By Matthew Postins
Growing up, when we play games, those of the “stick and ball” variety as one of my old colleagues put it, we’re taught not to let the other team score. It’s ingrained in us with such repetition that there is no way we could miss the message.
So with our backs against the wall, in no matter what sport we play, the mantra is the same – “don’t let them score.”
But what if it actually makes sense to let them score?
That’s what I want to explore today. It’s a minor quibble from a game in which the Dallas Cowboys could have won several different ways and certainly wasn’t decided by a lack of out-of-the-box thinking. Or maybe it isn’t. You be the judge.
After Tony Romo’s interception the Dallas Cowboys were given up for dead. We all had good reason. The Denver Broncos, led by Peyton Manning, were at the Dallas 24 with 1:57 left. All they had to do was kill the clock, kick a field goal and leave the building happy. And they did.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a fait accompli.
Manning hit DeMaryius Thomas for an 11-yard gain. The Dallas Cowboys took a timeout. Knowshon Moreno then rushed for a yard. Another Dallas Cowboys timeout. Then Manning hit Julius Thomas for an 8-yard gain on the sideline. Thomas was pushed out of bounds and the clock stopped. Suddenly the Broncos were at the Dallas 2 with 1:45 left.
Now every competitive bone in your body is screaming, “Don’t let them score” at this point. You know what I was thinking?
“Why don’t you just let them score?”
Here’s the thing. You can’t score without the football. Well, the vast majority of the time. Every once in a while your defense will do the work for you. But, most of the time, you need your offense to get it done.
The Broncos needed one yard for a first down and two yards for a score. Play it out in your head. The clock was stopped. Moreno gets the handoff and he walks in because a Dallas Cowboys defender “trips” trying to tackle him. Clock stops with 1:40 left. Broncos kick the extra point and go up seven.
Then, the Broncos kick off, probably out of the end zone. The Dallas Cowboys get the ball at their own 25 with about a minute and a half left. The odds aren’t with you at that point.
But at least you have the football.
Mike Holmgren tried this, famously, in Super Bowl XXXI against these Denver Broncos. With the Broncos sitting on the Packers’ goal line late in the game, Holmgren chose to have his defense let the Broncos score, thus giving quarterback Brett Favre and the offense one last shot to stay in the game.
Sure, the Packers failed.
But at least they had the football.
It’s one thing if we’re talking about the line of scrimmage being the Cowboys’ 30-yard line. That’s a 47-yard field goal. There’s a larger margin of error there. I’m totally with trying to get your defense to stop them from scoring. But Matt Prater ended up kicking a 28-yarder to win. That’s nothing for a guy like Prater. Why not just let Moreno score?
At least then you have the football.
You can’t account for everything in that situation if you’re Jason Garrett. Your competitive juices are flowing. Everything in your bones is screaming at you to stop your opponent. It’s hard to walk back nearly 50 years of mental conditioning that started with your dad in pee-wee football. Try that with 11 ultra-competitive professional athletes?
“Ok, guys let them score. We need the ball.”
I can imagine that conversation going like that, even on the rare occasion in which it made sense.
But guess what? Garrett actually considered it.
“We thought about that,” Garrett said. “The consideration was on third and short. You balance the idea of stopping them there and making them kick a field goal. You give yourself a little better chance to tie the game coming back with a field goal. If you let them score there and you give up, you give yourself a chance to score but you have no timeouts. You weigh those and we tried to make the stop. They made it by an inch.”
Well, at least he considered it. And the logic makes sense. You’d rather have to navigate about 50 yards for a field goal rather than 75 for a touchdown.
This was the rare occasion when it might have made sense. Sure, Manning could have told Moreno to get the first down and then dive right before the goal line. That would have been the smart thing to do from their standpoint, and had that happened, well then what are you going to do? That’s just the smartest football player of all-time being, well, smart. And now the clock is running.
But what if you leave that crease open and what if Moreno’s competitive instincts take over? Running backs run for daylight. That’s their job. They see a hole and they take it. That’s nearly 30 years of mental conditioning at work. He might not have even realized it until it was too late.
Many things might have conspired against the Dallas Cowboys in that sequence had they chosen to let the Broncos score. But what if the Cowboys had chosen to ignore there competitive instincts, let the Broncos score and it worked?
Well, at least you have the football. At least you have a chance.