Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”
– Auric Goldfinger from the James Bond novel Goldfinger
It’s a saying so true that during the Cold War, spies operating in Russia integrated it into what they called the “Moscow Rules.”
Someone should let the Dallas Cowboys know though because we’ve seen three instances of making some poor choices at the end of the first half which have resulted in big problems later.
Last time we looked at this, it was during a two-minute drill at the end of the first half against the New Orleans Saints.
Then, the Cowboys were down—as they were Monday night against the Chicago Bears—and went to the air, leaving a ton of time on the clock for Drew Brees to add some extra points on the board and essentially put the game away.
In the aforementioned Bears game, the Cowboys did it again—this time down just 17-14.
As with the Saints game, the Cowboys received the ball with under two-minutes to go.
They still had two of three timeouts as they set up for the beginning of their drive on their own 29-yard line.
(1:27) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short left to D.Bryant to DAL 39 for 10 yards (T.Jennings; M.Wright).
While Dallas has shown itself to have a lot of bad habits, you can give them credit for one thing—they didn’t leave the backfield empty.
The Cowboys line up with running back DeMarco Murray in the backfield, and four receivers wide—two on either side of the line.
The left side consists of tight end Jason Witten just off tackle and receiver Dez Bryant along the sideline.
Unfortunately, it’s obvious from the snap that Murray isn’t getting the ball. There’s no fake or play-action, so the linebackers know right away that they can drop into coverage. In fact one of the three linebackers sneaks up to the line of scrimmage prior to the snap—so you have to imagine they knew the pass was coming anyway.
Given what we’ve seen of Dallas’ tendencies, that’s no shock.
DeMarco Murray is ignored by the defense for the most part as he slips out on a short route. The most attention he gets is from a safety creeping up after the snap.
The receivers to the right of the line head out on deeper routes, while Witten drags across the middle.
Bryant runs a short hook route along the left sideline.
While it’s great that Murray is out there, not using him to fool the defense makes it too easy on them.
After all, with 70 yards to go in 90 seconds or so, a defense is pretty sure a throw is coming—even with two timeouts.
Because the defense doesn’t need to give the run a thought, they are in perfect position to cover.
As you can see in the accompanying screen grab, The coverage is very good because nobody is worried about playing the run. Instead all they need to focus on are the receivers and the far safety (all the way at the left edge of the screen grab) can just hang back and contain.
The only person with even a little room is Bryant, because the corner is so concerned with Bryant’s speed that he has given him a nice cushion.
Even then, when the pass is completed, it takes a huge effort on the part of Bryant for the team to gain a first down.
Worse, he ends up hurt and, because it is within two minutes, the Cowboys have to squander one of their timeouts.
Perhaps if the team hadn’t had to waste one of their timeouts, head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan might have run the ball a few times. Maybe they wouldn’t have abandoned the run again since it had been so effective (Murray had 13 carries for 99 yards at the half).
(1:13) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short right to J.Witten.
The Cowboys once again line up with four wide—this time in trips right (three receivers on the right side of the line) and with Bryant once again on the far left side.
Murray is in the backfield as well, and it does look like he could be set to run the ball.
The Bears are set in their 4-3, the corners in single coverage. The corner on Bryant plays press off the line, to negate the receiver’s speed while the other corner leaves a bit of a cushion.
Again the ball is snapped and, again, it is immediately obvious this is a pass play.
The linebackers drop into coverage. This time out, Witten is open, though there are defenders right there. He drops the ball, one he should have caught.
Two things stand out.
First, it’s bitter cold. The announcers mentioned the temperature several times and it hovered around 7 degrees with the wind chill. When it’s that cold, not only do your hands feel like popsicle but the ball is hard as a rock.
Not an easy catch, especially on a literal frozen rope.
While you understand the decision to throw because of how far the offense has to go, you have to wonder if a shorter pass or a run might have been a better decision. The team still has plenty of clock left and a running back averaging 7.6 yards per carry.
Instead we see a route which is no more than 11 yards at the most, in brutal conditions to catch balls in.
Which is my second point. In these conditions, with a running back who is breaking off big yards, why are you throwing?
Let’s move on.
2-10 DAL 39
(1:10) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short left to D.Murray.
This time out, the Cowboys set up with just three wide receivers with Witten joining Murray in the backfield.
If you’re interested in tipping off that you’re passing, a tight end lining up in the backfield is a good way to go.
Again, we’ve got plenty of clock to call for a run, and a timeout, but the Cowboys want the ball in the air.
This time the play is a good one, it’s just executed badly.
Murray squirts out on a short out. The defense has once again dropped back with the receivers going long, so Murray ends up wide open with nobody around him for ten yards.
He gets to the end of his route and stops—
—and quarterback Tony Romo overthrows him.
Romo didn’t like that, something which announcer Jon Gruden said was probably because Murray may have drifted in the route once he got open.
And sure, Murray should have been more still perhaps but it’s not like Romo threw to a spot where Murray wasn’t or Murray ran the wrong route. The pass was in the area—it was just too high and too hard.
So as much as Murray should have sat down when he finished his route, Romo needed to take something off the pass. It’s cold, people are dropping passes and it’s a running back he’s targeting.
You take something off the throw. That wide open there is zero reason to rocket the ball into the receiver.
(1:05) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short right to T.Williams (Z.Bowman).The Cowboys run basically the same formation as they did previously and you can see the Bears defense jumping up and down as they recognize it.
This time though, Murray actually stays in to block. Witten heads out on a route, but the Bears are not fooled and blanket him.
Romo has time and chooses to go to rookie Terrence Williams, who is coming back to help him out along the sideline. Cornerback Zack Bowman makes a nice play and bats the ball down.
The Cowboys have to punt.
Interestingly, Romo misses Miles Austin on a “go” route out of the slot.
Austin isn’t wide open but he does have a couple of steps on the coverage. Romo could have hit him with a long pass rather than try to force the throw into tighter coverage.
It could be he was worried about the deep safety, but it’s the sort of pass Romo can make so it’s surprising he didn’t take a shot given they needed a first down.
Even if Williams had caught the ball, he would have been short of a new set of downs.
The Cowboys are forced to punt and five plays later, the Bears score—arguably putting the game away.
Dallas never regained any real momentum on offense. After running the ball 13 times for 99 yards in the first half, Murray only runs five more times, though he gained 47 yards doing so.
The Cowboys had too many three-and-outs, rarely burned any clock and kept giving the Bears good field position.
Sure, the defense was horrible—the Bears never had to punt—but the offense absolutely didn’t help them out.
If you look at the game and want to find a tipping point, it looks to me that it’s easy to find.
Once again the poor play-calling prior to halftime, which led to a last second score by the opposing team, seems to be the beginning of the end.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com, the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com and an NFL Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.