The Dallas Cowboys’ curse, in public-perception terms, is that they are the Dallas Cowboys. Every fall, they are the team that TV networks force-feed most enthusiastically to the American public. Every fall, they are the single biggest show within the biggest show in our popular culture. The Cowboys’ endless prominence creates a lot of haters but also makes Jerry Jones’ franchise the most valuable one in all of global sport. The Cowboys court their status as America’s Team, and Jones is often charitable enough to lay out a specific measuring stick for his team before the season. “We need to be viable in the playoffs for it to be a successful season” was how he framed things up for the 2022 campaign.
Life is full of disappointments. The Cowboys did win a playoff game this year, putting a beating on the sub-.500 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card round last weekend. But they bowed out meekly on Sunday to the San Francisco 49ers, 19–12. It’s hard to taxonomize all of the Cowboys’ playoff exits in the roughly three decades since they’ve made extensive postseason noise, but this one will sting.
The Cowboys were 3.5-point road underdogs, but this was a juicy opportunity. The Niners were starting third-string quarterback and No. 262 overall draft pick Brock Purdy—whose undefeated record since Week 13 has been a fun story, but who is also a rookie with less than a half-season’s worth of starts who had never faced a defense as menacing as Dallas’. Purdy outplayed the Cowboys’ seventh-year franchise QB, Dak Prescott, who turned in an abject stinker and never gave his team much of a chance. Prescott’s longtime backfield mate Ezekiel Elliott carried 10 times for 26 yards in his potential final game with the franchise, after an injury to fellow tailback Tony Pollard pressed Elliott into a featured-back role that he is no longer equipped to handle. The Cowboys’ defense showed up as it had all season, but the offense looked shambolic as the night wore on. Jones’ franchise ended where it ends every season: stuck in the messy middle of the NFL, without a clear path out.
Do the Cowboys still warrant a disclaimer? I guess so. This was a pretty solid team in a vacuum, as the Cowboys usually are. Things looked incredibly grim after Prescott got hurt in a Week 1 clunker against the Bucs, but coach Mike McCarthy kept things together. Second-year edge rusher Micah Parsons continued to entrench himself as one of the best football players alive. Fellow edge defender DeMarcus Lawrence remained good. The secondary held up its end of the defensive bargain. The Cowboys were ninth in yards allowed per play and second in expected points added per play, suggesting that they were an even more efficient defense than surface-level numbers indicated. Until the last week of the regular season, they had a chance to unseat the Philadelphia Eagles as the top seed in the NFC.
The ending was bleak, though, and the loss is a good jumping-off point for an offseason that will either include lots of self-reflection or Jones quickly deciding to do whatever he wants. Prescott was horrendous, throwing two gross interceptions that changed the scoreboard in obvious ways. (One came from the Cowboys’ 21-yard line and led to a San Francisco field goal. The other came from the Niners’ 18 on a second-and-2.) The picks were not the whole story of Prescott’s bad night. On Dallas’ penultimate drive, which was really the last possession on which the offense had a chance to score, he threw a pass that should’ve been picked off for a touchdown in the other direction. On the next play, he missed a streaking Michael Gallup on what could’ve been an 82-yard touchdown pass. And on the next, he took a sack, before McCarthy made a statistically ill-advised decision to punt. He arrived at that decision slowly, and the delay in getting the punt team onto the field compounded the Cowboys’ problems: San Francisco led, and the clock was ticking down. If there had been more time left when they got the ball, they would have run it to eat time. But McCarthy’s dithering meant the two-minute warning would arrive during the 49ers’ play, which gave the Niners a free downfield pass without the risk that an incompletion would stop the clock. Purdy completed it to George Kittle for 16 yards and an immediate first down.
McCarthy is famous for lousy in-game management. Last year’s Cowboys playoff appearance ended with the offense bungling the clock. This year’s loss didn’t exactly end that way, because an out-of-bounds run by San Francisco’s Elijah Mitchell led to the Cowboys getting the ball back with no timeouts and 45 seconds left. They needed to go 94 yards to tie the game, and at that point, they didn’t really have a chance. But the ending would still twist the knife: A 15-yard completion to wide-open tight end Dalton Schultz came off the board because Schultz nonchalantly failed to drag his trailing foot to keep it in bounds.
The next and final play was symbolic: Elliott, a running back, snapped the ball to Prescott. The Cowboys wanted to have as many skill-position players on the field as possible to support an eventual series of laterals. But Elliott, who is not a snapper, got blasted off the line, and the play never got off the ground:
It was not a bad idea on paper. If more of this sport were played on paper, the Cowboys would have been to an NFC Championship Game more recently than the 1995 season.
The manner of this latest postseason exit will be hard for a lot of people to shake. Charting a future course would be easier if the Cowboys had lost in a flukier fashion. The big subplot entering the night was whether kicker Brett Maher, who missed an astonishing four extra points in the Wild Card round, would cost the Cowboys the game in the Bay Area. Maher indeed missed his first extra point of the night, getting it blocked as he sailed it way wide left. But he was solid after that, and the Cowboys were in a position where better play from Prescott could’ve won them the game. They didn’t get it. Instead, their quarterback kneecapped them. Good NFL quarterbacks are a precious resource, and the Cowboys are not going to find someone better than Dak for the foreseeable future, but his performance was demoralizing and raises reasonable skepticism about his upside. The Cowboys need Prescott to rebound into something like the quarterback he was in 2019 and ’20, before a serious injury and a couple of less captivating seasons.
The rest of the offense will need some reinvention. Elliott is not even a shell of his old self and looks like a great candidate to be cut. The offensive line has been one of the better units in the NFL throughout his career, but two of the key cogs in that machine, right tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin, are 32, and Smith has had major injury problems for the past three seasons. Prescott only had two trustworthy targets this year, receiver CeeDee Lamb and tight end Schultz, and Schultz is up for a new contract. The Cowboys are not facing a bunch of big free-agency losses, but they also aren’t overflowing with salary cap space. What the Cowboys really need is for Prescott to get back to his old ways, and it would help if McCarthy would not get in the team’s way in critical moments. Will either of those things become reality? On the latter point, how committed is Jones to his head coach?
Everything’s relative. Even if the Eagles remain the class of the NFC East for the next several years, the Cowboys can keep making the playoffs most seasons. They can keep getting sacks from Parsons, interceptions from Trevon Diggs, and above-average quarterback play from Prescott for most of the year. But that probably isn’t enough to suit a team built to never be out of contention to win the whole damned thing. The franchise’s trouble is that, now—as at every other point in the past 27 years or so—the Cowboys lack a clear path from what they are to the thing Jones desperately wants them to be.