By Chris Chase
Dec 19, 2016 at 1:20a ET
Tony Romo's chances of replacing a benched Dak Prescott took a major, if not permanent, hit on Sunday night with the rookie quarterback running for a touchdown and posting the second-highest completion percentage in NFL history in a come-from-ahead 26-20 win over the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The victory doesn't clinch the NFC East or No. 1 seed for the Dallas Cowboys, but comes awfully close.
If there was one key player on the Cowboys who had an off-night, however, it was the guy holding the clipboard: Jason Garrett. The longtime resident of 8-8-ville made baffling decision on top of baffling decision Sunday night, doing everything in his power to keep Tampa in the game and threaten his team's regular-season comfort. If not for a solid pass rush and Jameis Winston's complete lack of pocket awareness, Dallas would have lost, fallen to one game ahead of the New York Giants and put themselves in massive danger of going from 11-1 with legit Super Bowl aspirations to 11-5 and needing three road wins to make it back there for the first time in 21 years. What did Garrett do that was so bad? It was a little bit of everything, actually.
The Bucs couldn't stop the Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott was doing his thing, running it right down the throats of the Bucs' front four and the short-pass attack by Prescott was more efficient than Dallas could have possibly hoped. Despite some special teams' errors, Dallas held a 17-6 lead at halftime and hadn't punted all game. When Tampa immediately cut to 17-13 on the opening possession of the second half, it seemed like a mere annoyance to a Cowboys team that began marching right back down the field for what felt like a certain score. With the ball near midfield and Dallas facing a third-and-2, everybody in the stadium knew what was coming: Elliott was getting the ball and going up the gut. And he did get the ball, except instead of running it, he attempted to toss it for a reverse to Lucky Whitehead. The exchange was botched and the Cowboys were forced to punt for the first time in the game. The momentum shift was complete all because Dallas chose the worst moment to get cute.
The end around
Scott Linehan calls plays for Dallas so take away credit where credit ain't due. Still, it's Jason Garrett's team and Jason Garrett's coaching staff, so you'd think that after that first punt, with Tampa now ahead 20-17, the Cowboys would get down to the ol' brass tacks and play smash-mouth football. After all, they only have the best offensive line in the league and a running back making a rare bid for MVP. But on first-and-10, with Dallas having easily driven 50 yards on six plays, the Cowboys ran an end around to (again) Lucky Whitehead, who lost 7 yards. All momentum was effectively lost and Dallas was forced a kick a field goal to tie the game at the start of the fourth quarter. You know, all things considered, it's sort of surprising Dallas didn't go back to the well later in the game because you know what they say - nobody gets the best of Lucky Whitehead three times on gadget plays.
The field goal
Dallas was up three points with 2:58 left, facing a fourth-and-1 from Tampa's 15. Had Garrett wanted to take part in a year that might one day be remembered as the start of a coaching revolution, he'd have gone for it. All season, coaches have been throwing out the rule book and going for fourth downs when they'd normally punt, going for two to win the game and trying to put away teams whenever and however possible. A first down here and the Bucs were done. Kicking the field goal and going up six is of minimal value: a touchdown and extra point still put you behind. Going for it means: best case, you win; worst case, you're up three with Tampa having bad field position and still needing a touchdown to go ahead. Garrett kicked and the stats confirmed his conservative decision left the Cowboys worse off. According to numberfire, which measures win probabilities for games, the Cowboys had an 85.5% chance of winning the game before the field goal. After they kicked it, the number fell to 78.4%.
The end game
Tampa got the ball back down six but couldn't do anything with it, going three-and-out in 50 seconds. That gave Dallas back the ball in a similar situation as its last possession: Run down the clock and it's game over. The Cowboys got their chance to do just that, again. After Tampa called two timeouts following running plays on first and second down, Dallas had a third-and-3 from just inside Bucs territory. To their credit, there was no gadget play this time, just another third-down shunning of an Elliott rush and a Prescott roll out on what was supposed to be a short toss to Elliott, who'd come out of the backfield. The Bucs had it covered and the play smartly ended with the rookie sliding for a 3-yard loss to keep the clock running. Dallas punted and Tampa had 1:36 left to march down the field for a touchdown. (They failed, obviously.) It wasn't the Prescott roll out that was so stupid (although it was quite stupid), it was the fact that it came from a shotgun formation that basically ensured Elliott wasn't going to take a handoff. Tampa couldn't have known what was coming any more than if they'd had a Wake Forest announcer tipping them off.
Sometimes in the NFL you win in spite of yourself. A team would far prefer such a scenario be related to poor execution, something that's often fluky and can be fixed, rather than bad coaching, something that's often symptomatic of a larger issue. Jason Garrett got away with one Sunday night thanks to an inconsistent Winston and an offense that couldn't help but overcome its head coach's deficiencies. Playoff opponents won't be so accommodating.