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How the Commanders are learning from the Cowboys’ playoff loss to the 49ers

Coaching the details is important

Thursday’s training camp session was a bit different than most. There were no pads and no full speed work. Instead, it was a teaching day. The team worked in the bubble, and NFL officials were on hand to add to the learning opportunities.

Afterwards, head coach Ron Rivera was in an effusive and talkative mood, and had a lot of interesting things to say.

One of those interesting things had to do with being prepared for one of the highest-pressure moments in an NFL game when all 11 offensive players need to understand what to do.

Learning how to spike the ball effectively in 2-minute drill

I confess, in over 5 decades of playing and watching football, I’ve never thought of the play where the QB spikes the ball to stop the clock as being something that was particularly nuanced, or that needed much in the way of coaching. Rush to the ball, get set for 1 second, snap, spike...done!

Well, it turns out that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

You may remember how the Cowboys’ season ended in January:

Tony Romo was in the broadcast booth for that playoff game, and he knew the rules:

Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Dak Prescott obviously didn’t know how things were supposed to work.

Here’s what the head coach of the losing team had to say about the play immediately after the game:

“I’ve never seen that come down the way it came down, as far as the collision between the umpire and the quarterback,” said McCarthy. “We were trying to get inside the 30 yard line to set-up the last play. The mechanics were intact from our end of it. The communication that I was given on the sideline was that they were reviewing it, they were going to put time back on the clock. The next thing I know, they’re running off the field. That’s the only facts I have for you. ... I thought they were going to put time back on the clock.

Prescott, apparently, did everything the way he had been taught:

I thought I’d got us in position, thought I had time left to clock the ball. Something that we’ve practiced over and over and was going to be able get into a last play scenario.

We’ve practiced it. You hand it to center. The umpire, all he has to do is usually come in and tap the ball. Don’t necessarily know exactly ... why the hit happened, I guess. Yeah, I know he’s going to come in and touch the ball. We could say, yeah he needs to be closer to the ball or whatever, but in hindsight it’s just tough. Just tough to accept.

For all the head scratching that McCarthy and Prescott did after that game, the opportunity for a final play was lost because of a lack of understanding or a lack of preparation. The officials were right and the Cowboys were wrong; the game was over because Dak Prescott had been trained to do things the wrong way.

Ron Rivera wants his players to learn from McCarthy and Prescott’s mistakes, so on Thursday, he had the officials explain the mechanics, and he had the team practice them. His explanation after practice was something that I found fascinating:

This morning we had the referees here, one of the things they did is kind of go through the motions on special teams with our guys. We did a two minute drill and before we got started with the referees I explained to the guys, ‘Hey, they’re going to do their mechanics. When we complete a ball — receivers, you take the ball to the umpire. Make sure you know who the umpire is.

We introduced Roy before we got started so they knew who they were looking for and then they would run the ball to Roy. I said, ‘Don’t put the ball on the ground because the ball might have to go to another hash, just take it straight to him.’

Then when we were going through the process and when he went to put the ball down, the offensive line got tight, because we were going to spike it. Well to spike it you want that tightness, so the guy’s aren’t far from the quarterback. You’re close up, so now the referee’s got to fight his way through. Roy pointed out that it happened in the game, when one particular team bumped him and knocked him over where he had to struggle to get through and get up. You can’t snap the ball until he gets past the quarterback going back to his position because if you do that’s a penalty and it’s a ten second runoff.

But if we do [it wrong], he gets bumped and then we snap the ball while he’s still in the mix. That’s a penalty. That’s a 10 second runoff.

[We will show the video] in this afternoon’s meeting at 4:30. One thing that we’re doing with our analytics guys is we’re looking at trends, what people are doing, and different things and so we’re sharing that with our players. This morning we went through one of the scenarios that we’re seeing throughout the league. We just kind of pointed out to our guys, ‘Hey, this is something that you’ve got to be aware of. It’s going to impact both offense and defense, and special teams.

This is the type of coaching that can make the difference between winning and losing a playoff game in January. I thought it was a pretty cool insight to get from coach Rivera in the middle of training camp. Hopefully, the Commanders will never be behind on the scoreboard in the waning seconds of a game and needing to score, but if the situation arises, the work they did on Thursday may end up being the reason the offense gets it right.