Today marks the painful two-year anniversary of Dez Bryant’s catch over Sam Shields in the divisional round at Lambeau Field.
What should have been a heroic 31-yard reception on fourth and two to set Dallas up at the one yard line, is instead remembered as the signature example of the NFL’s incompetence in defining what is and is not a catch. As painful as that unjust overreach by the league’s officiating department is, it is not the reason why Dallas lost to the Packers on January 11, 2015.
Here are the four real reasons Dallas failed to advance to the NFC Championship game:
1) Dallas’ messy ending to the first half
A series of critical mistakes in the final minute of the first half led to a complete shift in the tenor and momentum of the game. Up 14-7 with roughly five minutes remaining in the first half, Dallas began to march down the field from their own 20 for what appeared to be a third consecutive scoring drive.
Facing second and seven from the Green Bay 33 with 48 seconds remaining, Tony Romo found Jason Witten for an eight-yard gain and a first down. Dallas immediately called for a timeout. The problem here however, was that it was a terrible spot. Witten had actually only gained about six yards to the Green Bay 27. Dallas’ timeout gave the booth enough time to look at the spot of the ball and overturn the initial ruling.
Now facing third and one from the 27, Dallas calls for a pass play that goes awry and almost ends in an interception. DeMarco Murray had carried the ball 26 times during the year on third or fourth down with two yards or fewer to go. His first down success rate was 73%, which trailed only Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, and Lamar Miller for backs with 15 or more attempts.
Dallas was forced to kick a 45-yard field goal with 34 seconds remaining, but a false start call pushed them back another five yards. Now kicking a 50-yard field goal in freezing temperatures, Dan Bailey ended up missing it.
Green Bay took the ball from their own 40 and promptly got into field goal range for Mason Crosby, who cut the lead to four before halftime.
Had any one of those things not happened in that disastrous finish to the first half, you are looking at anywhere from a three to 10 point swing in Dallas’ favor. This final minute of the first half was a critical blow to Dallas’ momentum and swung the scoreboard in what ended out being a five-point game.
2) DeMarco Murray’s fumble
Despite DeMarco Murray’s prolific 2014 season, fumbles had haunted him for a sizable portion of the year. Murray fumbled in each of the season’s first three games, and five of the first six.
Following his rocky start to the year, Murray had seemingly turned the corner and corrected the issue. Entering the game against Green Bay, Murray had not fumbled in his last 253 touches. That was on the heels of seven fumbles in just 218 touches.
Fate can be a funny thing though.
Having stopped Green Bay on its opening possession of the second half, Dallas got the ball back and had first and five from its own 41-yard line. DeMarco Murray took the ball from Tony Romo and had what may have been the largest opening he had seen all season.
With only one out of position safety to beat, Murray got careless with the football and had it knocked out by Julius Peppers’ desperate swipe at the last moment.
This was another potential 10-point swing. What would have been a touchdown for Dallas and a 21-10 lead, ended up being Green Bay ball in Dallas territory and led to a Packers field goal, cutting the Cowboys’ lead to one early in the second half.
DeMarco Murray had gone the longest stretch of his entire career without fumbling the football. Fate, in the form of Julius Peppers’ flailing right arm, determined at the absolute worst moment, that enough time had passed.
3) Throwing to Dez on fourth and two
The Cowboys simply should not have thrown to Dez Bryant on fourth and two.
As we mentioned earlier, DeMarco Murray was one of the most successful backs in the NFL on third or fourth and two yards or fewer. Perhaps some confidence had been lost in Murray following his fumble, but that seems unlikely since he touched the ball seven more times over the final 18 plays.
Dallas ran the ball 28 times against Green Bay that day, and failed to pick up at least two yards on only seven attempts; one of those attempts was a touchdown that only required a yard.
Dez Bryant is a fantastic player, and the Cowboys rightly trust him in all sorts of situations, but with just under five minutes remaining in the game, and Green Bay scoring on its last three drives, a more methodical and statistically probable approach was required on that fourth and two play.
4) Dallas couldn’t stop Aaron Rodgers
Dallas still had the opportunity to get the ball back and score after the horrific ruling on Dez Bryant’s catch. There was 4:42 left in the game, the Cowboys had two timeouts, and the two-minute warning was still to come.
The problem was that the Dallas pass rush and pass defense was not good enough to stop Aaron Rodgers from picking them apart on one leg. Aaron Rodgers had a small tear in his calf and he was not going to be able to move like he normally would. It was understood heading into the game that his ability to avoid pressure was going to be minimal, so if you broke down the pocket, Rodgers would be in trouble.
Dallas’ issue was that they were one of the worst pass rushing teams in the NFL, averaging a sack every 21 pass plays.
Hobbled from his calf injury, Rodgers lit the Cowboys up for 316 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Rodgers went 15-18 for 226 yards and two touchdowns on Green Bay’s final four possessions of the game.
In fact, on the final possession of the game, following the ruling on Bryant’s catch, Rodgers converted two separate third-down plays against the Cowboys; a third and three with 2:36 remaining that went for 26 yards to Davante Adams, and a third and 11 with two minutes remaining that went for 12 yards to Randall Cobb.
The Cowboys will be searching for redemption on Sunday, but it won’t be about Dez Bryant. There is nothing more Dez Bryant could have done, because a silly rule that is enforced by a former stand-up comedian stands in the way of recognizing and acknowledging what anyone with common sense can see.
Instead, Dallas will be looking to redeem their sloppy mistakes at the end of the first half, the play-call that never should have been, and the inability to stop one of the game’s all-time great signal callers.