DALLAS — It wasn't that the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Houston Texans 19-16 in overtime. It wasn't that they fell to 2-3. It wasn't that they failed to get beyond the 16-point threshold. It wasn't that they managed one sack on a quarterback who had 17 take-downs coming into the game. It was that coach Jason Garrett elected to punt on fourth-and-1 from the 42-yard line in enemy territory.
Everyone has been kind to remind Coach Garrett that the Cowboys in the Dak Prescott/Ezekiel Elliott era are highly accurate in converting such short yardage situations with turnovers on downs as the consequence.
However, the decision to pick up that first down wasn't as simple as handing the ball off to Elliott up the middle.
The Cowboys faced six short yardage situations in Houston, and they converted on three of them. Also factor in that Elliott had 20 carries for 54 yards that night. It wasn't like Dallas had given up on the run. The Texans defense did an outstanding job of containing the NFL's top rusher coming into Week 5. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Elliott had a total of four carries for a solitary yard.
The risk, if they run it, is Elliott gets stuffed, just as he had on the third-and-1 play from the exact same spot. Houston would take over at their own 42-yard line and need about 25 yards to get kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn into field goal range.
So, if it is seemingly unavoidable that Houston gets the ball back, why not pin them deep and sic the defense on a battered Deshaun Watson? The second-year quarterback was wincing from the shots he had taken throughout the game. The Dallas pass rush, while only producing a single sack, was getting hits on the former first-rounder from Clemson.
Let's go back to the last drive of regulation. Dallas punts from their own 45-yard line and punter Chris Jones backs up the Texans to their own 10-yard line. Houston has a chance to win the game with 1:41 left in the fourth quarter. In six plays, Watson manages to get Houston to the Dallas 49-yard line. On first-and-10, the Cowboys bring pressure with linebacker Jaylon Smith and the NFL's leader in sacks up to that week, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, delivering another quarterback hit. Watson slings the ball desperately in the direction of receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but safety Xavier Woods makes the defense's first interception of the season. By the way, of the three of Houston's past four games, Watson had thrown an interception while in enemy territory. He kind of has a knack for that this season.
On the drive before that, Dallas turned Houston three-and-out.
The drive prior, Dallas had a goal-line stand on a rather pessimistic drive that began at the Houston 40-yard line.
The drive before that was another Houston three-and-out. By the way, we are in the third quarter.
The drive before that, it was another heroic goal-line stand from the defense.
The drive prior was four plays and a punt.
Houston's first drive of the second half, Dallas turned them over with a fumble when cornerback Anthony Brown stripped Hopkins and cornerback Jourdan Lewis recovered.
Forget the stats, which I appreciate and myself love to delve into. I dive into stats like Scrooge McDuck in a stories-high vault full of gold coins. But the reality is that the Cowboys defense presented a body of work throughout the second half to give Garrett more confidence in the defense's ability to get the ball back than the offense's ability to pick up a long yard.
What is really frustrating to fans, and owner Jerry Jones alike, is the conservative decision. On a Sunday when Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay goes for it in a similar circumstance and is successful en route to victory, the Dallas coach punts it away in overtime and loses. Oh, and this is 10 days after the Cowboys owner said the Rams and Cowboys offenses were similar.
The truly puzzling part of Garrett's decision is that earlier in the game on a fourth-and-1 from the Texans' 41-yard line coming out of the two-minute warning in the first half, Dallas went for it with Prescott sneaking up the middle for a 2-yard gain. In the same area of the field earlier in the game, the Cowboys went for it and converted. Just as there was in-game precedent the Cowboys defense could hold the Texans, so too was there an in-game precedent they could pick up that fourth down on that side of the field.
Maybe it was a longer yard than we realized.
Take out the benefit of hindsight for a moment, would you have punted? Share your thoughts on the decision with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.