FOXBOROUGH - The decision-making of the Cowboys offense in the final minutes of their 20-16 loss to the Patriots yesterday at Gillette Stadium proved ripe for second-guessing, whether you’re a player, fan, media member - or the Dallas owner.
First, the situation: The Cowboys, having taken a 16-13 lead on Dan Bailey’s 26-yard field goal with 5:16 remaining in the game, followed by holding the Patriots to a three-and-out.
Taking over with 3:36 left on the clock and the ball at their 28-yard line, they ran three straight times, including a draw on third and 18, following a 5-yard false start penalty. Mat McBriar boomed a 64-yard punt, but the effect was still negative - giving the ball back to Tom Brady with 2:31 left.
The final scene was a familiar one. Two minutes eight seconds, 11 plays, 80 yards, and one Brady-to-Aaron Hernandez touchdown pass later, the Patriots had regained the lead.
The immediate perception was that Dallas coach Jason Garrett got too conservative. While no one in the Cowboys locker room went so far as to suggest they played not to lose, the frustration with how the final minutes played out was evident, foremost in the words of owner Jerry Jones.
“When you get the ball into the hands of a player like Brady at home, you’ve got problems,’’ said Jones, who was seen commiserating with Garrett outside the Cowboys locker room after the game. “When it happens at the end of a game, it’s really discouraging. You always second-guess whether or not we should have tried to run a little offense down there instead of running it three times.’’
While Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo didn’t second-guess the play-calling, he did say he wanted the ball in his hands.
“You always want to be the guy in that situation, at that time of the game, to have that on your shoulders,’’ he said.
It doesn’t take much research to find that his eagerness to be the guy in that situation may be one reason he wasn’t yesterday.
Romo, like Brady, completed 27 of 41 passes. He threw for 311 yards - 28 more than his New England counterpart - with a TD and an interception.
The ball wasn’t put in Romo’s hands with the game on the line, and there’s at least some recent history on Garrett’s side to suggest it shouldn’t have been.
The Cowboys entered the game with a 2-2 record, and in the two losses mistakes by the freewheeling quarterback, who grew up idolizing Brett Favre, proved crucial. In Week 1, he committed two fourth-quarter turnovers in a 27-24 loss to the Jets, and three weeks later he threw three fourth-quarter interceptions in a 34-30 loss to the Lions.
“We obviously want to run the ball in that situation,’’ Garrett said of Dallas’s possession before the Patriots’ winning drive. “One of the big things you want to do there is you want to make sure you keep that clock moving. And then when we got into a third and 18, we didn’t think it was real smart to throw the ball.’’
But that wasn’t the only conservative decision made by Garrett in the fourth quarter.
With the scored tied at 13 and 5:56 remaining, the Cowboys faced a second and 5 at the New England 5. Romo threw incomplete to running back Tashard Choice. Then on third down, a slow-developing shovel pass to Choice was blown up immediately by linebacker Brandon Spikes for a 3-yard loss.
Bailey kicked a 26-yard field goal to put the Cowboys ahead. But with Brady, whose reputation as a big-moment quarterback was supported by his 31 previous fourth-quarter drives to tie or win a game, getting the ball back, 7 points would have been a much more significant lead.
“You want to make sure you come away with points in all those different situations,’’ said Garrett. “You want to execute down there. I felt like the most important thing when it was 13-13 was for us to come away with points.’’
But for tight end Jason Witten, it was one more fourth-quarter frustration that the Cowboys will take into their bye week.
“You’ve just got to come away with 7,’’ he said. “You get down there with good time of possession and you’ve just got to find a way. We didn’t, and that’s what’s so disappointing and frustrating.’’Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.