Fourth down call leads to lingering questions for Dallas Cowboys

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Jason Garret’s fourth down call unpopular with Dallas Cowboys fans following the loss to Houston Texans (Image: Keith Ellison via Flickr)

By Dwain Price, NDG Sports

FRISCO – To punt or not to punt. That was the difficult question facing Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett during Sunday night’s overtime game on the road against the Houston Texans.

The Cowboys were staring down the barrel of a fourth-and-1 at the Houston 42 on their only possession of the overtime period. For historical purposes, the Cowboys were 18-2 when facing fourth and two yards or less in the two-plus years they’ve had quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott on their roster.

And with the Cowboys owning arguably the NFL’s best offensive line, along with Elliott – he leads the league in rushing –it was a given that Garrett was going to go for it on fourth down, right?

But the Cowboys punted, Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins made a terrific 49-yard catch-and-run, and Ka’imi Fairbairn kicked a 36-yard field goal and Houston won the Texas Shootout, 19-16. And the Monday morning quarterbacks in North Texas went ballistic!

“We just were being outplayed, and it was time for ‘risk’ at that particular time,” owner Jerry Jones told the assembled media after the game. “That’s not second-guessing.”

Well, Jones was actually second-guessing Garrett’s decision to punt the ball and rely on his worn-down defense to get the ball back to his very ineffective offense.

“The game situation, what we had done on offense, what we had done on defense, how long that fourth down was, all those factors played into it,” Garrett said, explaining his controversial decision to invariably punt the ball. “The fact that we were in overtime, if you do a good job on defense you get a stop, maybe they make one first down and they punt it back to you, you make one first down back and you kick the game-winning field goal.

“All those things go into it. And that’s really how you play that situation out if you’re playing ahead of that decision – that’s how you see it happening.”

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the only time they had the ball in overtime they punted it on fourth-and-1 from the Texans’ 42. With that ill-fated decision by Garrett to not trust his offense to pick up one yard at that critical juncture of the game, the Cowboys will now take a 2-3 record into Sunday’s 3:25 p.m. home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Even more puzzling, the Cowboys are 0-3 on the road this season and haven’t scored but one touchdown in each one of those games. That’s obvious cause for concern, especially considering the defense kept stopping the Texans inside the Cowboys’ 5-yard line.

“Obviously it’s frustrating,” Prescott said. “You lose your third road game straight for the most part and you said the offense hasn’t got going on the road.

“And the defense, especially with them giving us all the chances they did making all the big plays down there in the red zone holding them to field goals and keeping us in the game, it’s very frustrating.’’

Prescott completed 18 passes in 29 attempts for 208 yards and a touchdown. However, he also tossed two costly interceptions, albeit they both were tipped balls which his receivers should have caught.

One of Prescott’s interceptions glanced off the hands of receiver Tavon Austin.

“At the end of the day if it touches any part of your hands you’re supposed to catch it,” Austin said. “Would it have been a tough catch? Yes.

“But it is what it is.”

The Texans’ aggressive defense also held Elliott to just 54 yards rushing on 20 carries. That’s the fewest yards rushing by Elliott since he gained only eight yards on nine carries during a Sept. 17, 2017 contest against the Denver Broncos.

“They just were very active up front, moving around up front, a lot of line stunts,’ Elliott said. “They did a great job against our run game.

“We really didn’t protect (Prescott). Dak didn’t have too much time (to pass). We have to do better giving him more time. We just got to do better protecting and finishing plays.”

And do better at taking advantage of a superb effort by the defense.

The Texans were just 5-of-15 on third down plays. That includes only 1-of-6 inside the 20-yard line.

Prior to halftime, the Cowboys’ defense held the Texans scoreless from the Dallas 1-yard line. But overall, it simply was just another missed opportunity by the Cowboys’ offensive unit.

Still, with the Washington Redskins (2-2), Philadelphia Eagles (2-3) and New York Giants (1-4) also losing, no one in the NFC East won a game this past weekend. Thus, the Cowboys are only half-a-game out of first place in their division, despite that lackluster offensive performance against the Texans.

“I don’t really want to dwell on any aspect of the offensive side of the ball,” Jones said. “We had some things we did good and we had some things we didn’t do good on the defensive side of the ball.

“Right now all I can say is we gave a big effort.’’