ARLINGTON, Texas — Having to deal with the death of strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul on Wednesday evening, the Dallas Cowboys knew emotion would be raw Thursday against the Washington Football Team.
But that’s not the main reason for their 41-16 loss that keeps them in last place in the NFC East.
They lost for many of the same reasons they lost all season:
The inability to make stops in goal-to-go situations. Washington scored two touchdowns and a field goal in those situations Thursday. The Cowboys have given up 21 touchdowns in 23 goal-to-go situations on the season. They have recorded one stop, which came when these teams met in October.
Turning the ball over. Ezekiel Elliott lost a fumble in the third quarter that Washington turned into a field goal and a 20-13 lead. With 3:24 to play in the fourth quarter, Montez Sweat gobbled up an Andy Dalton pass and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown.
Red zone ineffectiveness. After Jaylon Smith returned an interception to the Washington 4-yard line in the third quarter, the Cowboys lost 6 yards and settled for a field goal. The Cowboys had three trips inside the Washington 20 and did not score a touchdown.
Questionable coaching decisions. And this was maybe the biggest factor. Facing fourth-and-inches from the Dallas 34 in the second quarter, Mike McCarthy elected to go for it. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore eschewed handing off to Elliott and called for a pass that fell incomplete. Add a personal foul penalty and Washington needed to go just 19 yards for a touchdown.
“Very disappointing loss,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “We had no intentions (of losing) going into this week. I think everyone was confident. Suffered such a tragic, tragic loss in Markus Paul. He touched so many lives, all our lives and families and things of that nature. We wanted to come out and do it for god and Markus and we didn’t accomplish the mission.”
Trailing 20-16 in the fourth quarter, McCarthy OK’d a fake punt from the Dallas 24. Cedrick Wilson was looking to pass to punter Hunter Niswander, who was covered, and they lost a yard. Antonio Gibson then scored on the first play, apparently waving to safety Donovan Wilson before crossing the goal line.
Considering the state of the NFC East, the Cowboys haven’t waved goodbye to their chances at winning the division, even with a 3-8 record. But they have been swept by Washington (4-7) for the first time since 2012 and now will almost assuredly have to beat the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants in the December rematches.
“Everybody understands the state of our division, so we’re going to reboot, we’re going to regroup obviously with everything we had to deal with this week,” McCarthy said. “It’s another opportunity in our division. We understand how important division games are, but the fact of the matter is we play Baltimore in seven days and we’ll be ready to go.”
Describe the game in two words: Elliott fumbles. The running back opened the second half with his fifth lost fumble of the season. He is tied with Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr for the most lost fumbles. He is the third Cowboy to lose at least five fumbles in a season since 2010. Dak Prescott lost six in 2018; DeMarco Murray lost five in 2014. The good news? For the first time the opponent did not score a touchdown off the giveaway, but Washington did kick a field goal. The Cowboys have allowed 113 points after turnovers this season.
Pivotal play: Beyond McCarthy’s fourth-down decisions, had the Cowboys scored after Jaylon Smith’s third-quarter interception, then Aldon Smith’s hit and Jaylon Smith’s pick would have been in consideration. Instead, it was how that play ended. Terry McLaurin tracked down Smith, bringing him down at the Washington 4. On the next two plays the Cowboys lost 6 yards as they tried some razzle-dazzle with a CeeDee Lamb reverse that might have been a pass had Andy Dalton not been covered. The Cowboys had to settle for a field goal, so McLarin’s tackle saved four points.