Welp, that sure didn’t take long.
After a season of magnificence, head coach Mike McCarthy and the Dallas Cowboys were supposed to be beyond this kind of thing, this flat playoff performance, rife with mistakes and poor decisions at the worst possible times. This Dallas team? It wasn't supposed to lose at home to the sixth-seeded San Francisco 49ers, a club that came into the game with a starting quarterback they’re continually working to jettison. Anything contrary was supposed to be left in the past, remembered only as a relic of the Jason Garrett era.
No, these Cowboys were supposed to be ready. For all of it. A big run. And yet, here they are. Out of the playoffs again, with that familiar empty feeling that punctuated the Garrett era. Only this time, it’s arguably worse. Because this was a team that had an overwhelming amount of upside going for it. Now it will be remembered for a finale filled with penalties, a slow start and then a final snap that ultimately ran out the clock. Not to mention fans throwing objects at the referees as they left the field, an absurd display of emotion toward people who really weren’t responsible for Dallas tripping over itself in a 23-17 loss to the 49ers.
No, this one falls on a coaching staff that has struggled to instill game discipline, and a head coach and offensive coordinator who should have known better than to play with fire in the final seconds, running an ill-advised quarterback draw with Dak Prescott that was just asking for the worst-case scenario it produced.
That final play will attract the most attention and remain seared in the brains of Cowboys fans for a long time. When this playoff loss is fully sifted, there will be no shortage of miscues that ultimately cost Dallas, leaving team owner Jerry Jones in a familiar position afterward: speaking of his dismay and being asked if a head coaching change is necessary.
“It was quite a letdown — quite a letdown,” Jones told reporters. “We’ve got good players in there. Really good players. … Very disappointing that we couldn’t get it done. I would like to say that when I look at the year, I feel one way. But the year, a big part of it when you’ve got a team like this, is winning tonight. And we didn’t get it done tonight and that’s big-time disappointing.
“When you get this combination of players together, you need to have success,” Jones continued. “Because we all know how it goes in the NFL. The whole thing is set up to take away from the best and add to the ones that need improvement. Personnel-wise, I think we have one of the best.”
Asked if there was any possibility of a coaching change, Jones declined to broach the subject.
“I don’t even want to discuss anything like that at this particular time,” he told reporters. “No discussion of anything. … I’m not going to discuss coaching, the preparation, any of those things. That’s not on the table. The game speaks for itself.”
Jones is right. The game certainly spoke — at times very loudly — about McCarthy’s performance. Like the embarrassing 14 penalties, a ghastly number Dallas has recorded twice this season, where it ultimately falls to the coaching staff to maintain in-game discipline at the most important moments of the season. McCarthy deserves criticism for that. He also deserves his share of signing off on the final play of the game.
Fans will complain about the referee interrupting Prescott to spot the ball, but it’s absolutely on McCarthy to judge when a risk weighs too much. Everything about the draw play would have had to work perfectly in those final seconds in order for Dallas to get another shot at the end zone. That’s a gamble McCarthy shouldn’t be taking in the postseason, especially given his well-chronicled history of clock management problems.
While none of this is perfectly analogous to the Jason Garrett experience, the laundry list of reasons why a talented Cowboys team failed at a critical juncture absolutely is. One way or another, it seems there’s always something thrown into the gears that suddenly makes Dallas seize up. And in that respect, McCarthy has fallen short in the most familiar of ways, and it's made even worse by the complete unknown that now lies ahead.
If there’s a key point that Jones is already grappling with, it’s the likelihood that next season’s team may look noticeably different than this season's edition. It's why Jones stressed the point that when you’ve got it going good, you have to strike. And with this team, Dallas had arguably its best top-to-bottom program in a decade or more.
This was the team’s best overall roster since at least 2014, and maybe longer. Individually, there was a bonafide franchise quarterback; loaded skill positions; two All-Pro players on a relatively stacked defense, including a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Collectively the Cowboys were the top scoring team in the NFL and the second-best defensive unit in the NFL via DVOA — which is one of the more accurate “real world” measures of a defense. Not to mention Dallas boasted two of the hottest coordinators in the NFL, both in high demand on the head coaching interview circuit.
This is why Jones laments falling short despite the right combination for big results. Because both coordinators could be gone next season. Some valuable players could become salary casualties in the offseason. And the special chemistry that seemed to exist in 2021 on both sides of the ball could be staggered by a wave of change throughout the coaching and leadership cast.
Add all that up and it’s a lot of future anxiety accentuating immediate pain. This is about as bad as the season could have ended for Dallas — feeling so close to putting something meaningful together, only to watch it come apart right when everything mattered most. It’s a familiar tale for this franchise, decades old and divided up by regime change amid the lingering tombstones of talented teams that never made it.
That’s not what this Dallas team was supposed to amount to in 2021. But one playoff game later, that’s exactly what it is.