Mike McCarthy's non-challenge in loss to Giants may have eliminated Cowboys from playoffs

Jason Owens
·4 min read

The New York Giants eliminated the Dallas Cowboys from playoff contention on Sunday.

A critical game management error by Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy might have been the difference in the game.

With the Giants leading 20-19 late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Daniel Jones looked to wide receiver Dante Pettis on third-and-16 for a 10-yard gain. The play didn’t gain a first down, but it put the Giants in field-goal range.

Was that a catch?

Replay showed that Pettis trapped the ball instead of making a clean catch. As he dove to gather the ball, it hit the ground before he gained control. It was an obvious situation for McCarthy to challenge.

Where’s the challenge flag?

As video replayed on the big screen at MetLife Stadium and the Fox broadcast for McCarthy and his coaching staff to see, the Giants hurried to the line of scrimmage to set up a kick. The football world watched, waiting for McCarthy to throw the red challenge flag.

He didn’t. Graham Gano sent a 50-yard field goal through the uprights and the Giants took a 23-19 lead with 6:27 remaining.

The Cowboys drove to the red zone on their next possession. Instead of grinding clock inside the 20-yard line to set up a go-ahead field goal, Dallas was forced to go for a touchdown. It didn’t get it. Andy Dalton’s desperation third-down heave in end zone was intercepted by Xavier McKinney, and the Giants went on to secure the win and end the Cowboys’ season.

A tenuous first season in Dallas for Mike McCarthy concluded with a high-stakes mistake in Week 17. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
A tenuous first season in Dallas for Mike McCarthy concluded with a high-stakes mistake in Week 17. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

McCarthy explains why he didn’t challenge

McCarthy challenging the play wouldn’t have guaranteed a Cowboys victory. It would have put Dallas in a much stronger position to win.

Giants head coach Joe Judge told reporters after the game that an otherwise 60-yard field goal would have been out of Gano’s range. An incomplete ruling would have likely forced a punt on fourth-and-16.

So what was McCarthy thinking? He thought the play that could have turned the game in the Cowboys’ favor was too close to call and valued keeping a timeout over the risk and the upside of challenging the play.

“We just felt it was too close,” McCarthy told reporters. “We felt it was kind of a bang-bang type situation. The fact of the matter we were in a tight game — the thee time outs was obviously of high value there. We just didn’t think there was enough information to overturn it.”

This isn’t a matter of hindsight. Fox announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman made the assessment in real time before the field goal that the catch presented an obvious challenge situation — as did viewers watching on TV at home.

McCarthy and his staff didn’t reach the same conclusion in a situation where people not paid to coach an NFL team did.

Rough end to ugly first season in Dallas

One of the biggest knocks on McCarthy during his Green Bay Packers tenure was his game management. His conservative, questionable decisions throughout a loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the 2015 NFC championship game was widely blamed for Green Bay’s collapse with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

He and his staff have been under fire in Dallas since the halfway point of the season. Cowboys management has repeatedly said that McCarthy’s job is safe. But Sunday’s decision not to challenge is going to stick with Dallas fans for a long time.

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