In overtime on Sunday night, the Cowboys found themselves with a 4th-and-1 at the Houston Texans’ 42 yard line. Five minutes and 40 seconds remained.
Modern N.F.L. strategy has increasingly leaned toward going for it on short fourth downs, and the 42 is about the perfect spot to do so: too far for an easy field goal, but deep enough into enemy territory that a punt won’t help a lot.
Jason Garrett, the Cowboys coach, called for a punt.
Though Chris Jones’s punt was good, putting the Texans at the 10 yard line, the Cowboys did not touch the ball again. The Texans drove for the winning field goal. The Cowboys fell to 2-3.
Needless to say, Garrett’s decision caused much head scratching among neutral fans, and deeper consternation among Cowboy fans.
Garrett said afterward that the key was that it wasn’t just one yard that was needed. It was a long one yard.
“Yeah, it was a long one,” Garrett told reporters. “You know, we had a third-and-2 and we didn’t make much on it, and we just felt like at that point in the game, the way our defense was playing, the idea was to pin them down there. Chris did a great job with the punt. They got the ball on the 10-yard line and hopefully you make a stop and you win the game coming back the other way with a game-winning field goal.”
There were many who wanted to go for it. They included Garrett’s quarterback: “Yeah, I mean, I would, but I don’t question the coach’s decision,” Dak Prescott told reporters. “I mean, coach made the decision to go with the defense.”
Unfortunately for Garrett, the naysayers also included his owner. “It’s time for risk at that particular time; that’s not second-guessing,” Jerry Jones told reporters.
Twitter second guessers were many.
A field goal might also have been an option. The attempt would have been for about 59 yards. Rookie kicker Brett Maher is 11-for-12 on the season with 48 and 50 yarders to his credit. Earlier in the day, Graham Gano of the Panthers had beaten the Giants with a 63 yarder.
But the vast majority of observers were looking for a sneak by Prescott or a plunge by Ezekiel Elliott, who happens to be the N.F.L.’s leading rusher.
The Cowboys had a 4th-and-1 at the Houston 41 with two minutes left in the first half. Curiously, on that occasion they went for it, successfully on a Prescott keeper. Maybe it was a short one.
The Cowboys have other issues beyond Garrett’s fourth down decisions. After 13-3 and 9-7 seasons, they seem to be careering toward a losing record. Their road record is 0-3, with a 24-13 loss to the Seahawks particularly troubling.
Prescott is not putting up golden numbers in his third season, with a 6.1 adjusted yards per attempt, the worst of his career. Among the 21 quarterbacks with five starts, he ranks 20th, ahead of only Case Keenum.
He hasn’t been helped by a shaky receiving corps. The team cut Dez Bryant and his average of 900 yards per season, leaving them with Cole Beasley (193 yards through five games) Deonte Thompson (102) and Allen Hurns (84). The Cowboys rank 30th in net yards per pass after ranking 16th last year with Bryant.
“I’d love to have No. 1 receivers,” Jones told The Fan radio. That prompted the still unemployed Bryant to reply on Twitter that he didn’t know “what Jerry meant by that,” adding for good measure that he too would have gone for it on fourth down: “For sure would have kept them chains moving.”
Betdsi sportsbook currently has Garrett as the most likely coach to be fired at 5-2, ahead of Dirk Koetter of the Buccaneers, Bill O’Brien of the Texans and Vance Joseph of the Broncos.
(The least likely are Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Sean McVay of the Rams, who went for it on fourth down in his own territory with a minute and change on Sunday.)
Next week the Cowboys have a home game against the 3-2 Jaguars, then have to go back on the road to face the division rival Redskins heading into the bye week. Good results will be vital for the Cowboys season, and maybe even for Garrett’s job.