ARLINGTON, Texas – Just like that, with one play, the entire game changed.
The Cowboys were right in the middle of this, with a chance to perhaps get a huge victory and at least for a little while create some sunshine in what has been one of the darkest, saddest weeks in recent history.
But in one play – actually, let's call it two plays – all hope for this game was gone.
I bet you think you know what plays I'm referring to. And trust me, we'll get to that other debacle in a second.
But to me, the Cowboys lost this game in the second quarter.
That's right, the second quarter, with the game still tied, 10-10.
That's when we found out the Cowboys were actually a one-dimensional team today. It's bad enough when you don't do something very well. But it's another problem when you stop trying all together.
The Cowboys had a third-and-1 from their own 34-yard line and decided to run a jet sweep pass with CeeDee Lamb. Don't have a huge issue with that, considering the success they had with it last week in Minnesota. But that play is supposed to be about 5 or 6 yards, even without a big block. It didn't get 1 yard.
Then on fourth down, instead of opting to punt the ball away, the Cowboys go for it.
Well, if you got cute on third down, surely you'll just run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott, or better yet, use a quarterback sneak from Andy Dalton, who certainly wasn't playing like he had suffered a concussion the last time he faced this team with all of his head-first diving to get extra yards.
One of those two safe plays on fourth down, if you just must go for it?
No, let's go shotgun and try a pass out to Lamb again, an attempt that falls incomplete.
OK, OK, before you start yelling at me that it "should've" been pass interference, well, it wasn't called. You can't count on getting these 50-50 calls anymore because it just doesn't seem like they're going in the Cowboys' favor.
Sure, it could've been called, but it wasn't. That's the risk you take when you try to throw a pass like that in a tight window. It's not a safe play, definitely not like running a quarterback sneak.
But the Cowboys showed right then and there, they couldn't run the ball. And for the most part, they weren't really going to try anymore.
Hey, I get the dilemma. Do you keep trying to run into a brick wall in hopes you're going to eventually make a dent? Or do you try something else? That's the tricky balance that all offensive coordinators face, especially when you're dealing with a complete mismatch like this one.
And it wasn't a total mismatch when we started off. But the Cowboys didn't even get one series into the game before both starting tackles were out, including the All-Pro Zack Martin.
To me, not getting that first down right there, lost the game for the Cowboys. At least, it's what tilted the game completely uphill as Washington took the ball and quickly scored for a 17-10 lead.
Yes, the Cowboys were fighting up that hill the rest of the way, and at one point nearly climbed it. Actually, it kind of looked like Jaylon Smith was running up hill himself as he was chugging towards that goal line.
But when he didn't make it, I immediately doubted if they would score.
Again, they couldn't run the ball.
People asked me on social media why the Cowboys get cute with these razzle-dazzle plays, but that's all they've got. And when a team knows you can't run the ball, then they're looking for it even more. Those plays only work if they're worried about running the ball up the middle with success.
So once again, the Cowboys failure to run the ball was biting them in the rear.
But even with all of that ... here they were, still in this game, only down by four points.
And that's when it all ended.
It was almost like the Cowboys were stuffing a bunch of milk gallons into this paper sack all day long, getting it damp and soggy at the bottom.
But that last fake punt call ... that's when the bottom fell out.
I honestly didn't think I'd be over 700 words before I finally addressed it. Yes, I know to many of you, it was the play that REALLY lost the game. I just feel like the Cowboys' issues began way before it.
Still, here's my take on it: The coaches are there to get the team prepared and ready to play, and then to put them in a position to go win the game. The players obviously have to execute.
In this case, though, it looked like the coaches didn't give them a chance to do that. You just don't make that call right then, with everything else that we've seen to that point.
I know that head coach Mike McCarthy defended his decision, even calling it a "solid call" on two occasions in his postgame press conference. He even mentioned that you can't ever generate big plays if you don't ever call them, and then went on to say he understood the situation and risk.
But again, I'm just not seeing the logic. How is that a solid move? It's fourth-and-10 at your own 24 and you run a slow-developing fake punt that takes you back 10 more yards with Cedrick Wilson, a wide receiver by the way, looking down the field to either run or pass to the punter?
Hunter Niswander is supposedly a good athlete who can punt, kick field goals and kick off. However, I don't know about his hands and receiving skills. And to think the Cowboys were risking so much at that juncture in the game, hinging everything on a backup receiver connecting a pass to a punter?
Let's also remember the fact that Alex Smith, while he's made an unbelievable recovery to get back to playing and is one of the best feel-good stories of the season, is still not a quarterback who should scare you. In fact, among his previous three throws was the interception by Jaylon Smith.
Just punt the ball with 12:20 to play in the game and put the ball back in Alex Smith's hands. There was a greater than zero chance he was going to give it right back.
Instead, the Cowboys went over the top and it ended up costing them the game. After that, this team never recovered. Couldn't stop the run, couldn't block the edge, couldn't even convert plays on offense.
And Washington just steamrolled them for 21 points to make this look even more embarrassing than it had to be.
If you want to, you can relate it all back to that fourth-down decision in the fourth quarter. Personally, I think it started on the fourth-down decision in the second.
Either way, both of them played a factor in the way this game turned out.