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The image of quarterback Dak Prescott and umpire Ramon George literally bumping into one another Sunday as the game clock at AT&T Stadium ticked down to zeroes will be the one that sticks with Cowboys fans the longest after the gut-wrenching 23-17 loss to bounce them from the postseason bracket.
But think back through the game, and there are so many other snapshots that will leave the fanbase shaking its collective head. So many reasons why the ’21 Cowboys are the laughingstock of the league on wild card weekend. So many details that showed this Dallas team was unprepared for the magnitude of the moment.
Leighton Vander Who?: Linebacker's misspelled jersey goes viral
How many former first-round draft picks, in their 55th game with the organization, with a Pro Bowl on their resume, have their last name misspelled on their own jersey? Ladies and gentlemen, the starting middle linebacker for your Dallas Cobwoys.
The Cowboys misspelled Leighton Vander Esch’s name 😭 pic.twitter.com/I5ZnUWo4HN
— PFF (@PFF) January 16, 2022
Just a bit outside: Cedrick Wilson's extra-wide lateral
There was wide receiver Cedrick Wilson’s lateral. From deep in their own territory, the Cowboys and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore looked to have a gem of a play dialed up. Running back Tony Pollard had room to run, with wideout CeeDee Lamb blocking the one 49ers defender between him and the end zone 80 yards away. But Wilson’s tossback was closer to the ballboys than his speedy teammate.
Cowboys tried to get creative on 3rd and long…
Cedrick Wilson was a bit off on the lateral😂pic.twitter.com/WQ3Smm31XR
— PointsBet Sportsbook (@PointsBetUSA) January 16, 2022
“I just sailed it out of bounds,” Wilson said after the game. “I shouldn’t have rushed it.”
Keystone Kops: Fake punt momentum ruined by 1st-down confusion
The Cowboys tried to rush things later in the fourth quarter, and it fell apart just as pathetically.
Down 23-7 entering the final frame, the Dallas offense had stalled out around midfield and seemed content to play the field position game with a punt. But Pro Bowler Bryan Anger lobbed a beautiful pass to a wide-open C.J. Goodwin for a 16-yard pickup and a first down.
The punt team hustled back to the line, seemingly ready to quick-snap another play so as to not let the 49ers substitute any defenders in. But the Cowboys special teamers looked thoroughly confused about what play they might have to run when it became clear the 49ers would not be baited into burning a timeout.
With just 22 seconds left on the play clock, the Cowboys decide to send in the regular offense, only not everyone gets the message. The official (umpire George again) stands over the ball, but Dallas is the only unit having trouble getting set. The ump clears Prescott to ask for the snap with one second left. The snap comes late, naturally, and the Cowboys are called for delay of game, just one of 14 penalties called on Dallas.
A brilliantly executed fake punt immediately followed by 40 seconds of Keystone Kops. The momentum lost, Dallas settled for a field goal three plays later.
Yep, still the dumbest minute of football I’ve ever seen. pic.twitter.com/TQX4dn1erz
— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dieter) January 17, 2022
“We’re supposed to run the [first-down] play. They can’t sub, since we didn’t sub anybody off the field,” Anger revealed postgame. “The ref stood over the ball, and we should’ve snapped the ball and had 15 people on the field because they subbed. Kind of unfortunate.”
Heads-up: Anger's punt hits Cowboys video screen
Earlier, in the third quarter, one of Anger’s punts hit the bottom of the Cowboys’ massive video board that hangs over the playing surface. No harm, no foul; officials called for a do-over by rule, but it definitely fit the theme of the day: whatever could go wrong for the Cowboys was absolutely going to.
Bryan Anger's punt hit the jumbotron 😱
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2022
Blinded by the light: Sun, stadium glass cause Cowboys drops again
That wasn’t even the biggest role that the building’s unique features played in the afternoon’s proceedings.
AT&T Stadium was constructed with its end zones- and the massive glass walls behind both- on an east-west axis. That layout quirk means direct, full-bore sun blinding players facing the west end of the stadium at certain times of the year in late-afternoon games.
It caused at least one incompletion on Sunday, to Wilson, in the second quarter.
Chance of one-score game if it was cloudy weather in Arlington or AT&T Stadium was constructed differently. Sun in eyes of Cowboys WR Cedrick Wilson appeared to directly cause third-down incompletion. Cowboys trail 16-7 at halftime. pic.twitter.com/gZE6Kqd3N4
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) January 16, 2022
“It’s one of those things you can’t do anything about,” Wilson said. “I turned around and couldn’t see Dak or the ball.”
The issue has come up before. Cowboys players from Jason Witten to Dez Bryant have lost balls in the sun, an odd thing to say at a domed stadium. Most stadium are oriented north-to-south, but most stadiums weren’t built by Jerry Jones.
Natural lighting was one of the billionaire owner’s must-haves when the facility was being designed. The end zones were specifically left open to create the outdoor plazas that can take the stadium’s paid attendance up over 100,000 for certain events.
And that problematic open-air plaza is on the west side of the building because of Arlington land values.
“That’s the reason the end zones are open and the orientation is the way it is, because that’s the absolute best alignment to play out the final master plan and in creating the most value in the land around the stadium itself,” said Bryan Trubey, executive vice president of the architectural firm that designed the building, in an interview several years ago.
The thinking was that the Cowboys’ presence would raise property values, and that new structures would be built around AT&T, eventually blocking out the sun.
“When you get to the west side of the stadium, when we get the higher densities there, when you have 14-, 15-story buildings, which is not out of the realm of possibility, it’s a completely different situation,” Trubey said.
But those buildings still haven’t been built. Jones won’t allow curtains or mini-blinds during games. The Cowboys don’t appear to have a sheet of “sun plays,” despite this being a well-known issue in their own building. And players inside AT&T Stadium will keep losing balls in the sun in late-afternoon games.
0-for-double-dip: Cowboys blow chance to turn tide
And then there was probably the Cowboys’ best chance at turning the tide of Sunday’s game.
Dallas won the coin toss and elected to defer. With the ball and three minutes left to play in the second quarter, they had the opportunity to go for the coveted double-dip: a score going into halftime, and then another score on the opening possession of the third quarter. The 16-7 deficit at that moment could have turned into a 21-16 Cowboys lead without San Francisco even touching the ball… if Prescott and the offense could end both drives in the end zone.
On those two possessions, the Cowboys ran 16 plays that counted. (Four others were negated by penalty.) They amassed a total of 34 yards. Zero points. Both drives ended in punts.
— Sᴘᴏʀᴛs 24/7 (@Sports_24x7_) January 16, 2022
And then, of course, the final debacle that was the last play of the Cowboys’ 2021 campaign. Whether the blame lies in the quarterback draw call, the distance Prescott ran before sliding, who he handed the ball to, how far away the umpire was, or whether someone told McCarthy that time would be added back… there’s plenty of finger-pointing to go around.
The devil, they say, is in the details. And the Cowboys simply weren’t buttoned up on enough details Sunday.