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Final play for Cowboys was failure of coaching and execution

Mike Florio and Chris Simms examine controversial calls from the Cowboys-49ers Wild Card game, including what happened during Dallas’ last play and why the referees aren’t completely to blame.

Pay no attention to the complaints for Cowboys coaches, players, and fans regarding the manner in which the officials handled the final play of Sunday’s 23-17 loss to the 49ers. The Cowboys have only themselves to blame.

They took a chance. They made a calculated risk, multiple of them. They thought it would work. It didn’t.

It was high drama. It was significant suspense. And it proved that, unlike the movies (where the stone door will never, ever crush the forearm of Indiana Jones before he can reach back for his hat), the peril present in sporting events is real.

The Cowboys made it harder to move the final snap of the game from a Hail Mary slim hope to five-verticals striking distance through a series of failures of coaching and/or execution.

First, the Cowboys knew or should have known that the umpire would be making a mad scramble to spot the ball after the play. During the timeout before the play, why not tell the officials that the next play would be a quarterback draw, and that the umpire needed to be ready to get on his horse?

It’s not uncommon for teams to give the officials a head’s up on matters of this nature, so that they are ready to deal with the situation. If umpire Ramon George had known that a run was coming with a slide to cap it, he would have avoided the split second of “oh shit,” which could have been the difference between the clock having one second and no seconds after the ensuing spike.

Second, Dak Prescott should have gotten down sooner. Instead of starting his slide at the 26 (more on that in a bit), he should have started it at the 30. This would have preserved some time and reduced the distance George had to travel to spot the ball.

There’s another less obvious benefit to being at the 30 and not the 24. With the final play starting at the 24, it became easier for the 49ers to defend the goal line and the end zone. At the 30, backing off too far would have given the Cowboys a chance to throw short of paydirt and try to run it in, either with a fast guy slicing through the defense (as Tyreek Hill once did in Dallas at the end of the first half) or with a hook and ladder-style play (as the Cowboys had done earlier in the drive).

The point is that the extra six yards from the 30 to the 24 wouldn’t have made it easier to score a touchdown. It actually could have made it harder, for reasons other than the fact that they couldn’t get the ball snapped and spiked with the prior play ending at the 24.

Third, Prescott never, ever, ever should have given the ball to the center. Based on his post-game comments, it’s clear that he was coached to do it this way, by head coach Mike McCarthy and/or offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.

McCarthy said Sunday that they practice the play every week. Well, they weren’t practicing it enough. Or they weren’t practicing it properly. Prescott should have known to get the ball to the umpire. Indeed, to practice the play properly, the Cowboys should have had someone playing the role of the umpire, since what happens after the play ends is as important as (if not more important than) what happens during the play.

Fourth, Prescott and the other Cowboys needed to realize that the umpire needed to get to the ball. Prescott was in the way. Other Cowboys were in the way. If they had practiced the play with someone serving as the umpire, they would have known that George required a clear path to the ball, so that he could do his job before the next play began.

Fifth, the players should have understood that the touching of the ball by the umpire isn’t some bizarre technical requirement. The umpire spots the ball, not the offense. George, when he finally got to the ball, moved it back to a spot closer to where the slide began, at the 26. If he’d properly spotted it at the 26 (forcing the Dallas offense to move back even farther), the clock may have struck zero before the snap was even taken.

Sixth, Prescott could have (not should have, by any means) realized that he didn’t have time to get the snap and spike the ball. He could have (not should have) pivoted to another play. A fake spike. A normal drop back. A schoolyard, on the fly, chicken-salad effort to seize on the uncertainty of the moment and avoid having the clock get to triple zeroes between snap and spike.

The Cowboys were trying to thread a very thin needle on this one. Their entire season rode on it. That’s what made it even more critical that every “i” was dotted, every “t” was crossed. Every detail was planned and considered.

From snap, to run, to slide, to scramble to spot the ball, to lining up for another play, to the next snap the ball, and to the spike. Fourteen ticks. Every second counted. Every split-second counted. The Cowboys failed to execute the play and its aftermath in a way that maximized the amount of time left on the clock and minimized the chance that their final shot at the end zone would evaporate.

It’s on McCarthy. It’s on Moore. The officials didn’t screw them. The Cowboys knew the stakes, and they knew what needed to happen (and not happen) to ensure that time remained on the clock.

Whatever they did to practice the play, they didn’t do enough. Otherwise, it would have worked. The Cowboys would have had one more snap. They would have had one more chance to throw the ball to the end zone. They would have had one more opportunity to punch a ticket for a rematch of their Week One barnburner in Tampa Bay.

Any effort to explain or understand what happened on the play should focus not on any alleged failure of the officials but on the flaws in the planning, preparation, and execution by the Cowboys.