It’s hard not to look at Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys without comparing the play-calling and game-management skills of the two opposing head coaches.
The Cowboys’ opening drive was a demonstration of creative play calling and good game preparation. After a short run play, quarterback Dak Prescott executes a bootleg and play-action pass to Jason Witten, who is six yards from the nearest Packers’ defender. The next three plays were all first downs, two on runs by Ezekiel Elliott. A routine flat pass to Cole Beasley gets an easy 16 yards. A 15-yard Elliott run gets the Cowboys to Green Bay’s 8-yard line. Dallas then surprises the defense with a college-style read option, with Prescott keeping and gaining six yards. From the 2-yard line, the befuddled Packers don’t even realize they have 12 men on the field, so from one yard out, Beasley goes in motion to the left, then back to the right, then back to the left again – the motion leaves Micah Hyde trailing the play badly and it’s another easy and short toss for the touchdown.
Eight plays, four simple passes, four completions to wide-open receivers. This wasn’t due to superior players. It was due to superior play-calling.
It was also clear to most of us at this point, but not to Mike McCarthy, that the Green Bay Packers would not be able to match the Cowboys with a series of field goals.
The Packers fought back with a nine-play drive of their own, getting to a 3rd and 1 just inside the red zone. Green Bay then brought in extra linemen Jason Spriggs and Don Barclay, causing a hopelessly stacked defense. Into this mass of humanity, McCarthy called for a fullback plunge which had no chance of success. What was he thinking?
But there’s more. On 4th down and 1, the Packers were going to go for the first down, then running back Eddie Lacy was seen hobbled and heading to the sideline. Instead of calling a timeout and conjuring a play that might gain the needed yard, McCarthy rushed the kicking team onto the field and took the three points – hurried and gutless acts.
Fast forward past lost fumbles by both teams. The Packers manage another nine-play drive, this time to the Dallas 42. Needing a yard and a half for a first down, McCarthy for a second time displays his lack of confidence in his own players, and again settles for another three points.
It got worse. With one minute left in the half, punter Jacob Schum pins the Cowboys inside their 3-yard line. They run two plays up the middle, showing no signs of trying to add to the score. But wait – McCarthy calls timeouts after each play. So, on a 3rd and 1, the Cowboys come up with another surprise play – an end around by speedster receiver Lucky Whitehead – 26 easy yards. Given Green Bay’s two gift timeouts, the Cowboys now decide they might as well try to score – and two plays later – courtesy of coach McCarthy – they possess a 17-6 lead.
Even with all the terrible play calls, the Packers were still only two scores down in the third quarter and the passing game was picking up. With still around 10 minutes to go in the game, McCarthy then called three meaningless runs for a by-then limping and ineffective Eddie Lacy. We’ve all seen many times when coach McCarthy is in effect playing not to lose. These runs showed us a coach playing not to win.
On Sunday, the performances by Cowboys’ coach Jason Garrett and Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy offered textbook demonstrations of good and bad coaching. They, as much as the players on the field, dictated the outcome of this humiliating home-field loss.