With 1:23 to play in their Week 8 thriller with the Giants, the Cowboys faced a 2nd and 1 at the Giants’ 19-yard line. Down five points with three timeouts remaining, the Cowboys had plenty of time to call anything in the playbook. 2nd and 1 is typically a great down-and-distance on which to pass because, if the pass falls incomplete, a manageable third down remains. Plus, since NFL teams have run the ball 71.1 percent of the time on all 2nd and 1 plays since 2009, defenses typically play to defend the run.
Still, in the Cowboys’ situation was a bit different than normal. The Giants were playing to stop a touchdown, not a first down. The typical upside on a regular 2nd and 1 play wasn’t there. And since 2009, the Cowboys have run for a first down 83.6 percent of the time on 2nd and 1, compared to converting a first down on just 46.2 percent of their passes. Nonetheless, the Cowboys lined up in “Shotgun Spread” and Tony Romo was unable to connect with Jason Witten on an out route, setting up 3rd and 1. Although the numbers suggested the ‘Boys should have run on the play, I wouldn’t fault that particular call too much.
On 3rd and 1, however, the decision to pass was a little more baffling. The Cowboys lined up in “Shotgun Tight End Spread”—the same formation as on 2nd and 1 but with Witten lined up in-line instead of in the slot. I’ve re-watched the play again and again, and Jason Garrett actually had a run play called. Romo, facing a six-man box, inexplicably issued a “Kill” call—which is what suggests Garrett’s first choice for the team was a run. Romo saw man coverage on the outside with Kevin Ogletree and decided to take a shot to the end zone on a go route. Incomplete.
Again, I’m extremely confident that Garrett wanted to run the ball in this situation but Romo checked out of it. Still, I place blame on both men. Garrett obviously gave Romo two plays to call in the huddle, allowing him to “kill” the first if necessary. On a crucial 3rd and 1, however, I think the Cowboys really should have stuck with a run, regardless of the situation. Yes, the team had issues running the ball throughout the game, but they’ve converted on 70.2 percent of their 3rd and 1 runs since 2009. Garrett should have called a run and only a run, and Romo’s decision to not only check out of the run but then also toss the ball deep was really troubling.
Facing a 4th and 1, the lone goal of the Cowboys should have been converting a first down. Their ability to do that probably would have been enhanced with a run. Since 2009, NFL teams have converted on 66.5 percent of their 4th and 1 runs, compared to only 54.3 percent of passes on 4th and 1. And when the Cowboys lined up in “Shotgun Spread,” again facing a six-man box, I was sure a draw play to Felix Jones was on the way. Instead, Romo dropped back to pass and faced immediate pressure, forcing him to backtrack 22 yards before heaving his fourth and final interception of the day.
Taken individually, passing on any single one of the three plays—2nd, 3rd, or 4th and 1—wasn’t a necessity. But as a group, it’s difficult to think the Cowboys could pass the ball three straight times in a pivotal situation with one yard to go for a first down. Had they played the percentages, we might be celebrating the Cowboys’ 4-3 start to the season.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.
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