FRISCO - When does "creative'' morph into "silly''? When does "gutsy'' transform into "foolish''? When does play-calling "aggression'' become play-calling "defensiveness''?
When the Dallas Cowboys waste opportunity after opportunity in a 41-16 loss at AT&T Stadium driven largely by a series of "too-cute'' decisions by coach Mike McCarthy and staff.
“Well, you don’t get anywhere if you think about the negatives all the time,” McCarthy responded to the media after the game, growing frustrated and even prickly at the line of questioning.
But what McCarthy surely knows: The blame here doesn't belong on the media for wondering why Dallas insisted on against-the-grain decisions to throw on a run down, to ask a receiver to pass to a quarterback in the red zone, and to call an improbable fake-punt/reverse pass that was to ask a punter to be a receiver.
The blame for all that "creative,'' "silly,'' "gutsy,'' "aggressive'' "foolishness'' goes to the "defensive'' McCarthy.
His general explanation for the volume of exotics run against a Washington team that entered the game with the same 3-7 vulnerabilities?
"You can never hit (the trick plays),'' he said, "if you don’t call them.''
Combine that comment with the "You don't get anywhere if you only think about the negatives'' and you have an advice recipe for disaster. Using that logic, why not run red lights, drink bourbon for breakfast and touch fire?
Hey, you can't only think about the negatives! Unless, that is, you deeply analyze Dallas' top trio of "too-cute'' play-calls ...
1) With 5:22 left in the second quarter and the score tied 10-10, Dallas faced a third-and-inches from its own 34. The Cowboys failed on third down. On fourth down, with three choices (the conventional one being to punt, the easy risk being to run and then, well, the other one) ... Dallas chose the other one.
QB Andy Dalton tried a 7-yard throw to CeeDee Lamb. Incomplete.
“It was a clean matchup,” McCarthy said. “Honestly, we had one-on-one on the perimeter. ... We just didn't convert.''
First, it wasn't "clean''; Washington cornerback Ronald Darby was so tight on Lamb that some Cowboys clamored for interference. Second, "we just didn't convert'' is exactly the problem with the riskier call - a team is less likely to convert.
That is the point of not doing it.
"It was a good play-call,'' insisted McCarthy.
That folly set up a short field for Washington, which quickly scored to cause the Cowboys trail 17-10.
2) Jaylon Smith’s interception late in the third quarter set up the Cowboys at the Washington 4. On the next two plays the Cowboys lost six yards, including a play that asked Lamb to take a reverse and then pass to QB Dalton.
But Dalton was covered ... in part because ... well, because most quarterbacks being asked to run routes are easy to cover.
Dallas had to settle for a field goal, so instead of tying the game at 20-all, the Cowboys remained in a hole.
3) With 12:21 left in the game, Dallas still trailed 20-16 - no sign yet of a blowout in the making. The Cowboys' offense stalled at its own 24. Every single bit of football logic says a team punts and "lives to fight another series.''
But the Cowboys? Inexplicably, on fourth-and-10 (that's right) and again, from Dallas’ own 24 (yes, that's also right), McCarthy oversaw a decision made in tandem with special-teams coordinator Bones Fassel to go for it.
The punting unit came on the field ... and almost every single guy on it was suddenly asked to do something that he does not specialize in.
Darian Thompson - a backup safety - took the direct snap.
Cedric Wilson - a backup receiver of whom far too much is made around here because he was a QB in high school - took the reverse pitch from Thompson.
Hunter Niswander - a punter - ran a route.
Special-teams ace C.J. Goodwin - an otherwise position-less player who is not known for having particularly good hands - ran a route.
Niswander was never close to open. Goodwin, as it turns out, was open deep - but Wilson (in part because he's not a quarterback) never saw him. Wilson was dropped for a loss.
With the field again foolishly flipped to its favor, Washington took over on the Dallas 23 and in one play, running back Antonio Gibson gave WFT a 27-16 lead by running untouched to the end zone.
"At that point in the game, our information that you look for going into it, it was a solid call,'' McCarthy insisted.
The head coach can repeat by rote "it was a good play-call'' and "it was a solid play-call'' all he wishes; but wishing does not make it so. And here's the real truth about Dallas' "information'' that led it to think it could trick Washington:
Washington had better information.
From WFT coach Ron Rivera: “As far as special teams is concerned, looking at what they did this year, they brought a couple of fakes already ... They were very active on special teams so we were prepared for that ... Actually, on that reverse they ran, Nate Kaczor, our special-teams coach, had us is one of our prevent defenses so that we were really prepared.''
From WFT defensive back Jeremy Reaves: "We know they’ve shown fake punts ... So we kind of had an idea of, they would have something coming into this game. ... We had been practicing our safe look, guys getting outside on the edges and just protecting the edges. You cover your man. ... We got off the field, that’s all she wrote right there."
Washington guys are talking facts here. Cowboys guys are talking foolishly here.
Washington played capably. Dallas played "cute.''