LANDOVER, Md. – Seven seasons later, late-game management remains one of Jason Garrett’s bigger issues.
In 2011, his first full year as the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach, he became known as the coach who iced his kicker. Dan Bailey made the initial try as Garrett signaled for the timeout but missed the 49-yard redo against the Arizona Cardinals and the Cowboys lost in overtime.
On Sunday, the Cowboys valiantly fought their way back into a game that appeared to be a sure loss to the Washington Redskins after Preston Smith recovered a Dak Prescott fumble for a touchdown with 4:55 to play. But the comeback fell short when Brett Maher’s 52-yard field goal try -- which was pushed back 5 yards because of a snap infraction -- hit the left upright.
But it’s what happened before the penalty that had many scratching their heads, among them former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who was calling the game for CBS.
With 52 seconds left, Dak Prescott found Cole Beasley for an 18-yard pickup to the Washington 46.
With a timeout in their pocket, the Cowboys had endless possibilities. Or so it seemed.
They could work the edges and get out of bounds. They could work the middle of the field and use their timeouts. They could take a shot to win the game with a deep ball.
Instead, they ran three more plays – completions in the middle of the field to Beasley for 9 and 6 yards, and a 3-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott – to get the ball to the Washington 31.
“The biggest thing after we got ourselves into field goal range was to try to get up there and clock the ball, preserve that last timeout and then give us the freedom,” Garrett said. “I think we were trying to get the clock down to 12 seconds. So once we got down to that point, the biggest thing that we wanted to do was maximize the field goal opportunity and run the ball, make some yards, use the timeout and then kick the game-tying field goal.”
Garrett opted for the safe route, playing for overtime. Prescott was OK with the move.
“I mean, that’s where you’re crossing your fingers and hoping at that point," the quarterback said. “We’re just getting the run, getting the time down, then putting ourselves in position for a makeable field goal.”
In overtime two weeks ago against the Houston Texans, Garrett opted for the safe route in not going for it on fourth-and-1 from the opponent’s 42 and punted. The Cowboys did not get the ball back and lost 19-16.
In playing it safe against Washington, Garrett saw the issues the line had for much of the game in protecting Prescott, who was sacked four times and had to buy time on a few other occasions. While the Cowboys’ receivers had 15 catches, led by Beasley’s seven, there were times earlier in the game they did not help Prescott. The running game was of little help, too, with Ezekiel Elliott limited to 34 yards on 15 carries, the second-worst outing of his career.
Had Garrett gone for it against Houston and failed, would he have taken as much grief? Had he been aggressive against Washington and saw a chance for a tying field goal disappear with a sack or turnover, would he have taken as much grief as he is for playing it safe?
After the Houston loss, owner and general manager Jerry Jones lamented the lack of risk-taking from Garrett. He opted not to offer thoughts on the late-game scenario against Washington before leaving out a side door.
"I think the playcalling, we did exactly what we needed to do there," Prescott said. "We make that field goal and we're not talking about this right now."
But the Cowboys did not make the field goal, and they missed a chance to potentially win a game they had little business winning, especially after Preston’s touchdown.
And Garrett’s late-game management remains as much of a work in progress as it was in 2011.