For the second straight season, the Dallas Cowboys — the team that popularized the “Hail Mary” pass almost 50 years ago — never even had a prayer of heaving it into the end zone against the San Francisco 49ers.
Meltdowns by coach Mike McCarthy and blunders by tight end Dalton Schultz kept the Cowboys from setting themselves up for something similar to Roger Staubach’s 50-yard game-winning heave in the waning moments that stunned the Minnesota Vikings in a 1975 playoff game.
What we saw instead was this a gadget play with running back Ezekiel Elliott alone at center with no offensive linemen anywhere near him and Prescott in shotgun with 76 yards to go and 6 seconds left Sunday.
Elliott was bowled over as soon as he got off the low snap and 49ers cornerback Jimmie Ward blew up Prescott’s pass to wide receiver Kavontae Turpin.
“Very strange,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner mused. “I don’t know if they planned to be in that situation, obviously, because it didn’t work very well. We prepare for everything. When you got players like Jimmie Ward who just come and (blow up plays) it makes it easy. We prepare for everything.”
Not so the Cowboys.
A year ago, Dallas bungled the final drive in a 23-17 wild-card loss to the 49ers at home when Prescott ran a 14-yard quarterback draw with 14 seconds and no timeouts left and then handed the ball to his center instead of the umpire, who’s the only one who can spot the ball.
That ate up too much time and Prescott never got a chance to chuck the ball into the end zone before time ran out on the Cowboys’ season.
On Sunday, the breakdowns came in bunches for the Cowboys, the final play only the capstone of a comedy of missteps and miscalculations by Dallas, who failed to make it past the divisional round for a 26th straight season.
“I don’t really want to get into detail on it, but that obviously wasn’t the plan,” McCarthy said afterward, declining to discuss what was supposed to happen on that last play.
There were plenty of other things the Cowboys bungled before that play.
McCarthy decided to punt the ball on fourth-and-10 following a sack of Prescott at the Dallas 18 with just under 3 minutes remaining. That’s a debatable decision but it’s the nearly 40 seconds the Cowboys took to punt the ball that had their flustered fans fuming.
Cameras showed McCarthy motioning the offense off the field at the 2:35 mark and the 49ers got the ball back with 2:05 left on a fair catch. That’s 40 seconds from the Cowboys’ last play to the change of possession, nearly twice as long as it usually takes.
There’s a couple of more plays right there that the Cowboys could have had once they got the ball back at their 6 with just 45 seconds and no timeouts remaining. (By the way, had Turpin gambled and let the ball bounce, it might have gone into the end zone for a touchback, giving Dallas the ball at its 20 instead).
The Cowboys weren’t done frittering away precious time, either.
On third-and-1 from the Dallas 15, Prescott hit Schultz with a 9-yard pass with 28 seconds remaining. But Schultz wasn’t going forward as he went out of bounds on a hit by cornerback Charvarius Ward, so the clock kept ticking and would go all the way down to 14 seconds before Prescott took the next snap and threw incomplete.
“You have to be going forward if you are contacted going out of bounds,” Fox Sports color analyst Greg Olsen said. “You have to fight through that contact! Chavarious Ward, he knows the rule; they coach that. You’ve got to turn up and be physical into contact and get that official to stop the clock.”
Then, on second-and-10 from his 24 with 10 seconds left, Prescott again found Schultz, this time for 15 yards to the Dallas 39, just about the outer limits for Prescott to try a Hail Mary on the final snap.
The catch was reversed on replay because Schultz never got his second foot down as he nonchalantly strode out of bounds.
That brought up third-and-10 from the 24 with 6 seconds left and Dallas had Elliott replace Biadasz at center with the guards and tackles lined up wide. (The formation was legal because eligible receivers T.Y. Hilton and Noah Brown were lined up outside the guards and tackles, with all seven on the line of scrimmage).
“It appears that Zeke is going to go to center,” Olsen said excitedly. “This looks like my flag football team. Obviously Mike McCarthy has been working on his end of game scenario, and let’s see what he’s got!”
San Francisco called timeout after seeing the bizarre look.
Dallas didn’t change the formation or the call when play resumed. Elliott snapped the ball and was plowed over. Prescott telegraphed his throw to Turpin, who was smothered immediately.
And the Cowboys were left heading into another offseason lamenting a loss to the 49ers in the playoffs because they couldn’t get off a Hail Mary to give them a fighting chance.
With contributions from AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow.