ARLINGTON, Texas – On paper, the Cowboys' 41-16 Thanksgiving Day loss to Washington is their second-largest margin of defeat this season. Look deeper, and the Cowboys trailed by only four points early in the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium.
Everything changed after the Cowboys' failed fake punt on fourth-and-10 from their own 24-yard line, trailing 20-16 with 12:21 remaining.
Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, who had a 73-yard pass completion on a fake punt three weeks ago against Pittsburgh, got stopped for a 1-yard loss on a direct-snap-pitch from safety Darian Thompson.
The next play, Washington running back Antonio Gibson scored a 23-yard touchdown to take a 27-16 lead. Washington never looked back. Late in the fourth quarter they added a 37-yard Gibson touchdown run and an interception return for a touchdown by defensive lineman Montez Sweat.
After the game, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy defended the special teams decision in question.
"It was a solid play call. It's a good play design," he said. "Their gunner made a good play, came off of it, he put us in a high-low read for Cedrick. That's the nature of those plays. You can never convert them obviously if you don't call them, if you don't believe in them. I clearly understood the situation when it was called."
On second glance, it appeared punter Hunter Niswander might have been open on the right side, but Washington linebacker Khaleke Hudson did a good job of closing on Wilson and making the tackle.
The Cowboys had been hanging around to that point in the game. A Greg Zuerlein field goal had cut Washington's lead to four at the end of the third quarter after linebacker Jaylon Smith's interception return to the 4-yard line. The defense forced a three-and-out on its next series, giving the offense the ball back early in the fourth.
Veteran special teams coordinator John Fassel has never been shy about trick plays, and the Cowboys did hit a big play in their last home game against the Steelers. But momentum Thursday was clearly lost after the unsuccessful fake punt.
How much does the risk of a negative result weigh into McCarthy's thinking in that situation?
"You won't get anywhere if you're thinking about negatives all the time," he said.
"There's obviously film study that goes into the call and when to call it. But when you call it, you're obviously looking to convert it. You obviously understand on fourth-down calls what your options are. You either convert it or you don't convert it. The flow of the game, all those things are factored into that decision. I'm very confident in our players and put them into position to make plays."