The Washington Redskins, coming into last night’s Monday Night Football game at 2-5, and looking awful several times so far this season, were 9.5 underdogs to the 6-1 Dallas Cowboys: i.e, the team many this past week called the best team in the NFC.
Yet with only minutes remaining in a 17-17 tie game, the Redskins were marching down the field with the ball with victory resting fully in their hands. Another 1st down or two and some sensible clock management, and they would be able to kick a field go for the go ahead score, while leaving Dallas with an unrealistic amount of time to be able to come back and win the game.
Then, all sorts of crazy things happened. Some likely flew under the radar, yet represented key strategic mistakes by the Washington team.
Others definitely did not fly under the radar. These included a fumble recovery that wasn’t (that would have won Washington the game); and a simultaneous 3rd down interception that wasn’t (that would have won Washington the game) or at least pass break up that somehow also wasn’t (and that would have put Washington in the driver’s seat to win the game).
Then, remarkably, these huge underdogs, still somehow won the game. With “3rd String” Colt McCoy. (In quotes because while McCoy technically was the Redskins 3rd string quarterback, he entered the league as a solid 3rd round draft pick with a bad Cleveland Browns team and offense at the time, and never got much of a chance after that.)
Here’s how it unfolded, along with a few of the key things that went both noticed, and likely unnoticed.
With the game tied at 17 apiece, facing a 2nd and 11 at their own 41 yard line, and 5:20 on the game clock at the start of the play, McCoy hit DeSean Jackson down the right sideline for a little over eight yards, to the 49 1/2 yard line. Jackson caught the ball with this feet close together, both planted on the ground, very close to the right sideline.
No Cowboy was within a few yards of Jackson, who may have been able to pick up the 1st down, or at least get a little more yardage.
Yet Jackson immediately lifted his left foot, and simply stepped backward and out of bounds. This brought up a key 3rd and 2. It also stopped the clock.
The key to winning close football games is to score last, and keep the ball long enough to prevent the other team from having a reasonable chance to then score to tie or win.
But by stepping back in bounds instead of immediately out of bounds – which Jackson absolutely didn’t have to do (and which he also very likely gave up yardage by doing as well) – Jackson could have kept the clock running.
By knocking another 39 or so seconds off the clock (and at that point, about 1/8th of the total time remaining in the game), this would have created a very good chance that if the Redskins picked up a couple more 1st downs, even with Dallas’ remaining 3 timeouts, they could run the clock down enough in the process and kick a winning field goal, with insufficient time left for the Cowboys to have a reasonable change.
But the clock was unnecessarily, and voluntarily, stopped, instead.
On the ensuing 3rd down and 2, cornerback Orlando Scandrick made a nice tackle on Redskins tight end Jordan Reed- wrapping up low and stopping all forward progress as Reed fell heavily onto his own forearms just inside the Cowboys 49 yard line, and a little over 2 feet short of the 1st down marker.
Then, something weird happened: The play took about 5 or 6 seconds, and the game clock down to about 4:39, though it appeared that the play was whistled over at about 4:37 left. At 4:11 left, the play clock was at 14 seconds and counting. Normal.
Not normal: At just under 4:11,the play clock was suddenly reset to 40 seconds, and then a second and a half later – at 4:09 – adjusted down to 25 seconds. In other words, 12 to 13 extra seconds were added to the play clock!
Between the original, exaggerated 8 seconds that the play took, the 40 seconds after the play is over that is allowed to tick off off before a delay of game is called, and the 12-13 seconds added, the Redskins had nearly a minute in between plays, and an entire minute for the full play.
They still called a timeout however, at 3:46 left in the game, and the extra long play clock down to a second or two left. And, Jay, brother of the ESPN announcer in the booth Jon, called a heck of a play on 4th and short – showing confidence in his quarterback’s poise and his own play calling, as McCoy swiveled left for the play action run fake, continued turning, and eventually threw right for a yard to the first down marker to a wide open Darrel Young, the Redskins fullback – who doesn’t catch passes too often. Young rumbled for 11 more down to the Dallas 37.
The clock continued to run, and Washington snapped their next play at 3:03 left.
Here’s the way this could have played out. First, put the 12 seconds the Redskins were strangely gifted, back onto the clock, as that oddity can’t be accounted for. Now have Jackson not even more strangely (from a game awareness strategy point, anyway) step out of bounds and stop the clock – when it was in the Redskins strong interest not to stop the clock, and it was Jackson’s very purposeful actions that stopped it. That puts the game clock at about 2:35.
This is pretty big for the outcome of the game. If the Redskins were to in bounds here, the 2:00 warning wold have hit after 1st down. If they continue to stay in bounds, the Cowboys will have to use their timeouts and if Washington runs a 2nd and 3rd down play and then picks up the 1st down, about 1:48 would remain, and the Cowboys would have about one timeout left. On 2nd down Washington can run the clock down to about 1:03, then they can run it down to about 18 seconds on 3rd down, kick the field goal to go ahead 20-17. and kick off with about 14 seconds remaining. Barring some sort of fluke, game over. But Jackson, with an entire open field right in front of him to avoid stopping the clock, had stepped side ways/backward and out of bounds, to stop it.
The lack of strategic awareness of the clock situation, and the critical role effectively managing time to close out games, is huge in NFL contests.
As it turned out, a few things happened differently. On 1st down after the Jackson play and then the strange game clock add on, Alfred Morris gained a yard. This brought the game clock down to 2:23. On 2nd down, Morris went out of bounds on an outside run for 4 more yards down to the Dallas 32.
Going out of bounds on its own here, if it happened in the pursuit of picking up another 1st down, was fine. In this situation, it was critical for the Redskins to keep advancing the ball as far as they could on each play, and also make sure to keep getting 1st downs.
But once Morris was being pushed out of bounds, but was still sufficiently in bounds to keep the clock running, he very actively and voluntarily stepped hard right – that is, off of the field and into the out of bounds area. And he didn’t have to.
In other words, there was once again no awareness shown for the fact that while anything could ensue here in the final minutes, in this situation, with the ball near winning field goal range, running the clock was heavily in Washington’s interest; and stopping the clock was heavily in Dallas’s interest.
Particularly, after Young’s 12 yard 4th down conversion, now that Washington was both close to field goal range, and possibly just a 1st down – and certainly 2 – from all but winning the game.
Yet Washington – this time their otherwise excellent running back Morris – actively undertook action that almost just as easily could have been avoided (and no attempt was made to avoid it) to stop the clock.
Then something interesting happened yet again. The Redskins faced 3rd and 5, but needing to advance the ball to about the 27 1/2 yard line from the Dallas 32, it was really more like 3rd and a long 4. From where they were a field goal try would be 49 yards, and the league average success rate from the 48 is around 75%. Yet just several yards in either direction here on field goals is important. Moving in just a bit ups the success rate, and moving back just a bit starts to lower it considerably.
With 4 1/2 yards to go, the Redskins could really try any type of reasonably short play they wanted. Moderate pass, short pass, run play, etc. Very short passes with expected run after the catch (“RAC”) yardage are high percentage plays for completions, and would likely yield the Redskins a few yards even if they came up short. Ditto for a run play.
After Morris’ ill advised step out of bounds, the game clock stood at 2:16, and not the two minute warning. Dallas still had all 3 timeouts. So suppose the Redskins gained 3 yards or so, an faced 4th and a long 1 (or short 2), at the 2:00 warning. What should they do?
Probably not kick a field goal. From the 29 it is a 47 yard attempt. They will miss sometimes. And even when they get it, Dallas would have near two minutes left, and desperation on their side (as well as an effective four plays per every set of downs as a practical matter) to drive to win or tie.
On the other hand, if Washington were to go for the 4th and short and gets the 1st down (which is likely, but not assured), Dallas will have to call a timeout, then use timeouts on 1st and 2nd down. 3rd down would take the game clock down to just over a minute. With a successful 1st down on 4th and 2 (meaning the Redskins make it to at least the Dallas 27 1/2 yard line or better), plus whatever yardage the Redskins get on the ensuing 3 plays, they will have a shorter field goal.
Just 5 more yards on 3 plays (plus 2 or 3 on the successful 4th down attempt) will make the field goal around a 39 or 40 yard attempt – which can miss, but has a very high success rate. And of course another 1st down instead effectively ends the game, as the Redskins would then be able to take the game clock down to the last second before kicking the winning field goal.
But before Washington could even run it’s 3rd down and 4 1/2 yard play from the 32, they got called for a delay of game!
This was also huge. It not only took them back to very marginal field goal range (and where a miss would leave the Cowboys with a 1st down out at their own 45 – only 25 yards from the Redskins 30 yard line), it also greatly limited their flexibility on 3rd down now – and likely on their ensuing 4th down as well.
With near 10 yards now to go for a 1st down, a run, or even a very short pass, had a low chance of making the 9 1/2 yards they needed. A mid range pass targeting the full 9 – 10 yards has a higher chance, and making that 1st down is what Washington really needed to do here.
But at the same time, a mid range pass also has a higher chance of going incomplete, leaving the Redskins back on the 37 yard line and facing an awkward 4th down decision.
Calling a pass with some secondary read options may have been the best way to go, with a quick look toward 10 yards but a strong eye to passing short, in hope of picking up the 1st down on RAC yardage, but making the play higher probability to at least get some yardage.
This would avoid the awkward 4th and 10 from strategic no man’s land here. And depending on how much yardage they pick up (and the state of their kicker), they could opt for a slightly shorter field goal try on 4th, or, with little to lose field position wise and a lot to gain (i.e., nearly the game itself), try for the conversion on 4th down.
Instead, Dallas defensive End Jeremy Mincey beat 4th overall 2010 draft pick Trent Williams to the inside. It was unfortunate for the Redskins that it was to the inside: this gave McCoy nowhere to go, as he was trapped while stepping up into the pocket as a result of the quick inside move by Mincey, who wrapped him up quickly for only the second sack of the game for the Cowboys, and a 4 yard loss:
Back to the Dallas 41, bringing up a 4th and 14.
What looked like a probable Redskins victory had now turned into a small advantage for Dallas, as Washington would now be punting at the 2:00 warning. And, Dallas would now have the last, and very legitimate, crack at the win, with overtime as the fallback.
Washington made it a little tougher for Dallas, however, as they downed the punt very close to the end zone, on the Cowboys two and one half yard line.
Field goal drives at the end of games are normally much easier than TD drives, in part because the distance needed to travel is a large percentage lower than the distance needed to drive for the touchdown. But not here, as Dallas was looking at over 60 yards, just to get the Redskins 35. And 67-68 yards to the 30.
Then things got crazy, in a much more visible sense. DeMarco Murray, who, along with his strong offensive line, set an NFL record last week as the first player to gain 100 yards rushing through the first 7 games of the season, and had already now upped it to 8, pounded out 9 more to around the 12.
Dallas let 27 seconds run off the clock, from 1:52 to 1:25, before snapping their next play. This was probably ill advised, since Washington had only 1 timeout remaining, and Dallas, how facing a 2nd and 1, was looking at a very high probability of continuing it’s drive.
But on 2nd down, Romo lost the ball after being hit on a blitz. Ryan Kerrigan, who plays outside linebacker for the Redskins, fell on it; and made two critical kinesthetic mistakes that are very correctable, and crucial, to recovering fumbles. And since recovering fumbles is a big part of winning games, these are key areas for improvement.
First, when Kerrigan fell on the ball, he didn’t fully protect it with his body, so it was far easier for Cowboys to tilt him as they drove for the ball as well. This was a subtle mistake, one of degree, and not always clear cut.
The second one, was not one of degree, not subtle, and, albeit perhaps also under radar, along with the time management issues (if not perhaps more so), a major one.
As Kerrigan tilted up and tried to fully secure the ball, he made a fundamental mistake that should never happen, but may not be thought about enough or focused on sufficiently. Essentially lying on the ground, but tilted, he reached for the ball with his arms.
This sounds subtle, but it’s not. By doing this he left the ball, his arms, his body, and the ball, unprotected, and also greatly decreased his leverage.
He did not bring his body to the ball while simultaneously bringing it in with his arms.
This is something that probably doesn’t come naturally even to NFL players, and has to be practiced, along with related body control, awareness (and secondary muscle strengthening and flexibility exercises). But it’s a fairly easy and fundamental skill to at least attempt, and, if not master, learn reasonably enough without excessive practice. (All the skills involved in this type of body awareness and control, if subtly, also translate into being a better football player in most situations anyway.)
By doing this, Kerrigan, or any player, would immediately start protecting the ball more fully, decrease the total time the ball is exposed, make it far harder for opposing players to knock him off the ball, greatly increase his own leverage, and decrease the total time that the ball is not at least reasonably secured and protected.
He didn’t do it, lost the ball, and DeMarco Murray of the Cowboys recovered.
This, again, was huge. Had the Redskins recovered, the game would have been close to over. The play took the game clock down to 53 seconds. Dallas still had all 3 timeouts. But Washington could still easily run off about 15 seconds on simple “two hands on the ball just secure it” runs, then another 4 seconds or so on the field goal, and after the kickoff (less if Dallas tried to return it) Dallas, trailing, with just over half a minute, and no timeouts, would be likely starting from their 20 yard line,
But they didn’t recover the ball, ultimately – even though Kerrigan fell on it cleanly and was right on top of it, and it’s a football and not a large boa constrictor or squirming mongoose covered in soap – and Dallas was back in business. Except on the very next play after the lost fumble that was not (a 3rd and 8 after the 7 yard loss), quarterback Tony Romo threw a pick. Rookie cornerback Bashad Breeland – who had played a solid game – stepped in front of 2nd year receiver Terrance Williams, and, out in front of his body (and right in front of William’s body as well) the ball hit him right in both hands.
Except it wasn’t a pick.
Not only that, and even more oddly, it wasn’t even a pass breakup; but a completion for the Cowboys!
Had Breeland simply dropped the ball and at least broken up the play, the Cowboys would have been punting from their own 5 yard line with about 48 seconds to go, and the Redskins with a timeout. Washington probably would have started around or just pas midfield, and would have needed only about 20 yards for a very strong chance at a winning field goal.
But Breeland botched both the pick, and the breakup. In the process, he did an odd thing that heavily contributed to the poor outcome: As he was catching the ball he turned his head away from his hands and looked at Williams, who was sort of behind (up field) and immediately to Breeland’s right at this point, and essentially standing right next to/behind him. (Breeland was perpendicular to the Cowboys’ end zone, crossing the field, Williams was essentially facing it.) And as the cornerback sort of partially caught, partially deflected, and partially bobbled the otherwise easy pick, Williams caught the ball behind him, half stealing it off of Breeland’s hands.
“Keep your eye on the ball” isn’t just a metaphor.
The pick, just with the recovered fumble that also was not, just one play earlier, would have almost assuredly given the Redskins the win as well. Instead, it was 1st and 10 Dallas, out at the 23 yard line.
Ultimately, Dallas was stopped (barely getting past their 32 before an intentional grounding moved them backward and to a punt) and the game went into overtime.
The Redskins won the coin toss for overtime, elected to receive, and drove down to the Dallas 22 yard line, where a 40 yard field goal gave them a 20-17 lead.
On the very first possession of overtime, a team can only win with a Touchdown (or a Safety by the defense, giving the win to that team), but will be awarded the win if the opponent doesn’t score at least a field goal on their ensuing drive. (If they do, the game at that point becomes “sudden death,” with the advantage of course swinging back to the first team – since they get the ball next. If the opponent instead scores a TD after the opening receiving team kicks a field goal, the opponent wins outright.)
Dallas was stopped on a 4th and 3 from their own 27, to end the game.
The pass was easily knocked down by none other than Bashaud Breeland, who once again was in great position. And who, it looked like at least, was smart enough to not much bother with picking it off, but simply knocked it down with 2 hands, ending the game – and, notwithstanding the multiple fiascoes and missed opportunities from late in the 4th quarter, handing the Redskins a big upset on Monday Night Football against their division nemesis, in one of the better, and more storied, team rivalries in all of sports.