Questionable fourth-down decision and controversial call loom large in Cowboys' loss to Rams

Dallas Cowboys fans complained loudly and often about Jason Garrett. They’ll have something to talk about with new coach Mike McCarthy this week.

McCarthy, coaching his first game for the Cowboys, made a debatable call to go for it in the fourth quarter when Dallas trailed the Los Angeles Rams 20-17. Instead of a short field goal to tie the game, Dallas came up short of the first down and turned it over on downs. The Rams went on to win 20-17.

In the final minute, Michael Gallup had a questionable pass interference when he extended his arm against Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, wiping out a big play that would have put Dallas in field-goal range in the final seconds. They’ll talk about that call, too, among other things. It didn’t seem like Gallup did enough to warrant the flag.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, right, is tackled by Los Angeles Rams defensive end Michael Brockers. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong )

Taking three points earlier would have made it a different game at the end. It’s not like McCarthy, the longtime coach of the Green Bay Packers, doesn’t understand the scrutiny that comes with being an NFL head coach. But he’s about to learn what it’s like in Texas when your decisions end up being the wrong ones.

Dallas doesn’t get it on fourth down

McCarthy faced his key decision early in the fourth quarter. Trailing 20-17, the Cowboys had fourth-and-3 deep in Rams territory. Instead of trying a field goal to tie the game, Dallas went for it. Dak Prescott hit CeeDee Lamb over the middle but short of the first-down marker, and Lamb was tackled right away for a turnover on downs.

The decision wasn’t necessarily wrong. You won’t win many NFL games settling for short field goals. One of the many reasons McCarthy’s Packers blew the 2014 NFC championship game was that they settled for a couple field goals from inside Seattle’s 5-yard line instead of going for it. McCarthy wanted to be more bold this time around.

But when decisions have bad results, it’s easy to second guess. And many people will second guess that one after the Cowboys lost by a field goal.

The Cowboys had a couple chances to drive again later and tie or win the game. On a third down, Amari Cooper was popped by Ramsey and the ball flew out incomplete. The Cowboys had to punt with a little more than five minutes left. Dallas got it back right before the two-minute warning, and Gallup seemed to have beat Ramsey for an enormous play, but the flag came down. That basically ended the game.

There were plenty of issues with the Cowboys on Sunday, not just related to fourth-down decisions or questionable calls.

Dallas’ offense comes up short

Dallas’ offense was supposed to be among the best in the NFL and it still might be, but it wasn’t all that great on Sunday night. The Cowboys were stuck on 17 points for a long time, unable to create many big plays downfield. The Rams did a good job containing all of the Cowboys’ skill-position stars.

The Rams sped up the tempo, were more unpredictable than usual with their personnel groupings and got in a good rhythm right away. Malcolm Brown, an afterthought for most of the offseason after the Rams used a second-round draft pick on running back Cam Akers, ran hard and scored two touchdowns.

While Dallas came in with a lot of hype, the Rams outplayed them in many areas. Prescott couldn’t lift his team to a winning drive with two opportunities in the final minutes, though he would have been a hero had the Gallup catch held.

Dallas struggled badly in close games last season. Garrett took most of the heat for that. The trend continued, and this time a new coach will have to answer the old questions.

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