If the Cowboys don't make the playoffs this year, the title of their 2011 highlight tape will be, "Four Minutes to Fail." Beginning with their Week 1 loss to the Jets, the Cowboys have had the opportunity to win five of their six losses, but have failed to execute in one key area: the four-minute offense.
What is the four-minute offense? It probably is the most vital element of any successful team in the league. It is the offense's ability to keep the ball late in the game without having to send the defense back on the field to hold a lead. In today's NFL, with the emphasis on offensive football and the rules benefiting the passing game, teams must win with their offense. And in this area the Cowboys have fallen well short.
Situational football is something all teams practice each week, and the four-minute offense is one of the most critical situations. When the defense is down by less than a touchdown and needs to get the ball back, it must have a real understanding of what the offense will do. For example, take last Sunday's Giants-Cowboys game. Dallas had the lead with 3:14 to go in the game, and the Giants had two timeouts remaining. The conventional thought is the Cowboys need to run the ball to take the timeouts away from the Giants. But what they really need to do is get first downs. Timeouts are an important element, but keeping the football is more important, especially when the two-minute warning is more than one play away.
When the Cowboys' offense took the field, there should be a coach in Jason Garrett's ear telling him how many first downs will win the game. The Cowboys started their four-minute drive in a two-tight end, one-back set, which made the Giants stay out of an eight-man front. Felix Jones was able to gain five good yards, which is a perfect drive-starter. The wrinkle in the play was a fake end-around, which holds the safety from coming down into the box.
Drive-starters are something on every defensive coordinator's play sheet -- what teams like to run to start a drive in the four-minute offense. This is a preparation tool that helps a coordinator make the right call. Teams like the Eagles and Redskins love to run screens, so any call on the start of the drive against those teams must consider screen first.
After the Cowboys' 5-yard gain, the Giants don't use a timeout, hoping this will lure Dallas into another run. It worked, as the Cowboys lined up in a two-back set and ran the ball with no success into an eight-man front.
In their four-minute approach, the Cowboys have been conservative all season, thinking they can run the ball for one first down as opposed to allowing Tony Romo and his arm to make a play. That line of thinking changed against the Giants, which was good. Unfortunately, the Cowboys didn't execute. On third-and-5, the Cowboys knew the Giants would blitz, leaving a one-on-one matchup on the outside. The design of the play allowed Miles Austin to release off the ball quickly, and he badly beat Giants CB Aaron Ross for what should have been the game-winning touchdown. But Austin lost the catchable ball in the lights, and now the Cowboys had to punt to the Giants with the clock stopped. (Editor's Note: See entire three-down sequence in "Sunday hostility" video above.)
In the Giants' preparation, they had to know that when the game reached a critical point, Romo would throw the ball to "the gotta have it player." In the past, that was TE Jason Witten, but with Austin back, he was the target. Yet the Giants rolled the dice and singled every receiver in an effort to get Romo to throw the ball quickly, which he did.
So where did the Cowboys make a mistake in their four-minute? When they took the field, their approach should have been to get three first downs and seal the game. Why not be aggressive with the first call? When they ran the ball on first down, they should have gone into what I call CFL mode, which is getting first downs on two plays. But as they did in the loss to the Patriots in Week 6, the Cowboys played it safe and put themselves in a tough third-down call. In fairness to coach Jason Garrett, his third-down call was excellent, but the execution was flawed. Clearly the Patriots game was a learning experience for Garrett as this time he at least attempted one pass.
The best defense late in the game is a great four-minute offense. Watching the Packers, they never take their foot off the gas near the end of the games as they know their defense struggles to shut down their opponents. They realize four minutes is a lifetime in the NFL, so they keep being aggressive and keep throwing the ball.
I am sure Dallas now realizes the same thing. I hope it is not too late.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi