What the Cowboys could have done differently on bizarre last play

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The problem with the Dallas Cowboys final play in their 19-12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday was not that they tried something weird and unconventional. 

It was that they did not fully embrace the weirdness of their idea and get even more unconventional with it. 

The Cowboys have become a punchline around the NFL over the past 48 hours for the ill-fated play, and even the owner of the Flag Football League was dunking on them. 

As bad as the play looked, the Cowboys at least had the right idea to try something different in a moment of desperation. But like most of their struggles on Sunday, it simply came down to a flawed plan and even worse execution. 

The Cowboys lined up in a bizarre formation that saw running back Ezekiel Elliott snap the football, while the team’s offensive lineman were split out wide. When the ball was snapped, Elliott was plowed over, forcing quarterback Dak Prescott into a quick pass to KaVontae Turpin who was immediately tackled. 

Game over. 

Mockery and criticism quickly ensued. 

It is obvious they were going to attempt a rugby-style lateral play to move the ball down the field for a last second touchdown. Given where they were on the field, that was the only logical path. 

When that sort of play is your best option the situation is already dire and the odds are stacked against you. The number of rugby-lateral plays that have actually worked in football history is alarmingly small. 

We saw the Miami Dolphins pull it off a few years ago against New England. The New Orleans Saints had a classic play many years ago in Jacksonville that was wasted by a missed extra point. The Pittsburgh Steelers were inches away from a miracle finish against Miami a decade ago when Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds at the seven-yard line on his way to the end zone.  

The common denominator in all of those plays: A talented playmaker getting the ball in their hands and turning a corner amidst all of the chaos.

The best way to improve the odds of that happening is to put more playmakers on the field. The best way to do that is replace a couple of your offensive lineman with additional skill position players (wide receivers, running backs, cornerbacks, etc.). 

Obviously not all of them will be eligible receivers at the snap (only five players can be eligible), but once the initial pass is completed, receiving eligibility no longer matters when the ball starts getting lateraled. 

The problem the Cowboys had was they kept their blockers on the field, but put them into a position where they had no chance to actually block. Not for their quarterback, and not for the initial pass catcher. 

They also put Elliott on an island where only one person was actually protecting Prescott at the snap. 

If the Cowboys were going to go through the trouble to send everybody out wide and have a skill position player as the only barrier between their quarterback and San Francisco’s one pass rusher, they should have just let an actual center snap the ball and replace the four linemen out wide with more skill players. 

Would it have been likely to work and produce a game-tying touchdown? Probably not. But it might have at least helped them avoid the additional embarrassment they experienced. 

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