The NFC East is no stranger to embarrassment.
In a division that will likely be won by whichever team is able to string together six wins, jokes, disses and memes have become commonplace. The division has become more popularly known as the “NFC Least.”
Certain plays by both teams throughout the season have reinforced this nickname. Think, for example, about Daniel Jones’ wipeout against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7. Or, go back to Sept. 28 when the Eagles were playing the Cincinnati Bengals. Philly was lined up to kick a 59-yard field goal with just seconds remaining in overtime, but they jumped too early. The penalty forced the Eagles back five yards and Doug Pederson sent the punt team out. Philadelphia had to settle for a tie in a division when wins are even more valuable because they are so difficult to come by. Who’s to say the Eagles would have converted a 59-yard kick, but an offsides penalty was an embarrassing way to end the game.
Washington has had its share of cringe-worthy moments as well. In Week 10 against the Detroit Lions, Chase Young was called for a 15-yard rushing the passer penalty in the game’s final 30 seconds. The penalty allowed Detroit to move into field goal territory, and Matthew Prater kicked a 59-yard field goal to win the game as time expired.
But the Cowboys’ fake field goal against the Washington Football Team on Thanksgiving Day might just take the top spot for embarrassing moments.
On fourth-and-10 in the fourth quarter, Dallas faked a punt on its own 24-yard line. To say it was unsuccessful would be an understatement.
The Cowboys' fake punt was SHUT DOWN— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) November 27, 2020
Washington’s Khaleke Hudson, who was known for his strong special teams play at Michigan, picked up on the play right away and came up with the tackle that ultimately caused Dallas to lose a yard. On the very next play, Antonio Gibson ran the ball into the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown.
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy defended the play call after the game.
“You won’t get anywhere if you’re thinking about negatives all the time,” McCarthy said. “Obviously it was a solid play call, it’s a good play design. Their gunner made a good play, came off of it. He put us in a high-low read for Cedrick.
“You never convert them obviously if you don’t call them and if you don’t believe in them. I clearly understood the situation when it was called.”
It is unclear if McCarthy is just saving face or if he genuinely believes the fake punt was a good play. Either way, the call served as the beginning of the end of the Cowboys’ playoff chances as they would go on to be embarrassed by Washington, 41-16.
Let’s check out the headlines around the division this week.
To stick with our theme of embarrassment, Carson Wentz continues to look lost under center for the Eagles. The fifth-year QB has been sacked 40 times this season and leads the league with 14 interceptions.
NJ.com reported earlier this week that in a particularly desperate adjustment, Pederson and his offensive assistants have tried designing plays that create at least one open receiver immediately after the snap. They have encouraged Wentz to throw to that receiver for a few reasons. First, it eliminates Wentz’s need to run through progressions, something he has particularly struggled with this season. Second, this strategy forces Wentz to get the ball out of his hands early, thereby hopefully decreasing the chances of him being sacked yet again. Finally, the hope is that this plan would help Wentz build confidence for the situations in which he will have to make more difficult throws.
Not surprisingly, defensive coordinators on opposing teams have picked up on this strategy. In response, opposing defenses are taking away that first receiver and putting increasing pressure on Wentz in an attempt to force mistakes (i.e. the 14 INTs).
In essence, Philadelphia dumbed down its offense for Wentz and he continues to show no signs of improvement.
It is looking like the only smart move in Philly right now, albeit highly criticized at the time (by myself included), was selecting Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft because he might be seeing increased playing time sooner rather than later.
Washington Football Team
There were many positive moments for Washington in its convincing win over the Cowboys Thursday. It was Alex Smith’s second-straight victory as he finished 19 of 26 for 149 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin continued to prove why he is a star player. Not only did he finish the game with seven receptions for 92 yards, but he showed off his hustle when he chased down Jaylon Smith, after he intercepted Smith’s pass, and managed to tackle him at the Washington 4-yard line. The Cowboys converted a field goal on their following possession, but McLaurin saved four points with his hustle. What’s more, rookie third-round pick Antonio Gibson rushed for three touchdowns in the win. Gibson became the first rookie to score three touchdowns on Thanksgiving since Randy Moss in 1998.
On the defensive side of the ball, Washington is ranked fifth in the league in yards allowed per game with 309.5. The Football Team is first in the league in passing yards allowed per game with 194.6.
Washington has now scored 20 points in five consecutive games for the first time since 2017. With the victory, the Football Team effectively eliminated Dallas from serious playoff contention, reducing the NFC East race to three teams.
And Thursday Washington won fans over with one play in particular.
Did Washington just run the Annexation of Puerto Rico because I'm pretty sure Washington just ran the Annexation of Puerto Rico #LittleGiants #Washington #Cowboys #Thanksgiving pic.twitter.com/voVPB1k9LW— John Breech (@johnbreech) November 26, 2020
On second-and-5 at the Dallas 16-yard line in the first half, Washington ran a “fumblerooski” play that resulted in a 6-yard run for J.D. McKissic. It was a callback to “The Annexation of Puerto Rico,” the famous trick play from the 1994 film “Little Giants.”
Head coach Ron Rivera, who is half Puerto Rican, said after the game that the play was inspired by the movie that he had seen “100 times” with his kids.
Thursday was not the first time that Rivera called this play in his career. He ran it against the Houston Texans in his first year as head coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2011.
WOW:— michael phillips (@michaelpRTD) November 26, 2020
Ron Rivera's first year as Carolina coach.
Week 15, 2011, vs. Houston
Look familiar? pic.twitter.com/ej4iFVas7K
The Football Team is not only showing improvement as the season progresses, but they are becoming a fun team to watch.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, are becoming more discouraging. A victory against the Minnesota Vikings last week inspired what turned out to be false hope for a team that has never been able to find its footing since losing Dak Prescott in Week 5.
Dallas entered Thursday’s game already having endured a difficult week as the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul passed away suddenly at age 54. The initials “MP” were visible on the back of players’ helmets during the game.
The Cowboys therefore entered Thursday’s game with heavy hearts and left not feeling any better as injuries continued to plague them. Left tackle Cameron Erving went down on the Cowboys’ first possession with a knee injury. Then, on a failed third-down play later in the series, guard Zack Martin went down with a calf injury and did not return to the game.
The chances of the Cowboys making a playoff run were already slim after the loss to Washington, and these injuries only further diminish their chances.
The play-calling, which was highlighted at the start of this notebook, was also questionable throughout. In the game, the Cowboys went for it on fourth down four times and converted just one of them. Our colleagues at Blogging the Boys did a full break-down of each of these fourth-down decisions.
As the Cowboys begin to shift focus from this season to the future, questions about Mike McCarthy’s play-calling are worth considering. What is too aggressive or not aggressive enough and where is the middle ground?