Where to begin after the drubbing delivered to the Cowboys by the Bills in Buffalo on Sunday? Was it, perhaps, the nasty stomach bug and illness that has ripped through the team locker room over the last month? Was it the ineptitude of the run defense? Was it standard Cowboys struggles when they’re away from Dallas? While one play can’t fully explain a 31-10 loss, it can be a symbol of the whole thing, and when it comes to the second-quarter fumble that coach Mike McCarthy did not challenge, the play is emblematic of what a bad day it was for McCarthy.
To recap: In the second quarter, with the Cowboys already having taken a roundhouse from the Bills and finding themselves down, 14-3, Buffalo was driving as time was winding down in the half. The Bills had the ball on the 40-yard line with a second-and-6 situation, when quarterback Josh Allen hit Stefon Diggs for seven yards and a first down.
Mike McCarthy chose not to throw the challenge flag on this clear fumble by Stefon Diggs pic.twitter.com/1SYm6IgMrU
— Ben Brown 🌻 (@BenBrownPL) December 17, 2023
At the end of the play, though, Cowboys linebacker Markquese Bell punched the ball free from Diggs and safety Donovan Wilson pounced on it. Some life for the Cowboys? Well, no. The refs missed the call and McCarthy did not throw the challenge flag. Rather than a chance at another score, the Cowboys allowed the Bills a third touchdown and a demoralizing 21-3 lead.
Mike McCarthy’s Challenge Explanation Did Not Hold Water
What made matters worse was the postgame explanation that McCarthy offered on his decision not to challenge the play—basically, he said that because the Bills hurried to the line after the first down, he did not have time to find out whether he should challenge the play.
“I had the flag in my hand and it was bang-bang and they went hurry up. There’s communication from up top, and we didn’t get a review,” McCarthy said.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy on the Diggs fumble that wasn’t called/reviewed: “I had the flag in my hand and it was bang-bang and they went hurry up. There’s communication from up top, and we didn’t get a review.”
That last part is crucial. pic.twitter.com/eqA2d7kEH2
— Joseph Hoyt (@JoeJHoyt) December 18, 2023
That is not much of an excuse for blowing what could have been a turnover that changed the game. And McCarthy was roasted for it.
Wrote former NFL quarterback Chase Daniel on Twitter/X: “That was a fumble! Dallas has a guy in the booth whose ONLY job is to tell Mike McCarthy when to challenge plays …. not good.”
That was a fumble! Dallas has a guy in the booth whose ONLY job is to tell Mike McCarthy when to challenge plays….not good
— Chase Daniel (@ChaseDaniel) December 17, 2023
Dan Rogers of the site “Blogging the Boys” pointed out that McCarthy has always been sketchy when it comes to challenges. “Mike McCarthy is the absolute worst when it comes to managing the challenge flags. These are the types of things that absolutely shouldn’t be happening. That’s what losing teams do,” he wrote.
Mike McCarthy is the absolute worst when it comes to managing the challenge flags. These are the types of things that absolutely shouldn't be happening. That's what losing teams do.
— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 17, 2023
And as Texas Sports Unfiltered pointed out, McCarthy had the bad fortune to be sipping from a coffee cup when he should have been throwing the challenge flag.
“Guess Mike McCarthy was too busy drinking hot cocoa to throw a challenge flag there…”
Guess Mike McCarthy was too busy drinking hot cocoa to throw a challenge flag there… pic.twitter.com/kSZEfoSE3M
— Brad Kellner (Texas Sports Unfiltered) (@BradKellner) December 17, 2023
Cowboys’ Road Woes Continue
Now, the non-fumble that was actually a fumble is not the reason the Cowboys lost, though the team could have had a better crack at making it a game if Dallas had gotten the ball in that spot.
The bigger issues remain the team’s inability to win away from home, where they are just 3-4. That is likely to be an issue in the playoffs because, while the Cowboys were losing in Buffalo, the 49ers were doing something that Dallas could not do in Week 3—winning in Arizona.
That put the 49ers a full game ahead of the Cowboys in the chase for the NFC’s top seed, and San Francisco has the tiebreaker. The Cowboys also slipped behind the Eagles in the NFC East race, with Philadelphia playing on Monday night.
There likely will be at least one road game in the Cowboys playoff run. Mike McCarthy knows that the team had better improve.
“We did not play well,” McCarthy said. “There’s just too big of a gap in (our play on the road). We gotta be much better on the road.”