback and the drive ends.
Bryant does look guilty of self-preservation, which never plays well, but if I were to guess on this one, I think he is correct in not expecting that throw. You can see how quarterback and wide receiver need to be on the same page.
This is Tyron Smith being defeated on a first-down pass-protection bid against Khalil Mack. Mack is very strong, but I think you will agree that this was our first indication that Smith is playing hurt. Remember that play, because it impacts several others later.
Because of the sack, the Cowboys face a third-and-12 that they actually hit on. Tight window to hit Witten at the sticks, but Prescott makes a nice throw. Look at how many Raiders are sitting on these routes, though. It is impossible to make a living on third and long in this league.
Third quarter, third and 9 -- this is when the game got really interesting. I don't think this play was going to get 9 yards, but it really went wrong when Prescott's arm gets hit and Sean Smith ends up with an interception. Beasley gets a touch on him, or it could have been a pick-six. But this is the type of play that loses games and ends seasons. Let's check the protection:
Watch Bruce Irvin fake a stunt on Tyron Smith, who can't even move. He tries, but Irvin is too fast and gets to Prescott's arm, turning the ball into a free interception. Pass protection is a huge part of third-down success and the left tackle spot was not right.
Here is the very next drive. I believe this is Tyron Smith's last play. Prescott wants Beasley deep but is again hit as he throws because Smith has no chance against Irvin. Smith is one of the best in the business, but the Cowboys properly saw that he can't do it right now and had to take him out after this moment.
The very next play was the fake punt. Then, a few moments later, down near the goal line, Prescott figures out a way into the end zone against a zone. What a great, elusive run from the quarterback to see his best chance was with his legs.
And, finally, a chance to win the game on this throw. If you don't like the Cowboys in "Empty," you won't like this play. But if you do like crucial 40-yard gains to set up the winning score, maybe you will make an exception. Good throw, and, of course, a chance for Bryant to show you what he is great at -- winning battles for the ball in the air down the sideline or in the end zone when the corner has no help.
Sunday night was a very fine road win with plenty of talking points.