For decades, it was conventional baseball wisdom that a sacrifice bunt was a smart thing to do. Runs are rare, and teams gladly gave up one of their 27 outs to put a player closer to scoring. But when people started actually thinking about the math of baseball, they realized this doesn’t always make sense. The reward isn’t so great. Moving a runner from first to second matters only if you get a single, since a double, triple, or homer would score them anyway. And the cost is high: Hits happen rarely, about a quarter of the time a player comes to bat. Each sacrifice bunt costs a team one of their three (or two) opportunities in a given inning to make that happen. They make it slightly easier for a team to score once while making it much harder for them to score multiple times. Unless a team really needs one run or a particularly bad hitter is batting, the sacrifice isn’t helpful.
Football’s version of the sacrifice bunt is the spike. Instead of sacrificing one of your three outs for a better position, you’re sacrificing one of your four downs for the ability to stop the clock. Although a team is normally assessed an intentional grounding penalty for throwing the ball to nobody, the rulebook specifically grants a team the right to concede a down to save a few precious seconds.
But time hadn’t yet become precious for the Dallas Cowboys when they opted to spike the ball Sunday night. There were 67 seconds remaining when Dallas completed the previous play, and the team had a timeout remaining down only three points with the ball on Green Bay’s 40-yard line. After spiking it on first down, with 49 seconds left, the Cowboys’ second-down play went just 7 yards, and on third down Dak Prescott threw an incompletion. Now facing fourth down, the Cowboys kicked a game-tying field goal with 35 seconds remaining. After the Packers got the ball back and drove down the field, the team had enough time — three seconds remaining — to kick a game-winning field goal. After its 34–31 loss, the best team in the NFC this regular season won’t play in the conference’s championship game.
The Cowboys’ spike was the strangest in football this season. NFL teams opted to spike the ball 69 times this year, including the Cowboys’ spike on Sunday night. Only eight spikes took place with 45 seconds or more remaining in a half. Six of these were by teams that did not have a timeout remaining; one of the only remaining two was by the Cowboys on Sunday night.
So far as I can tell, only one other team had chosen to spike a ball with 45 seconds or more remaining and a timeout in hand while trailing by just one possession since this 49ers-Cardinals game in 2013. (Because I like talking about old, bad quarterbacks, I got excited when I thought it could be this 2011 Cowboys game when Stephen McGee spiked the ball with 1:38 remaining or this 2009 Falcons game when Chris Redman spiked the ball with 1:20 to go, but alas, both teams had burned all their timeouts and there was more than 45 seconds on the clock in those instances.)
The spike certainly can be used as a critical football strategy in the game’s dying moments, as proved time and again this season. The Packers beat the Bears thanks to a spike, as they were able to get to the line and kill the clock after a 60-yard pass that let them kick a game-winning field goal. The Steelers used two spikes before their game-winning touchdown on Christmas against the Ravens and would’ve needed a third if Antonio Brown had been stopped short of the end zone. Three spikes helped the Colts beat the Jaguars on a game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds to go. The Titans set up their game-winning field goal against the Chiefs with a spike. The only other time the Cowboys had spiked the ball this season, they had the opposite problem, running out of seconds instead of downs: Week 1 against the Giants, a pair of spikes helped the Cowboys put together part of a late drive, but it ended when Terrance Williams decided to cut back inbounds instead of stopping the clock by running out of bounds.
Most teams have figured out when to properly value downs vs. time. We’ve seen teams mess it up in college before — Rutgers spiked the ball on fourth down a few years back — but most NFL teams have a solid grasp of when to spike and when not to spike. Besides Dallas on Sunday night, it’s difficult to find another scenario this year when a team ran out of downs due to a spike. The Titans gave the ball up with 41 seconds after a spike due to three straight incompletions, and the Texans left 23 seconds on the clock after following up a spike with two incompletions and a sack, but these are pretty much the most egregious examples. (Plus, they featured Matt Cassel and Brock Osweiler at QB, which explains why there were so many incompletions.)
This goes to highlight the rarity of what Dallas did — and the potential consequences of misplaying a spike situation. In all the successful situations we listed, teams were smart to recognize that time had become more valuable than downs. That simply wasn’t the case for the Cowboys. Even if it took them 10 seconds to communicate a play, they would have had almost a minute to go with less than half the field in front of them and the ability to stop the clock with a timeout. But it likely wouldn’t have taken them 10 extra seconds. The team already had to get to the line of scrimmage and get set in order to spike the ball. Considering how well-practiced teams are in two-minute drills, communicating the next play via hand signals and yelling probably would have added five seconds or less.
With four downs at their disposal, the Cowboys’ failure to go 10 yards in two plays would have meant little. With only three, that failure prevented them from pushing for a game-winning touchdown and gave Green Bay the ball back with enough time to win in regulation.
But the easy answer for the Cowboys was to spike and reorganize. While we gasp at other wastes of a down — say, a team punting on fourth-and-1 — the spike seems more understandable. Since we know it’s important for the offense to preserve time, and we know communication takes time, the Cowboys’ spike seemed to pass without much criticism. But a poorly used spike is just as wasteful of a down as a premature punt. Like a sacrifice bunt, it’s an intentional decision to not try to succeed offensively when the game’s rules have given a team the chance to do so.
In the end, the Packers won due to a seemingly impossible play. But they were helped toward it by one in which the Cowboys opted not to play at all. Aaron Rodgers’s strike to Jared Cook proved that preposterously talented football players can improvise magic and make the impossible possible — but only if they actually choose to try, instead of voluntarily throwing a precious chance into the ground.
This piece was updated after publication with more information about the last time such a spike occurred in a playoff game.