Phew! Rats! Sheesh! These are the thoughts that must’ve been flying through the enormous head of Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy during the closing seconds of his team’s narrow win over the Los Angeles Chargers. Despite coaching and playing like a band of circus clowns for much of Sunday afternoon, McCarthy and the Cowboys found themselves with a manageable second-and-6 at the Chargers’ 45-yard-line, with 33 seconds on the clock and a timeout in their pocket, with the score tied at 17. Normally this is a scenario where a coach would find himself thinking, “Hot dog!” And yet McCarthy could do nothing but mutter, “Good grief!”
The timeout gave McCarthy’s offense options, and they used that freedom to call a run up the middle for Tony Pollard, good for three yards. Not the most inspired call in the world, but a simple spike of the football, or the use of that final timeout, would give the Cowboys another chance to advance the ball and set up kicker Greg Zuerlein for a game-winning field goal attempt. But this is where cruel, unfair, utterly unmasterable fate intervened.
Immediately after the play, an unnamed Cowboys player made a confusing mistake, according to McCarthy. “One of our players came off that shouldn’t have come off,” recalled the powerless head coach, who as the top game-day decision-maker for a professional football team is essentially a helpless spectator in late-clock situations, as we all know. This momentary lapse—solely the fault of the unnamed player, who belongs in jail—made it impossible for McCarthy to use that final timeout, due to reasons which of course require no explanation, as we all naturally understand them perfectly well. “Just a communication error,” lamented McCarthy.
But, oh no! Things were about to get worse! You see, McCarthy, who of course would have no other way of knowing or even guessing how many seconds might’ve elapsed during a three-yard rushing play—three? One hundred? One thousand??—would soon have his one and only method for observing the flow of time cruelly yanked away. According to McCarthy, the digital clock on the stadium’s overhead scoreboard suddenly went blank, casting the head coach and indeed every other person in the stadium into a condition of total sensory deprivation. McCarthy had “never had a clock go off the board like that,” and was once again powerless to signal for a timeout or, indeed, to do anything other than freeze, mouth agape, as though absorbing one thousand volts of electricity from a downed power line.
One last faint hope for the Cowboys remained, based in the technological redundancy of your modern NFL stadiums. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who in an incredible fluke of circumstances had not had his eyeballs chewed out by a possum, was positioned with a view of yet another of the stadium’s many digital game clocks. But once again the cosmos threw a wrench into the works: Moore, you see, “got blocked by a camera guy,” according to McCarthy, who by this point was functionally dead. With the personnel on the field scattered to the four winds, and an overhanging clock disabled, and a camera person eerily blocking all other Cowboys personnel from their view of the only other time-telling device in the entire state of California*, McCarthy and his assistants had no choice but to simply forfeit the football game.
Then, just when all hope seemed lost, a light blinked on in the darkness. As ESPN tells it, “with the aid of his assistant coaches from the coaches’ booth” McCarthy was able to successfully use that blessed timeout in just the nick of time, averting a true disaster. Zuerlein, one of the NFL’s best kickers, was left with four seconds to attempt “the longest game-winning field goal with no time left in regulation in franchise history,” a 56-yarder that cleared the crossbar with room to spare and saved the Cowboys from a nightmare 0–2 start to the season. Sure, 29 seconds ran off the clock while McCarthy and his assistant coaches feverishly rifled through several dense reference texts searching for a succinct explanation of the concept of time, but in the end the Cowboys emerged victorious, and that’s what it’s all about.
Some will no doubt say that it is the responsibility of a head coach to ensure that at least one person on his sideline—say, a person with no coordinator duties, with no playing duties, whose role is largely administrative, and whose job in all circumstances is to have a firm grip on the bigger picture—is able to keep track of the passage of time without a huge digital readout in his line of sight, and is able to say aloud the words “time” and “out” at an appropriate decibel level to be heard and understood by a referee. Columnist Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for example, was so dumbstruck by the compounding series of unfortunate events that he could only understand them as flimsy excuses for shoddy clock management:
“McCarthy said the clock he was watching went off the board. Then he said the clock offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was watching was blocked by a camera.
Kids, don’t use those on your teachers when you forget to do your homework. No one will believe you.”Mac Engel, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
That sort of Monday morning skepticism comes cheap to a columnist, operating from the comfort of his armchair! The situation looks very different indeed when you are a head coach of a professional football team and the universe suddenly goes on tilt, as it did for McCarthy on Sunday. Frankly, the Cowboys were lucky to escape with their lives.