The Cowboys decision to attempt a fake punt from their own 24-yard line on fourth-and-10 trailing by just four points early in the fourth quarter of the Thanksgiving Day game vs. Washington was curious at best.
The play had a low success rate to begin with given that it developed behind the line of scrimmage, meaning more than 10 yards was needed to gain a first down. Still, it wasn't just the strange play-calling that made the decision a flop for Dallas. Washington's preparation was a major factor in the outcome, too.
With a short week following their Week 11 win on Sunday, Ron Rivera and company understood that physical reps would be limited. Therefore, it was up to Washington to study film and focus more on details and trends in order to be ready.
That included observing how the Cowboys acted on special teams, where they quickly learned that the unit was not afraid to get creative and aggressive.
“As far as special teams is concerned, looking at what they did this year, they brought a couple of fakes already and blocked some kicks," Rivera said. "They were very active special teams so we were prepared for that."
Beyond evaluating the tape, Washington went even deeper to get an edge on their rivals. Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel is in his first season with the team. Therefore, they studied his work with the Rams from 2012-2019, where it became clear that his style in 2020 was nothing new.
Fassel had a reputation for pushing the envelope and trying to catch the opposing team off guard. With an important game taking place on Thursday, Washington didn't expect that to change.
"We know they’ve shown fake punts, and when their coordinator was with the Rams. So we kind of had an idea of, they would have something coming into this game," defensive back Jeremy Reaves said. "It’s a Thanksgiving game, it’s primetime, division on the line right here for first place, there was going to be a lot of trickery coming into this game.”
So, as Washington trotted out its special teams unit on that fourth down, it was prepared for anything. So much so that they schemed their unit in a position that would allow them to act quickly should Dallas try a fast one on them.
"Actually, on that reverse they ran, Nate Kaczor, our special teams coach, had us is one of our prevent defenses so that we were really prepared," Rivera said.
Not only was Kaczor a step ahead, but so were the players. He made the right call, and they knew exactly what to do when Dallas opted not to punt.
There was no panic, because they weren't truly tricked.
“When we came out, the whole game they came out with the slot on the ball and the gunner off, they were motioning. So they came back and they went the same formation," Reaves said. "And the slot released up the field, we had been practicing our safe look, guys getting outside on the edges and just protecting the edges. You cover your man."
"So, once they came out in that, they went the reverse route. They were looking to throw it, but Danny Johnson and Khaleke Hudson did a great job of playing high to low and they made the play," Reeves said. "And we got off the field, that’s all she wrote right there."
That moment really was "all she wrote." From that point forward, the momentum -- and the game -- belonged to Washington.
The offense took advantage of the great field position and scored one play later to make it 27-16. Dallas was still in the game prior to that fake punt, but everything changed after. A few blinks later, it was 41-16.
It was a game-changing play that Washington made look easy. That may be partially due to the Cowboys making the wrong call, but Rivera's team put in the preparation that yielded the result.