Cowboys' impact plays didn't compute
Gaffes, missed chances subtract playoffs from equation of moments that shaped season
Football, in its simplest form, is a game about making plays at winning times.
The Dallas Cowboys just didn't make enough of them this season.
New York Giants, when they needed a win to get into the playoffs. Now, think about how many different players blew opportunities to make plays.
The list is long, on offense and defense.
And that's why the Cowboys are sitting home when the postseason begins for the third time in four seasons.
There were 1,989 plays in the Cowboys' 8-8 season. Most of them were routine, but there's a reason why folks say it's a game of inches.
What if Terence Newman tackles 283-pound Bear Pascoe instead of letting him leap over him and convert a first down in the first quarter? Then the Giants punt, and maybe, the Cowboys take advantage of a short field and score the first points instead of playing from behind all game.
What if Orlando Scandrick makes a spectacular play and breaks up the pass intended for Victor Cruz on third-and-7 and Dallas trailing 21-14? Instead, Cruz made the leaping catch for a big game, then set up the game-clinching field goal.
Here are 10 plays that shaped the Cowboys' season:
1. Opponent: At New York Giants
Situation: Third-and-1 from New York 26 with 5:11 left in the first quarter
Play: Cruz, lined up in the slot, catches a quick out, turns it upfield and easily outruns former Big 12 100-meter champ Terence Newman down the left sideline for a 74-yard touchdown.
Taylor's Take: Newman, a two-time Pro Bowl player, struggled in the second half of the season, yielding big play after big play. This awful play in the season's biggest game gave the Giants an early lead, inspired their crowd and established doubt in the Cowboys' fragile psyche.
2. Opponent: Detroit
Score: Dallas, 30-27
Situation: First-and-10 from Dallas 20 with 4:22 left in the fourth quarter
Taylor's Take: This first-down throw was Romo's worst decision of the year because it was a classic indiscriminate throw -- the kind you would expect from a rookie. It was his third interception of the second half, showed he had little understanding of situational football and enabled Detroit to rally from a 27-3 third-quarter deficit.
3. Opponent: At Arizona
Score: Tied, 13-13
Situation: Third-and-11 from the Arizona 46 with 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter
Play: Dez Bryant's 15-yard catch with 25 seconds left gives the Cowboys a first down at the Arizona 31. Instead of calling one of the two timeouts he had remaining, Jason Garrett lets the clock wind down before letting Dan Bailey attempt a game-winning 49-yard field goal. He misses it -- but only after Garrett interrupted what would have been a successfull attempt by calling a timeout with seven seconds left.
Taylor's Take: Garrett's failure to call a timeout immediately after the catch is one of the dumbest decisions you'll ever see a smart coach make. The fact that he spent a week justifying his decision made it even worse. Garrett blew an opportunity to show he held himself as accountable as he holds his players.
4. Opponent: At New York Jets
Situation: Third-and-2 from Jets 2 with 9:12 left in the fourth quarter
Play: A touchdown probably clinches the game, and a field goal makes it difficult for the Jets to win. In that situation, the only thing Romo can't do is turn the ball over. Romo, moving in the pocket, scrambles and dives toward the end zone. He covers the ball up, but it is still poked free and the Jets recover.
Taylor's Take: Every quarterback makes mistakes, but Romo's seem to come at the worst possible moment. Committing a turnover at that point of the game was inexcusable. You simply can't make that mistake, but he did. Ultimately, it was one of the few he made all season.
5. Opponent: New York Giants
Score: Giants, 5-0
Situation: Second-and-9 from the Dallas 34 with 5:11 left in the first quarter
Play: DeMarco Murray runs around right end for eight yards and breaks his right ankle when he's tackled.
Taylor's Take: Murray was becoming the Cowboys' second most important playmaker behind Romo because he forced teams to use an eighth defender to stop him. Without Murray, teams paid more attention to the Cowboys' passing game, and Garrett didn't have a guy who could run out the clock in the fourth quarter.
6. Opponent: New York Giants
Score: Giants, 37-34
Situation: Second-and-10 from the Giants 29 with four seconds left in the fourth quarter
Play: Jason Pierre-Paul blocks Bailey's 47-yard field-goal attempt, when he slips inside of Montrae Holland. Giants coach Tom Coughlin calls a timeout as Bailey is approaching the ball, so the kick he made didn't count. Pierre-Paul, stoned on the first rush attempt, tries a new approach since he had no success on the first one, and slithers through the middle of the line to block the kick.
Taylor's Take: Garrett hasn't proved he can handle the time management aspect of being a head coach right now. He let about 11 seconds pass in the fourth quarter with the Giants at the Dallas 1 before calling a timeout. The Cowboys could've used those precious seconds after the Giants scored.
7. Opponent: At San Francisco
Score: Tied, 24-24
Situation: Fourth-and-4 from San Francisco 30 with four seconds left in the fourth quarter
Play: Bailey missed a 21-yard attempt in the first quarter. The Cowboys didn't call on him again until the final play of the game, when they ask him to convert from 48 yards with Candlestick Park's tricky winds to send the game into overtime. He delivers to help Cowboys avoid an 0-2 start, and didn't miss again until December.
Taylor's Take: No way the Cowboys finish 8-8 without Bailey, who was superb all season. He proved he could make kicks at the end of games and that gave Garrett a comfort level Wade Phillips never experienced. Three times he made game-winning kicks in the final minute.
8. Opponent: St. Louis
Situation: First-and-10 from the Dallas 9 with 9:47 left in the first quarter
Play: Murray, making the first start of his career, finds a huge hole in the middle of the line, makes a nifty move on the safety and sprints 91 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown. It's the second-longest TD run in franchise history and propels him to a 253-yard day -- the most in franchise history.
Taylor's Take: Murray changed the entire dynamic of the Cowboys' offense this season in this game. He made Garrett change his play-calling tendencies and run it more, which made Romo better and the offense more efficient as he became the epicenter of the offense.
9. Opponent: At Washington
Score: Washington, 17-10
Situation: Fourth-and-15 from the Dallas 29 with 8:41 left in the third quarter
Play: Brandon Banks, who had a sensational game, has a 55-yard return that seemed destined to go the distance and give the Redskins a two-touchdown lead. All he has to do is elude punter Mat McBriar, but he can't. McBriar, using the sideline as a defender, forces Banks out of bounds.
Taylor's Take: Garrett is always talking about how it takes the entire team to win a game. Well, McBriar's play is a perfect example of that. McBriar could've given a half-hearted effort and no one would've criticized him because punters aren't supposed to make tackles. But he made the play, kept the score close and gave the Cowboys a chance to rally for an overtime win.
10. Opponent: Philadelphia
Situation: Third-and-4 at the 50 with 9:57 left in the first quarter
Play: Romo throws an incomplete pass and bangs his hand on defensive end Jason Babin's helmet on the follow-through.
Taylor's Take: There's a good chance the Cowboys were going to take Romo out of the game as soon as they found out the Giants beat the Jets, making their game meaningless. Romo, though, was injured before it could happen. While he played against the Giants in the final game of the season, Romo needed a shot to numb part of his hand, which affected his accuracy and velocity.
Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.
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