ARLINGTON, Texas -- There wasn't much the Dallas Cowboys did correctly in their upset loss at the hands of the visiting San Francisco 49ers on NFL Super Wild Card Weekend, but their final mistake was the one the ultimately ended their season. Down six points and having gotten the ball back with a chance to delete all of their errors by marching down the field for a possible game-winning touchdown (assuming kicker Greg Zuerlein then made the PAT, something one cannot assume nowadays), Dak Prescott and the offense began devouring yards underneath once the 49ers went into their prevent defense.
But then it happened. After gaining 28 yards on three passes, head coach Mike McCarthy gave the green light to Prescott and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to call a quarterback sneak from the 50-yard line -- with only 18 seconds left to play and with no timeouts remaining to stop the clock. Prescott gained 17 yards and then popped back up to try for a spike, but things went awry as the clock ticked away. He handed the ball to center Tyler Biadasz instead of directly to the official, which cost the Cowboys at least two more seconds as the official had to then spot the ball, but the official then had to fight through some player traffic to do so.
And so it went that the clock hit all zeroes on the Cowboys season one second before Prescott actually spiked the ball; an embarrassing sequence of events that led to fans throwing objects onto the field at the officials.
"I made the call knowing that we're going to get some yards and get down and I've got to clock it," said Prescott in his post-game press conference. "Knowing that situation, something we've practiced over and over again. I ran, went and got some yards, went down, as I was getting behind Tyler [I] saw four seconds left, thought it was time to make sure everybody was set. Then honestly, just got hit from behind and saw two seconds, and thought I could get the snap and get it down before time expired.
"And I'm not sure exactly what happened other than that."
In the pool report to follow, referee Alex Kemp explained what happened -- echoing the aforementioned explanation of events.
"The umpire was simply spotting the ball properly, [but] he collided with the players as he was setting the ball because he was moving it to the proper spot," said Kemp.
A prime and final opportunity to advance past what was mostly a[nother] poor showing by the offense (and the defense as well when factoring in some back-breaking penalties) instead devolved into nothing more than another error on the Cowboys log from Sunday, a list that even includes yet another losing battle with the star that sits at the center of our solar system. Had Prescott been able to get the spike down in time, it would've given the Cowboys one final shot from the 49ers 24-yard line -- making it nearly a red zone attempt as opposed to a traditional Hail Mary.
"[I was thinking] we've got a chance," Prescott said of his mindset on the final drive. "That's all I can ask for -- is to have the ball. Be down by six, have a chance to go win the game. ... The defense did a great job of giving us that opportunity. But just not being able to capitalize, I thought the last fourth down there, [was] close, almost a big play, but didn't go our way."
It's a scenario that also requires McCarthy to explain himself, and so he attempted to, while admitting he was also shocked that the play wasn't reviewed by officials in New York (something Kemp confirmed), given how important the result was.
"I've never seen that come down the way it came down, as far as the collision between the umpire and the quarterback," said McCarthy. "We were trying to get inside the 30 yard line to set-up the last play. The mechanics were intact from our end of it. The communication that I was given on the sideline was that they were reviewing it, they were going to put time back on the clock. The next thing I know, they're running off the field.
"That's the only facts I have for you. ... I thought they were going to put time back on the clock."
Spoiler: They didn't. Game and season over.
The Cowboys are now thrust prematurely into an offseason full of questions, including their incredible mismanagement of the Ezekiel Elliott injury -- a partially torn PCL, the running back revealed on Sunday -- as well as what happened to the dynamic play-calling of Moore over the second half of the season and much, much more. But you can bet they'll never forget all of the opportunities they squandered against a beatable opponent, and in the Cowboys' own stadium, the final bullet to their own foot being a mishandling of a final play that arguably shouldn't have been the call at all.
"As I said it's something we practiced over and over again," said Prescott. "Obviously, as I ran, I went down, I think their guy did a great job of jumping on me. Kind of late, I guess you could say there. That's what they're taught, lay on me. I think that may have cost us an extra two seconds or so, but once I got up, as I said, as I'm getting behind Tyler to clock the ball, I saw four seconds and as I got hit, as I said I tried to re-gather myself back and thought I still had time to get down, and it didn't go that way.
"In hindsight I could say, 'Yeah I should have went down sooner if I had know all that was going to play out that way.' I also think if I don't get hit from behind it's clean and we're clocking the ball with a minimum of a second if not more, if not two or three on the clock. As I said, their guy did a good job of diving on me there at the end of giving them an extra two seconds to run off, but if we're looking at it now I could say, 'Yeah I could have went down five yards earlier.'
"But thought I'd got us in position, thought I had time left to clock the ball. Something that we've practiced over and over and was going to be able get into a last play scenario."
And what of handing the ball to Biadasz and not the official? Well, it's what Prescott was told to do.
"We've practiced it. You hand it to center," he said. "The umpire, all he has to do is usually come in and tap the ball. Don't necessarily know exactly ... why the hit happened, I guess. Yeah, I know he's going to come in and touch the ball. We could say, yeah he needs to be closer to the ball or whatever, but in hindsight it's just tough. Just tough to accept."
But accept it they must, because not doing so changes nothing about the gut-wrenching ending to what could've been another special season that was instead sent circling down the porcelain bowl -- a feeling that's become all too familiar for the Cowboys.