With the Dallas Cowboys trailing their rivals from Washington by just four points early in the fourth quarter on Thanksgiving, coach Mike McCarthy made what could be the consequential call of the 2020 NFC East race.
On fourth-and-10 from their own 24 with just over 12 minutes left in the game, the Cowboys trotted out the punt team after their third scoreless drive of the half. But instead of attempting to flip field position, McCarthy, special teams coordinator John Fassel and Dallas tried to fake out Washington with a double-reverse sweep to Cedrick Wilson. However, Wilson's circuitous route behind the formation allowed Washington to recover, locate and tackle him one yard behind the line of scrimmage.
On the very next play, Washington rookie running Antonio Gibson took a handoff 23 yards to the house to put the Football Team up 10 and put Thursday's clash "atop" the NFC East out of reach.
Following Dallas' 41-16 loss -- yes, it got out of hand quickly after McCarthy's failed fake -- the embattled Cowboys coach defended the decision to attempt a fake punt down four points with plenty of time to go in the fourth quarter.
"You won't get anywhere if you're thinking about negatives all the time," McCarthy said. "Obviously it was a solid play call, it's a good play design. Their gunner made a good play, came off of it. He put us in a high-low read for Cedrick.
"You never convert them obviously if you don't call them and if you don't believe in them. I clearly understood the situation when it was called."
McCarthy's power of positivity did not take hold Thursday evening, though he can't be blamed for lack of trying.
At the tail end of what has been a traumatic 72 hours for the Cowboys -- strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul died Wednesday after suffering a medical emergency at Dallas' facility -- McCarthy attempted to light a spark under his team on a national stage. The Cowboys had just wasted a golden opportunity on their prior drive after Jaylon Smith was tackled four yards short of a pick-six and Dallas' offense could only convert his effort into three points.
Perhaps feeling the game and Dallas' opportunity to win or at least take a lead in the division slipping away, McCarthy weighed his options and went with his gut on Thanksgiving night.
The Cowboys coach insists the in-game situation was ripe for such a gutsy call.
"There's obviously film study that goes into the call, when to call it, but when you call it, you're obviously looking to convert it," McCarthy said. "You obviously understand on fourth-down calls what your options are: You either convert or you don't convert. You always know that going into… There's flow of the game. All those things are factored into that decision. I'm very confident in our players and put them in position to make big plays."
Dallas was not so aggressive to convert on its next drive when, on a fourth-and-11 10 yards upfield from its last fake attempt, and this time down two scores, the Cowboys did punt. Washington marched right down the field, made the affair a three-score game, then pick-sixed Andy Dalton on the very next drive and leaped to the top of NFC East.
McCarthy and the Cowboys, meanwhile, sunk to the bottom of the very worst division in football.