A wild finish
It would take a lot to top the lunacy of that halftime show, but don’t worry the Cowboys have you covered. Let’s just start with who was on the field for Dallas that afternoon.
Ryan Leaf got the nod at quarterback for the Cowboys that turkey day. Yes, the same Ryan Leaf who is still arguably the biggest draft bust in league history and yes, he was just as bad as you remembered.
Leaf played in Dallas for one season, losing all three of his starts in 2001 while throwing more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (one) and barely completing 50% of his passes (51.1%). On Thanksgiving Day he was a paltry 16-32, 196 yards, to go along with no touchdowns and no picks.
Of all the things that remain mind-boggling about this game, one of the biggest is that it proved to be one of the worst days of Emmitt Smith’s career.
The Hall of Fame running back was a major reason why the Cowboys were able to win three Super Bowls in the previous decade, but at 32 years old the wear and tear of 300 carries a season was finally starting to show (2001 would be the last time Smith topped 1,000 yards in a season).
Smith finished the day with nine carries for just nine yards and that’s with his longest carry of the day going for seven. Second-year back Troy Hambrick ended up pacing the Cowboys in rushing with just five carries for 17 yards and two touchdowns.
Dallas’ 27 total yards on the ground that afternoon still stands as one of the worst rushing days in team history. Their leading receivers on the afternoon were Rocket Ismail and Joey Galloway and the team converted just one of their 10 third-down conversions.
The first three and half quarters were chock full of just atrocious football by the Cowboys. After trading field goals in the first quarter, Denver scored 23 unanswered points and built a 26-3 lead early into the fourth quarter, largely off of running back Mike Anderson’s 33 carries for 118 yards.
Denver managed to hold the ball for over 13 minutes longer than Dallas did. Then, somehow, someway, something sparked in America’s Team during the game’s final quarter.
A one-yard rush from Hambrick put the Cowboys back on the board and with the extra point, they trailed 26-10. Then receiver Reggie Swinton took a punt to the house and cut the deficit to 26-16. These newfound signs of life made it seem possible that Dallas could, possibly, overcome a 23 point deficit and mount the biggest comeback in franchise history.
After Swinton’s return, all Campo needed to do was send the offense back onto the field to go for the two-point conversion. Basic football math makes this an obvious and easy call for Campo. The best-case scenario is that Leaf and the offense convert, cutting Denver’s lead to eight points and turning it back into a one-possession game with time left on the clock.
Worst case? They can’t pick up the two yards needed to convert it and the Broncos maintain a two-possession lead. At this juncture, it feels critical to point out that kicking a field goal does virtually nothing different than failing to convert the two-point conversion. So, putting on your armchair NFL head coaching hat, this is an easy call, right?
Well, it’s easy if you are anyone except Dave Campo. Ultimately, he opted to kick the extra point instead of going for the two-point conversion. Originally, Campo sent Leaf out to go for it. He was well on the way to making the correct decision, but with an injury timeout on the field, he changed his mind and sent out the field goal crew instead.
The Cowboys would score with about a minute left in the game on another one-yard Hambrick run, but it wouldn’t matter too much because regardless of what they did, they’d still need one more score for the win. Then Campo calls the only thing he can and Dallas failed to recover the onside kick. Game over. 26-24 Denver.
Campo’s reasoning after the game for not going for two was just as bizarre as his initial decision. After the game the then-Cowboys head coach was quoted as saying this to the media via the Los Angeles Times …
"“To make two two-pointers back to back, the percentages were not with us, I felt our best chance was to try to go for the win.”"
Look, there is no guarantee that the Cowboys make one or both of the two-point conversions, but it’s about giving your team the best chance to win.
The idea that Leaf and the Cowboys were more likely to be able to drive down the field not once, but two more times and score on both of those possessions as opposed to needing to only do it once more is just flat out nonsensical.
Even during an era before Pro Football Focus, when analytics existed but weren’t as prominently factored into decisions the way they are now, this was a bad decision.
Ryan Leaf? Creed? Dave Campo? Thanksgiving Day 2001 was a fascinating and wild one for the Dallas Cowboys. At this point, all you can do is sit back and laugh at its absurdity. That, and perhaps learn a thing or two about how to manage a football game and put on a halftime show.