You can take the Romo out of the Cowboys, but, well, you know how this goes. Sunday night, Kyle Orton threw a game-ending interception to Eagles defensive back Brandon Boykin with 1:49 remaining, and effectively ended the Cowboys' season. It's become something of a ritual for Cowboys fans, but have they really had it the worst?
We compiled a list of every drive a team started while trailing by eight or fewer points with nine minutes or less in the fourth quarter (or in overtime), and which ended inside of two minutes, using Pro Football Reference's Drive Finder. Since 2003, we found 393 of them. You can see them in the chart above, with lighter shaded boxes representing turnovers on drives that started with 30 seconds or less, and which were therefore likely to be wild desperation chucks.
The Cowboys, surprisingly, account for a just about league average total of 13 over that time period, although six of those have come in the past four seasons. Otherwise, Seattle and Washington are out in front, along with Miami, Buffalo, and Tampa Bay, while bottom of the list is made up of Indianapolis, the Giants, and kind of amazing considering this includes the Delhomme years, Carolina.
Two plays stand out, for obvious reasons. Of the nearly 400 turnovers in these situations, they are the only times the team actually, somehow, won the fucking game. The first, and only true victory on the list, was the Jets against the Texans in 2010, in which Mark Sanchez, who gave us so much, threw a pick deep in his own territory while down one. Houston only got a field goal out of it, though, and the Jets drove the length of the field for a touchdown. The other counts on a fairly hilarious technicality: In a 2003 game against the Falcons, Saints running back Deuce McAllister fumbled the ball in Atlanta's red zone, Falcons DT Ellis Johnson recovered, ran all of four yards before fumbling himself, at which point the ball was covered up by the Saints' Boo Williams and everyone had a drink.
A few teams even doubled up on these late turnovers in the same game. These two-late-turnover games almost always have the one truly terrible turnover, and another desperation play tucked in for good measure. One 2003 game between Seattle and Cincinnati saw Matt Hasselbeck throw an interception with 1:46 remaining, and get the ball back with enough time for Bobby Engram to screw up a lateral and turn the ball over as time expired. Another saw Tim Rattay, then on the 49ers, throw an interception and Terry Jackson follow it up with a fumble. Another Seattle game, this time against San Francisco, saw Seneca Wallace throw a late interception, and then, having got the ball back with 34 seconds remaining, throwing a short pass, and not being able to handle the lateral that came back his way. There are a few games that featured two true dumbass interceptions, though, like Jon Kitna's 2007 masterpiece against Michael Strahan and the Giants.
Obviously, there's noise here. The biggest is that we are totally missing out on interceptions and fumbles with a lead, or in a tie, which result in a loss. Our reasoning was that there is a substantially different play-calling mindset in those situations, but it's probably worth tracking down the best blown late leads at some point. Also, starting at just two minutes out doesn't account for timeouts remaining, or field position, and the desperation turnovers are hard to sort from the hopeful plays with no time left. And because we cut off at two minutes, we are surely losing a few iconic fuckups just outside of two minutes. But as a whole, this should be a fairly accurate summation of who has pissed the game away the most in the final moments.
Chart by Reuben Fischer-Baum