It took a great football strategy debate for me to dust off my blog space.
This morning on the show, Troy Aikman took offense to our thought (and I think Norm's and Bob's and Corby's thoughts) that the Cowboys would have been better off on Sunday trying to run out the clock and pooch-punting to Detroit once they got the ball back with 1:24 to play. While we all respect Troy, and will defer to him on almost all football issues, I would like to not only make my case for punting, but I'd also like to explore the myriad of possibilities in what was a fascinating football strategy moment.
First, the facts of the moment: DAL 27, DET 24. DAL ball on DET 31, 1:24 to play. Timeouts remaining: DAL 2, DET 2. DAL defense has just forced a 4-and-out.
My preferred strategy: DAL takes a knee (Romo takes a few steps back, kneels, 3 seconds elapse), timeout DET, 1:21 to play. DAL takes a knee on second down, timeout DET, now 1:18 to play. DAL takes a knee on third down, DET out of timeouts, play resets at 1:15, :40 run off gets the clock down to :35 (DAL could use a timeout here, or better, take a delay of game to give Jones more room). Punt on 4th down, clock down to :26 or so, ball is downed (hopefully) at, let's say, the 10 yard line (maybe the one, but also maybe a touchback, so we'll split the difference). DET now has :26 to get go about 60 yards for the game-tying field goal (Akers hasn't been money the last two seasons on big kicks, either), and they have no timeouts. They would have almost no ability to work the middle of the field. Yes, they drove 80 yards in 1:02 for the game-winning touchdown, but 60 yards in less than half that time? NFL stats say DAL would have had a 99% chance of winning the game. This is why I would have played it this way, because the odds were tremendously with you. And, by having Romo take a knee on three straight snaps, you eliminate almost any chance of a fumble or a penalty.
Troy (and others) thought that the best play for the DAL offense was going for the first down. I don't disagree with this, necessarily, but I think it's hard to argue that was Garrett's plan. DAL tried three straight runs up the gut--the first run lost 3 yards, the second run lost 1 yard. On 3rd and 14 from the DET 35, they ran Tanner again up the gut (he bounced it outside, which he was not supposed to do). Three straight runs up the gut, against the strength of the DET defense (their tackles), against 10 or 11 in the box, with Tanner, your 4th team running back, and with your best O-lineman Brian Waters on the sideline, and with a running game that has averaged 2.4 yards per carry the last three weeks, was never, ever going to pick up a first down.
So, if Tanner had followed the play call and stayed between the tackles, he most likely would have lost a yard. That would have made it 4th and 15 from the DET 36. What was Garrett going to do there, attempt a 53-54 yard FG from Bailey's uncomfortable hash? If that was the strategy, that is fairly high-risk. Yes, Bailey had made two 53 yarders earlier in the game, and yes, he's their most consistent performer--but if he had missed, DET takes over at their own 43 yard line! Let's hope that on 4th and 15 Garrett would have punted, which brings us basically back to my suggested strategy, it's just that Garrett would have run three straight hand-offs for losses, and I would have run three straight QB kneel-downs for losses.
Note: Troy has also said it was more about gaining a few yards on the ground and making for a shorter FG attempt than perhaps trying to pick up a first down. This makes sense, and if you had a good power running game and were going against an iffy interior defense, it's reasonable to expect to gain 2, 2, and 2, making it a 42 yard FG attempt instead of 48. Troy is correct that this is solid football logic. However, as outlined above, the chances of this DAL running game picking up any positive yardage on those called running plays under those circumstances were slim. Now, if DAL had a healthy DeMarco Murray and a healthy Brian Waters, or if they could have traded quickly for Adrian Peterson or the 49ers O-line, this strategy would make more sense.
Another possibile scenario, and it's certainly more risky: DAL goes with an aggressive mindset and throws the ball in an attempt to pick up the first down. Troy said the strategy perhaps should have been to pick up the first down, but as I've mentioned, Garrett's strategy was partly flawed in trying to pick up a first down by running, because the conditions were not right. So, they almost had to throw to pick up a first down, which, of course, brings into play the possibility of an incomplete pass, which allows DET to save their timeouts. Some believe this would have been the way to go, and while it does send a message of trying to win the game as opposed to playing not to lose, I think the risk far outweighs the reward.
For the record, as it played out, I don't have a huge problem with Garrett's final decision on that drive, which was to kick the 44 yard FG. Bailey is money from that distance, and if he misses, DET gets it at the 34 instead of the 43. However, it's certainly another aspect of the strategy debate, because on the off chance that Bailey had missed, DET has 1:02 on the clock, and they only need to gain about 30 yards to get into position for the game-tying FG. But, with the shorter FG attempt, Garrett probably had to take the high-percentage points and make DET drive 80 yards and score a touchdown.
In the end, Garrett's strategy didn't work. And, in the end, my strategy may also have failed. Why? Because it's the DAL defense, the 32nd ranked unit in the NFL, which also happens to be on a league-record pace for yards allowed. While it's fun to debate the X's and O's of the final 1:24, it's probably a waste of time, because no matter how much time was left or how far DET had to drive, the Lions were probably going to finish the job.