Sports

America Needs to Break Up With America’s Team

The Cowboys and the country had a deal. Dallas has broken it.

Dak grips the football and grimaces as he gets pulled to the ground by a giant Buccaneer
Anthony Nelson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sacks Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys during the second half at AT&T Stadium on Sunday night in Arlington, Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The American people have a covenant with “America’s Team.” It is not one that many of us entered into of our own volition, but it more or less holds up year after year, and it works like this: The Dallas Cowboys occupy a disproportionate share of national television slots on the NFL calendar. Really, the entire NFC East division does, but the Cowboys have long been at the leading edge. There are only three televised games every Sunday afternoon between Fox and CBS, plus three primetime night games per week, and different markets get different games. But the Cowboys were one of those games in every single Nielsen market more than half the time between 2009 and 2014, a FiveThirtyEight analysis found, and as someone who watches NFL football every week of the season, I do not believe the picture has changed much since then, if at all. The Cowboys have a big fanbase, and the networks force-feed them to the rest of us. It’s hard to argue with the strategy. The NFL is TV cocaine, and the Cowboys are a particular ratings winner. (Granted, not every team gets the same opportunities.)

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We, the non-Cowboys-adoring public, do not have much choice in the matter. But we get something small in return anyway: The Cowboys, in exchange for always being on our TVs despite often not being that good, will at least provide some spectacle. They will have fun offensive players, especially at the skill positions, as has been their M.O. since the days of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. It continued through the likes of Terrell Owens, Tony Romo, and Jason Witten. They will be dysfunctional in some way or another, but at least that will be entertaining. They will probably at least be peripherally in the playoff hunt until the last week or two of the season, so the game will have nominal stakes even if we all know this franchise is finishing 8–8 (or 8–9, now that the schedule is 17 games). It will not be much fun, but the truth is that there are usually worse viewing products than Dallas.

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2022 is the year that this implicit contract crumbles. Fittingly, it began in primetime on Sunday in Week 1, as the Cowboys hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on NBC for what had been hailed, naturally, as one of the games of the week. The Bucs marched into North Texas and flattened the Cowboys, 19–3, in one of the most comprehensively boring ass-kickings that any team will administer to another all year. For Dallas, it is almost guaranteed to get worse, due to a range of critical injuries on Sunday that will add to some iffy roster management ahead of the season. This will not be a good Cowboys year. It will not be a mediocre but grimly entertaining Cowboys year. It will just be dreck, and it will absorb the same enormous chunk of air time as it always has. This, more than ever, is the time for a national breakup.

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Since he took over at quarterback in 2018, his rookie year, Dak Prescott has been the most appealing part of watching this team. Dak is one of the 10 or so best quarterbacks in the league, and his mix of play-extending and passing talent is rare. The Cowboys have done well over the years to give him a chance. They have regularly fielded one of the best offensive lines in the league. They have tried to find him good receivers, including swinging a trade in his rookie season for Amari Cooper. They drafted one of the better running backs in the league, Ezekiel Elliott, in 2016. It has never clicked as well as you’d hope, and the Cowboys are just eighth in the league in scoring since Prescott’s arrival. (He missed most of 2020.) But at root, the Cowboys are watchable. The ball matriculates up and down the field.

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That is not going to happen this year. The Bucs’ vaunted defense suffocated the Cowboy offense all night. Prescott could not move the ball, and then the Buccaneers injured him, sending him to the surgeon’s table for a thumb issue that will keep Dak out for around two months. The new QB is backup Cooper Rush, who has started one game since getting to the league in 2017, and has not shown indications of being the sort of backup who might stun the world with a prolonged run of starting-caliber play. That’s not even a knock on Rush. There are maybe four of those backups floating around the league at any given time.

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The other problem is that, even with a healthy Dak, the Dallas offense looked to be in some disrepair because of other injuries and a plain, old lack of depth. Left tackle Tyron Smith suffered a knee avulsion fracture in training camp, following an offseason in which the Cowboys lost two other mainstays on the offensive line: right tackle La’el Collins and left guard Connor Williams. There had been reason for hope that the line would be fine, but Smith’s injury is a significant problem. They’re now starting a rookie, Tyler Smith, at left tackle. Connor McGovern, who was to replace Williams at left guard, got hurt in the first quarter against the Bucs. His replacement, Matt Farniok, got caved in against the Tampa front.

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This is a mess. Dak would barely have a chance. Rush does not have one at all. To supplement the problem, the Cowboys cut Cooper, their longtime star at receiver, in the offseason. They didn’t really replace him, and none of their remaining receivers did anything of any note on Sunday. Again, there are injury problems, as Michael Gallup and James Washington, two wideouts who are supposed to get a lot of the targets this year, are both hurt themselves. The Cowboys’ offense is a disaster site. Elliott is still here and ran hard on Sunday—10 carries, 52 yards—but best of luck to him in hauling this entire offense around.

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There is essentially one watchable component of this team left. And, to be fair, it is a good one. The Cowboys have Micah Parsons, an outside linebacker who won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors out of Penn State in 2021 and got onto the All-Pro team to boot with 13 sacks. Parsons is an alien who moves way too fast for a man carrying around a 245-pound frame, and offensive tackles can’t do anything about him. He sacked Tom Brady twice on Sunday and could’ve easily gotten the hat trick. He made Tampa Bay left tackle Josh Wells into a turnstile all night and will do the same to many more tackles this year:

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Parsons is a blast. And, sure , he’s not the only entertaining Cowboy. Cornerback Trevon Diggs is also fun. His aggressive playing style means that he’s either intercepting a pass or getting toasted on it pretty much all the time, and that’s enjoyable. But there is simply not enough meat on this bone to make the Cowboys compelling, on the whole, in 2022. The offense is too anemic. I have no idea how head coach Mike McCarthy is going to manage to get through this season without Jerry Jones firing him into the sun. Until that time, it is only going to be bleak, and the most exciting exercise will be to see if Parsons finishes the year with more sacks than the Cowboys do touchdowns. Last year, the New York Giants scored 24 touchdowns, while the Pittsburgh Steelers’ T.J. Watt got 22.5 sacks to tie a record. Let’s see if Parsons can catch his own team this time around.

The Cowboys are eminently schadenfreudable. I don’t wish to deny anyone the chance to take whatever pleasure they might take in what is coming to them over the coming months. But that can be achieved alongside a significant rollback in national broadcasts of Cowboys games. This is the time for America’s viewership to try something different on national TV every week. I nominate the Los Angeles Chargers.

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