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‘I’ve never had a clock go off the board’: Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy explains puzzling clock management

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Dallas Cowboys were right where Dak Prescott wanted them to be: Taking the field for a game-winning drive, ball in his hands, chance to shepherd his team to victory.

The Chargers had tied the contest with just under 4 minutes to play. Prescott was intent he wouldn’t give his opponent another chance to steal the game, risking a loss as time expired as the Cowboys had suffered last week.

So Prescott varied his weapons, finding tight end Blake Jarwin, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Amari Cooper on different plays. The Cowboys ran the ball. The clock bled down. The odds of Justin Herbert returning to the field progressively narrowed.

The Cowboys engineered a 49-yard advance over the course of 10 plays. Lining up on second-and-6 with 33 seconds to play, running back Tony Pollard began motioning from left to right before the snap. Prescott handed off the ball to Pollard as he crossed through, the game’s 100-yard rusher turning upfield.

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Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy watches from the sidelines in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium.
Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy watches from the sidelines in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium.

Chargers defensive stars Joey Bosa and Derwin James gang-tackled him with 28 seconds to play. Officials blew a whistle to signal the play's end.

Then the clock began to tick.

And tick.

And tick.

The Cowboys, facing third-and-3, allowed an astounding 24 seconds to expire without setting up a play.

Finally, with 4 seconds remaining, head coach Mike McCarthy called a timeout.

“The clock situation just to the end was different,” McCarthy said after the Cowboys ultimately won 20-17 thanks to a 56-yard field goal from kicker Greg Zuerlein. “I’ve never had a clock go off the board on me like that. The second down, we were trying to chip away and just get a shorter field goal. So we were going to attempt a third-down play then kick it on fourth.”

The Cowboys didn’t.

McCarthy insisted the clock he was watching powered off. He said that offensive coordinator Kellen Moore couldn’t see a clock because it was “blocked by a camera guy.” Add to it an unanticipated personnel change—Pollard, it seems, trotted toward the sideline after the play before being redirected back on—and the Cowboys simply did not capitalize on the one or two plays the clock seemed to allow for.

“Wow,” CBS lead color analyst and former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said on the broadcast. “They had plenty of time to get multiple plays off and get at least 10 more yards. But handing off the ball? If you did that, you need to call the timeout with 30 seconds left and that way you’re still allowed to throw another pass for 10 yards, get a first down, clock it.

“Why didn’t they snap this?”

McCarthy said a “substitution communication” – seemingly Pollard heading for the sideline, with Cooper already out after a rib injury suffered on the drive – contributed to the haze. Game management and operation went haywire on multiple fronts.

“We were communicating with the box,” McCarthy said. “We didn’t have the personnel set for the third-down call. Once you get below 17 seconds, it’s a threshold, and you just let it run out and take the kick.

“The initial plan at the 30 second mark was to run a third-down play (but) one of our players came off that shouldn’t have come off.”

Prescott, on the field awaiting a play call, knew exactly how many seconds were left. He said he had clear sight of the end-zone clock but trusted his coaches.

“Just thought we were comfortable and good in field-goal range and that’s what they wanted to do,” Prescott said. “Then obviously we had a conversation after about the whole clock getting turned off.”

Zuerlein ultimately made the game-winning 56-yard kick a week after missing 31- and 60-yard field goals in addition to an extra-point attempt in the Cowboys’ season-opening 31-29 loss at Tampa Bay. He no longer showed traces of offseason back surgery, a late training camp return nor a preseason quad issue.

The 10-year veteran booted the game-winner on third down, the Cowboys rising to 1-1 as his kick sailed through the southern end zone uprights.

Prescott and Moore embraced on the bench. The Cowboys flew home in a three-way tie atop the NFC East.

“It was a relief: the first win,” Prescott said. “The first win of many.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys: Mike McCarthy explains bizarre clock management