Monday, December 18, 2017

The Morning After: Cowboys 20, Raiders 17 (8-6)

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) fumbles the ball into the end zone after getting shoved by Dallas Cowboys safety Jeff Heath (38) during the fourth quarter of a game in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/AP
Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) fumbles the ball into the end zone after getting shoved by Dallas Cowboys safety Jeff Heath (38) during the fourth quarter of a game in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The Morning After

At the end of just about every football game, we have a winning team and a losing team. The winning team feels great joy or relief that it emerged with the only thing that seemed important at the beginning of the proceedings.

The losing team did not accomplish its mission. No matter how close it came and no matter the brief smiles expressed along the way, the overwhelming takeaway from the energy investment will be failure and regret.
And with both teams feeling that their season was hanging by a thread, and that victory was the only way to avoid a free fall to the end, we saw a magnificent contest Sunday night in Oakland.
No, it was not aesthetically pleasing to the eye at all points. No, coaching clinics on how football is supposed to be played are not likely to be based on this contest. And no, it will not rank among the most important games on the way to the Super Bowl.
But for me, Cowboys-Raiders was about as memorable a game as you can possibly offer. And for the Cowboys to survive it -- however much Lady Luck had to intervene -- suggests that perhaps the coffin is not completely closed on 2017 after all.
The Cowboys won in a game that had more talking points than most months offer in the NFL. They survived a game that was asking to be won but threatening to be lost for the entire second half. And, quite possibly, the person who was most responsible for winning the game was the man who had the most riding on the outcome: Jason Garrett.
Garrett is finishing his seventh full season as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys and his eighth overall. He has built something here in Dallas, but it is difficult to properly know what that actually is. Is it a powerful young team that will be a contender for several years in the NFC, or is it an underachieving bunch that will always let you down the moment you begin to build expectations? In other words, is the sum total of the Jason Garrett Cowboys a basic run to 8-8 each season with variations that eventually cancel each other out back to the center of .500 football?
At 66-52 now, the Cowboys are much better than .500, but they also do not quite edge into the top 10 of the league since Garrett's tenure began. They have been "good," but probably not quite "very good," while "great" sits several streets down from them. They are in better shape than they were, but you could argue that three weeks ago, the Cowboys should have considered going in a different direction if the season did not quickly take an altered path.
To the credit of Garrett's staff, they quickly sorted things after the Thanksgiving debacle and have now run off three consecutive wins against the Redskins, Giants and Raiders. Perhaps the caliber of the opponents should be taken into consideration, but after not scoring in double figures the three weeks prior, there should be no real reason to look this gift horse too closely in the mouth.
But Sunday night, we saw a great example of what you pay a coach to do. A head coach in the NFL has many tasks, but one reason why you would ever consider paying him as much as the Cowboys pay Garrett is to figure out how to win the game. Garrett seldom seems like the best coach on the field and, frankly, there have been more than a few occasions when you could not believe how badly he was outcoached by the guy across the field.
Not in Oakland. I thought there were some moments when Garrett knew he had to win this game and decided that fortune would favor the bold. We don't believe in outcome-based analysis when we can handle it, and we also don't know how different this column might be if your fake punt scheme is unsuccessful, but it did work -- and the Raiders were clearly as stunned as anyone watching this game.
A trick play is only a trick play if it catches the opponent napping, and if Jimmy Johnson would have been the head coach for a fake punt on fourth and 11 from his own 24, the statue would already be standing this morning. Just to be clear, procedurally, the play was very likely Chris Jones seeing something that was authorized in meetings and not an actual call from Garrett's headset, but when preparation meets opportunity in the NFL, games are won or lost. And when they are won, we hold the coach up for having his guys ready to win the game. That fake punt was one of many moments when the Cowboys had their opponents caught with their proverbial pants down, and it ended up leading to a massive swing in the game.
In fact, two drives later, with the game tied 17-17 late in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had another opportunity to demonstrate an aversion to risk. Instead, they rolled the bones out there once again and decided to go for it on a fourth down at their own 39-yard line. Dak Prescott burrowed his way to what appeared to be a first down, but the guesswork of the officials makes that more of a rough estimate than an exact science. So to then see the referee, Gene Steratore, use a folded piece of paper to determine the measurement -- and possibly the entire game -- shows you that it is a game of centimeters more than inches. Steratore has a way of showing up at crazy games, as you may remember him as the head referee in the "Dez Caught It" playoff game at the end of the 2014 season, along with many others.
Evidently, the paper was wide enough to assure Steratore that the ball had made the 40, and the Cowboys' drive would survive long enough for Prescott to hit a big pass to Dez Bryant down the sideline on a second-and-8 call, taking them down to the 5-yard line. The Cowboys were unable to punch the ball in from the 5 with three straight gives to Alfred Morris -- Rod Smith is my short-yardage back in situations like that, but the staff must disagree -- and the Cowboys had to settle for a field goal from short range and believe their defense could get a stop to win 20-17. Not getting a touchdown from that close of a range seemed to be asking for a painful ending to the last-gasp effort of keeping their season alive.
The defense then came about as close as it possibly could to succumbing to the Raiders in the final 98 seconds. First, Anthony Brown dropped yet another interception in a spot where that would have absolutely declared the game over. He is an interesting young player with some positive attributes, but he has consistently left you wanting more when the ball hits him in the chest late in games. They did force Oakland into a fourth-and-10 from its own 30-yard line, but Michael Crabtree -- no stranger to last-moment performances in his long career -- was able to coax Jourdan Lewis into a 55-yard pass interference penalty (the single-longest penalty call in the NFL this entire season!) and move the Raiders right down to the red zone with plenty of time to punch it in, or, at worst, force overtime.
On second and 3 from the 8-yard line, Jeff Heath gets in front of a pass in the end zone to Crabtree with 39 seconds left. This puts Oakland in a spot where it needs a fresh set of downs more than it needs to worry about the touchdown. There is still all sorts of time, and Oakland has no worries if it can move the chains one more time ...
... which makes the final outcome all the more confusing. Derek Carr, the Raiders' $125 million quarterback, has the game at his fingertips once he breaks contain to his right and slips away from DeMarcus Lawrence's grasp. He was on the run and easily picked up the first down, and he easily could have stepped out at the 3, or maybe even the 2-yard line. Instead, as Heath is trying to close him down, he decides to reach for the pylon in desperation. But why? There is no reason to be so desperate with more than 30 seconds to play, a timeout in hand, a first down gained and the sideline right there. Why did Carr go all-in for no real reason?
A momentary lapse of reason, we must surmise. Carr reached out for the pylon and the ball left his grasp. When it did, it went forward and out of the end zone. Touchback was the easy call, and the game ended in the most unlikely of ways.
If you are the Raiders this morning, you are wondering if your quarterback just made one of the dumbest decisions in the history of your franchise's quarterbacking decisions. That was not the type of thing that makes you happy you made him one of the richest players in the league. There was no reason for him to risk the game on one moment when he still had plenty of moments in reserve.
But he did. And because of that, the Cowboys' season lives.
That, and the fact that Cole Beasley denied a pick-six by touching Sean Smith's chinstrap. And the width of a folded piece of paper. And Chris Jones' run on a fake punt.
The Cowboys won the game Sunday night despite another 0/0 game. These are becoming way too common down the stretch for the defense, as "0/0" means the defense recorded zero sacks and zero takeaways. There had been only one such game in the past five years before the past 30-day stretch, when the Cowboys have done it three times (vs. the Eagles, Chargers and Raiders). They would have done it a fourth time against the Giants in Week 14 if not for a few garbage-time picks. That is a very disconcerting reality about this defense.
However, the Cowboys got the win. We don't totally know how they got the win, but they did.
It was part playmaking, part coaching and part pure football luck. When Steratore gives you the call, you take it and don't look back.
I was asked where the Cowboys go from here. Well, I assume they go to the front door to let Ezekiel Elliott back into the facility and get ready for their final two games. Anything can happen down the stretch, and the Cowboys still need some help.
But after winning that ridiculous game Sunday night, we wonder if things are starting to align for them at just the right moment.

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