Unlike what former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green said about the Chicago Bears in 2006, the Dallas Cowboys are not who we thought they were.
After a season that showed promise at times, the Cowboys ended it with a familiar story: on the couch. They did so by going out in the first round with a frustrating 23–17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at home on Sunday.
With midseason expectations changing, people thought this team was different. The offense was loaded, ranking atop the league in points and yards with Dak Prescott having MVP vibes in the first half of the season and breaking a franchise record with 37 touchdown passes. The defense was a drastic turnaround from the year prior with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in charge. They led the league in turnovers with a ball hawk in Trevon Diggs picking off 11 passes, tied for most in franchise history, something the Cowboys haven’t had since the 90s with Deion Sanders. Linebacker Micah Parsons set the rookie record for most sacks in a season with 13 and looked like the second coming of Lawrence Taylor.
Unfortunately, what you do in the regular season doesn’t matter when you get to the postseason. After a 6–1 start, the Cowboys, particularly on offense after Prescott’s calf injury, weren’t the same, going 6–4 the rest of the way. And the concerns about playing a good team who was hot came true.
The 49ers went right down the field on the first possession, scoring a touchdown in under five minutes on a Elijah Mitchell run. After a few poor outings by the offense with -3 yards, including penalties, the Niners kept getting field goals to go up 13–0. Dallas answered with a drive that led to a nice 20-yard fade from Prescott to Amari Cooper for the TD. San Francisco answered back with another field goal by Robbie Gould.
Looking to make it one possession, Cedrick Wilson lost the ball in the sun on a pass that could have given Dallas a field goal before the half. (Seriously, Jerry?! Just drape the end zone windows for once.) Instead, they went into the break, allowing the Niners to score on all four first-half possessions aside for a few handoffs to go into the break, 16–7.
With another slow start on offense, the Cowboys were hungry in the second half, but the Niners continued to make it a tough day at the office. In the third quarter, a Prescott interception led to a Deebo Samuel TD run on the next play, giving San Fran a 23–7 lead, but Dallas wasn’t done.
After a 51-yard field goal from Greg Zeurlein, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo finally made his signature mistake, throwing an interception to Anthony Brown. Then with a short 28-yard field, the Cowboys took advantage behind a Prescott TD run to cut the deficit to six. Once Dallas forced a punt, Prescott got it back with 2:51 left and 86 yards to go.
Maybe this was going to be like 2014 when the Cowboys came back from a 13-point deficit against Detroit to win the first round. Instead with Tony Romo ironically calling the game, the Niners defense made four straight, challenging plays that led to a turnover on downs with 1:42 left.
With all three timeouts, the Cowboys were able to use them wisely, unlike the Arizona game, and force the Niners to 4th-and-inches despite a defensive holding earlier in the drive. A review nearly gave them a first down and the game, but Samuel was ruled short and a false start gave Dallas new life.
With just 32 seconds, no timeouts and 80 yards, Prescott led an efficient drive to get them to the San Francisco 41 with 14 seconds. Instead of getting out of bounds on a pass, the offense, for some reason, had Prescott take a QB draw to the 24. Hurrying, he handed the ball to his center, Tyler Biadasz, instead of the official to set it and time ran out before Prescott could spike it.
The 49ers had 169 yards rushing with Mitchell gaining 96 and Samuel getting 72, both adding a score. Prescott was just 23-of-43 for 254 yards with a touchdown in the air and on the ground along with an interception. Dallas was held to 77 yards rushing with Ezekiel Elliott getting just 31 yards on 12 rushes.
It was a chaotic ending that should have never happened had they done the smart play and not called a QB sneak. And really, the game was lost because of things like costly penalties as the Cowboys committed 14, tying a franchise high in the postseason for a team who led the league in it. The offense was inconsistent. The line had trouble with the Niners’ front seven even after star pass rusher Nick Bosa left before the half due to a concussion. Prescott had another day of being off. The defense was terrible in the first half and not as timely in the second. The game was quite reminiscent of the Arizona match two weeks ago where they were down 22–7 at the end of the third quarter.
It’s another disappointing season and drought of 26 years and counting without a ring, but this team had a different feel to it with former Cowboy greats claiming they were going back to the Super Bowl. Plus, Jerry Jones told Jimmy Johnson he would put him in the Ring of Honor, which maybe meant the curse could be broken?
However, when the pressure came, this Cowboys team wasn’t great. They dominated the division, going 6–0 for the first time since 1998, obliterated teams who weren’t great but were just 3–4 against teams who made the postseason, failing to have a statement game. (Two of those being the Philadelphia Eagles who are really not a playoff team and rested starters the final game.)
They kind of reminded me of the 2019 squad, who had the Jekyll/Hyde look with inconsistency except this team was better. Also, they were a bit of a nod to 2007 with all that talent going out in the first game. This was the first time since 2006 that they lost in the wild card round after being 3–0 in their last appearances.
Now, they have to worry about the offseason changes. Both coordinators could be gone to head coach openings. Quinn, who led Atlanta to a Super Bowl, is most likely to get one. Kellen Moore, on the other hand, really shouldn’t be based on his age, 33, inconsistency in the second half of the season and lack of head coach demeanor, but he’s another young offensive mind NFL owners are obsessed with.
For personnel, there’s a lot of free agents, 22 to be exact with many being one-year deals. There’s guys on defense that came and made a difference. Safety Jayron Kearse was a surprise while others at his position, Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker, were respectable coming off injury. Safety-turned-linebacker Keanu Neal was a key piece to the defense’s success. Defensive end Randy Gregory had a really solid year that made him worth the wait, and considering how loyal the Cowboys have been to him, he might come back or cash in elsewhere.
Then, there’s guys who have rookie contracts expiring. Dorance Armstrong had a career-high five sacks. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was respectable this season but isn’t the first rounder Dallas hoped he would be due to injuries. Left guard Connor Williams started most games but had a huge holding problem. Tight end Dalton Shultz continued last season’s success with a full season of Prescott. Michael Gallup tore his ACL and may be hard to keep when he could be a №1 or 2 receiver on several teams. Wilson had his best season and was solid when Gallup was out.
The team is the third-highest over-the-cap with deals to guys like Elliott, Cooper, tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence that hurt the most. Don’t expect a change at head coach with Mike McCarthy even though this first-round exit looks bad with all the talent at his disposal, but maybe he’s not the right answer, especially with the lack of discipline that was a problem last season too.
The best thing the Cowboys can do is to right the ship, sign as many guys as they can and develop players. Maybe Prescott having a normal offseason of work will help. Maybe they’ll have some humility rather than bash the refs like McCarthy and Prescott did, the latter endorsing fans throwing debris, quite uncharacteristic for the Walter Payton Man of the Year candidate.
But it’s going to be a long offseason. This franchise has three playoff wins in the last quarter-century. That’s not good for an organization that has the biggest brand in all of sports and has talent consistently, being unable to put it all together teams with potential. The only common denominator is owner and general manager Jerry Jones.