The oblong football spun ever so slowly.
And as the ball moved toward the Falcons' special teams hands team unit, five players watched it roll, inch by inch, to the 45-yard line. By rule, none of the Dallas Cowboys on the coverage team is allowed to touch the ball until it travels 10 yards. They can’t touch a member of the Falcons before then either.
The Falcons players, however, seemed somewhat perplexed about the kick in the moment.
Sharrod Neasman, Jaeden Graham, Hayden Hurst and Olamide Zaccheaus formed a circle around the ball. Julio Jones stood behind Zaccheaus. No one ever made a move for the football until it got near the 45-yard line. Right as the ball crossed, Zaccheaus dove down in an attempt to recover it. However, Cowboys defensive back C.J. Goodwin fell down first and beat Zaccheaus to it.
Down by two points prior to the onside kick attempt, the Cowboys suddenly were in a great spot to win the game. Six plays later, Greg Zuerlein trotted back on the field to make a 46-yard field goal to give the Cowboys a 40-39 win over the Falcons.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the slow-rolling onside kick is a play the team has worked on at practice. But for whatever reason, the players didn’t communicate responsibilities during the moment. Jones refused to blame anyone on the hands team, saying everyone involved shared in the failure of the play.
“It’s all about communication,” Jones said on a virtual call with reporters after the game. “As far as myself and the ball guys, we have to be cautious if the ball gets kicked over our heads. We just have to communicate. If we’re going to decide the front line guys are going to attack the ball guys, let’s go get it. Regardless if it’s at five yards because they can’t touch us or touch the ball if its' short. Or if it’s moving slow like that, communicate with the front line guys to go get the ball and we’ll cover you up. But it’s a lesson in that. We learned from it and we just have to move on.”
Losing a game like that was a critical blow for a Falcons team that hasn’t started a season 0-2 since 2007. The Falcons led 29-10 at halftime and 39-24 in the fourth quarter. With an onside kick recovery, the Falcons would have iced Sunday’s game since the Cowboys were without any timeouts with less than two minutes to play.
Before the Cowboys could attempt the onside kick, the Falcons called a timeout after seeing how they lined up for the play. Quinn said they wanted to see the formation to prepare for which direction Dallas would attempt the kick.
The direction, as it turns out, didn’t matter all. The execution of the kick itself seemed to stun the Falcons.
Instead of attempting a high-bouncing kick, Zuerlein laid the ball on the ground and without the use of a tee. He kicked it on the corner of the ball to get a ton of spin on the slow-roller. It’s then that, according to Quinn, the Falcons should have attacked the ball to pounce on it.
“It’s one we should make an aggressive move to go get,” Quinn said.
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
Quinn said the reason no one on the front line jumped on the ball is because they’re used to blocking for those tasked with securing the ball behind them. Even so, Jones acknowledged the unit should have gone over that situation better with one another.
“It’s just more so some things where we have to go over that situation and learn from it,” Jones said. “At the end of the day we have to learn that we have to attack that ball. There’s nobody to blame, it’s all of us. The communication and understanding of what we need to do in those situations.”
Receiver Calvin Ridley expressed disappointment after the game during his post-game news conference. Ridley was on the other side of the field and could only watch as the onside kick unfolded.
“It’s crazy. I wish it was my side, just can’t believe it, man,” Ridley said. “We gotta get that. I wish it was me, I would’ve — I don’t know. We take that as a group. We lost as a group.”
Needless to say, everyone on the Falcons' roster — on the field for the play and on the sideline — were stunned by what happened.
Linebacker Deion Jones said it was tough to see his team unable to finish with a win when one was seemingly in grasp.
“Get on the ball. It’s pretty much it,” he said. “Onside kick, slow roll. You gotta get on the ball and finish off what we started — finish with the ball and close it out.”