With the Redskins game being played on Thanksgiving afternoon, this weekend has offered an opportunity to both root against other teams in the hunt for the NFC wild card, and to reflect on Washington’s 31-26 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The contest, which was most-watched regular-season NFL broadcast in Fox Sports history, featured a number of missed opportunities and game-changing moments that determined the final outcome. Of note, there were several special teams plays that loom large — perhaps none is more curious than the decision to attempt an onside kick midway through the fourth quarter.
The Redskins has just cut the deficit to five points for the second time in the fourth quarter at 9:22 remaining in the regulation time. Washington trailed 24-19 following a 67-yard touchdown catch from DeSean Jackson, which capped off a 3-play, 75-yard scoring drive that elapsed 1:27 off the clock.
On the Cowboys drive prior to the Jackson score, the Redskins defense had been on the field for 4:05 over the course of a 7-play, 75 yard march that resulted in a Dak Prescott run into the end zone from six yards out. Washington’s defense struggled making stops all afternoon, forcing only two punts to that point, and were largely unable to leverage the field position battle, even when Dallas was pinned deep in their own zone. The Cowboys had drives spanning 75, 47, 55, and 75 yards (again), that had all resulted in points.
With the game now in reach and plenty of time left to make a comeback bid, Jay Gruden opted to roll the dice. He called on Dustin Hopkins, who had already missed field goals from 43 and 55 yards out, to attempt a sneak-attack onside kick, in the hopes of sending the offense back out for the opportunity to rally for their first lead of the ballgame.
Hopkins pooched the ball the requisite 10 yards before Cowboys linebacker Damien Wilson pounced on top of it and held on despite a jarring collision with Deshazor Everett who attempted to knock it loose. The Cowboys took over from their own 47-yard line, and proceeded 53 yards on 8 plays and 2:53 for Ezekiel Elliott’s second rushing touchdown of the day. Though the Redskins would get another score from Jordan Reed, the Dallas touchdown was enough to put the contest out of reach for Washington.
After the game, Gruden was asked about his decision to attempt the onside kick:
"We had the look exactly the way we wanted to; we just kicked it a little hard. Twelve-foot putt, we hit it 15 feet and putted right through the break. We just kicked it too hard, unfortunately. Those are that chances that, if we see something that’s there and we practice it and we like it, we’ve got to take chances to do it. It can change the course of the game, the momentum and everything. I thought it was worth a chance. I told our defense we were about to do it so be ready for a short field, and, unfortunately, we didn’t get off the field and they went down and scored."
Over the course of his two-year NFL career with the Redskins, Hopkins entered the matchup having successfully converted one of his four previous onside kicks, a memorable recovery by Rashad Ross in Week 7 of the 2015 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers en route to a season-saving 31-30 comeback victory.
However, when asked about the play, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett revealed that, in spite of the small number of onside kicks attempted by Hopkins in the past, including none this season, he had told his team to be ready for a surprise attempt:
"We were expecting it. We were prepared for it. I thought our guys did a good job of recovering it. I think it was about nine and change to go in that ball game, so I felt like they wanted to steal that possession at that point. You have to have your antenna up and be ready for those situations. I thought our guys handled it well."
In the 2016 season, NFL kickers have successfully recovered 17% of all onside kicks (7-of-40), including a converted surprise attempt by the Bears to start the second half this past Sunday against the Titans.
Garrett's language in his response indicates a measure of confidence that extends beyond clichéd "we tell our guys to be ready for anything on every play" coach-speak, but appears to reveal that he was able to anticipate and predict Jay Gruden's trademark unpredictability during moments in ballgames.
Through two-and-a-half seasons at the helm in Washington, Gruden has been commended for his role in helping to establish a sense of normalcy in a previously chaotic franchise, but is also praised for his aggressiveness in game-planning and play-calling. His players also seem to have bought in, as Donte Whitner spoke out following the game in support of his coach’s decision-making following the game:
"We want that, we actually almost got it both times, with the surprise and the one in the fourth quarter. You want an aggressive coach. We’re with him whenever he makes that call. He made it, we still had opportunity to go out there and make a three-and-out on defense and they threw that screen and got a first down. We just have to make more plays."
Had the gamble paid off, it would likely have been hailed as another example of Gruden’s ambitious and cunning coaching. His defense was tired, and struggling, having surrendered long scoring drives each time Washington’s offense made a dent in the deficit.
But unfortunately for Gruden and the Redskins, this becomes an easy moment for critics to point to as the turning point that shifted the momentum away from Washington following their dynamic touchdown score, back over to Dallas. Though there were opportunities left to win the contest, the points left off the scoreboard combined with unorthodox decision-making in key moments create a perfect storm for second-guessing.