Jason Garrett seems to be a nice guy. He also seems to have nothing in common with successful coaches when it comes to aggressiveness and playing to win. Earlier this year, his owner questioned his conservative play late in a game at New England, the last time Dallas lost.
This time around, he iced his own kicker. He called timeout right before the snap as his kicker, Dan Bailey, made a 49 yard field goal to win the game. Bailey then missed the official one. That’s just the funny part, though, and all this stuff about timeouts or no timeouts before kicks, and whether a kicker makes one or misses one is just random luck. What put the Cowboys in that position is where Garrett may have a terminal problem.
Let’s start with the first quarter. Dallas had a 4th & 2 on the Arizona 36. Garrett opted for the 53 yard field goal attempt with his rookie kicker, and he missed. This is a pretty egregious conservative decision. The chances of picking up the first down and going on for a touchdown (or shorter, surer field goal) are the same as making that kick. The reward is not the same. On Friday, I just talked about “taking the points” and what it really meant on the goal line. Well, here was an early case where “taking the points” pretty strongly meant a team like Dallas should press forward.
On the next drive, he punted on 4th and 10 from the Arizona 35. Now this one is longer, and he in this case went even more conservative than before. Going for it is a real option. Kicking the field goal is actually preferable to punting here, but probably in immediate response to the miss, he punted. I wonder if he would have made that decision if he had gone for it on the previous drive, rather than had a missed field goal.
Here’s why punting is so bad there: you virtually always lose the exchange of yards there. This is how you end up losing because of “hidden yardage.” Dallas outgained the Cardinals 336 to 241 before the game went to overtime. Third down conversion rates and turnovers don’t explain how it was tied–Garrett’s conservative calls do.
In this case, Arizona started at the 10 (25 net yards) and punted from their 21. They got a 51 yard punt, though, because net yards go up the further from goal you are. Basically, Dallas gave up 26 yards of field position, that’s worth about half a turnover.
Later, in the 2nd quarter, Garrett opted for a field goal on 4th & 6 from the ARI 32. This was a borderline decision, and one that is more traditional. Going for it is absolutely a possibility there given the distance plus the risk of a miss. Bailey made that 50 yarder.
If you are keeping track, though, that is 3 total points on 3 drives that got to “no man’s land”, that area between the opponent’s 25 and 40, where field goals are not automatic, and punts are poor maximizers of value. I guarantee you that an aggressive coach, even one who goes in all those situations even though that’s against the book, cashes in more than 3 total points in those situations, quite possibly much more.
Now, let’s fast forward to the end game, where the controversy lies. But perhaps we should start a drive earlier. With 4 minutes left in a tie game, Dallas had a 4th and 1 at the Arizona 44. This would have been a “gutsy call”, pilloried by a reactionary media only if it failed. The percentage play there is to go, you have about a two-thirds chance of making it, and you are on the opponent side of the field, so you are more likely to score than your opponent, slightly. Dallas again punted. There’s some more “hidden yards.”
That one worked out with Dallas pinning Arizona and getting the ball back. The exchange of punts, again, led to a loss of yards, as Dallas started at their 32, 24 more yards back (another half a turnover in value).
That last drive started with 2:54 left. It may go down as one of the worst late game drives in recent years. First, Dallas ran two plays before the two minute warning, even though the first one immediately picked up a first down and positive yards.
Then, Tony Romo converted a 3rd and short just across mid-field with 1:42 left. The replay assistant even stopped the clock temporarily to review the play and check the spot. Dallas still moved with no urgency in trying to press for a touchdown or close field goal, and snapped the ball next at the Arizona 45 with 1:06.
After penalties, Dallas got to 3rd and 11 on a completed pass with just under a minute left. It’s more understandable to run a little clock there, but you are also in a favorable field position situation, but still not through no man’s land. They ran the next play at :31 seconds. They had two timeouts. That play was a completed pass to Dez Bryant for a first down to the Arizona 31. No timeout used. Instead, with two timeouts in pocket, Dallas spiked the ball with :08 left.
That’s when Garrett realized he actually had two of them, and decided to use one to ice his kicker. The football gods probably looked at the gross mismanagement and extreme conservatism all game, and decided to have a little fun. Made the one that didn’t count, missed the one that did, lost the toss, and game over after LaRod Stephens Howling went to the house.
Now, Dallas is 7-5, still in a battle for the playoffs, and the last two losses are directly tied to Jason Garrett. Coaches often get fired for things beyond their control such as player injuries and talent acquired by the general manager. I think offenses like Garrett’s should be reviewed after the season, and should be cause for concern. This one game, with all the fourth down decisions, the playing for long field goals, and the late game mismanagement, has to be the worst coaching decision performance of the season. If a player was costing a team games like this, he probably wouldn’t be around, even if it was a winning team with a chance at the playoffs overall.
[photo via Getty]