The Cowboys clawed their way to another road win, largely in spite of their offense. Sound familiar? Sunday’s 27-20 win over Washington bore more than a little similarity to last week’s win at New Orleans, but there was also plenty more excitement in the offing, too. Here’s what got accomplished:
Made good on their word
Public furor notwithstanding, the Mike McCarthy Victory Guarantee (patent pending) was more unnecessary than problematic. “We are going to win this game,” he said. “I am confident in that.” The words should have elicited an eyeroll instead of its own news cycle. Everyone knew the stakes: win and the Cowboys effectively lock up the NFC East. Lose and the Washington Football Team claims their fifth straight victory, with a rematch in Dallas on deck in two weeks. Why would the head coach invite pressure his team didn’t need in a game that already had plenty on the line?
Perhaps the answer is as simple as “He knew they’d back him up.” And as fraught as things became, the Cowboys did precisely that on Sunday.
There is something to it, I think, this call and response between coach and team. How many times did Jason Garrett attempt to elicit a reaction out of his Cowboys in a crucial moment on the calendar, only to get nothing? That’s not a dig at Garrett, per se; you could say the same of most every coach this team has employed since Jimmy Johnson (Barry Switzer very much included).
No one knows whether McCarthy will be the first coach since Switzer to win a Super Bowl in Dallas. But he knows what it takes, and he knows how to navigate the psychological pitfalls along the way. Today was one of them: a stress-soaked road game against a divisional rival with the offense totally AWOL (we’ll get to that). Dallas bent — far more than they should have — but they didn’t break, and if it feels like I cribbed that sentiment from last week’s column, consider how much of an improvement it represents over that midseason swoon against the AFC West. That type of progress doesn’t pop up in the box score, but it does pay dividends when things matter. Same goes for La’el Collins taking up for Dak Prescott after QB1 absorbed a late hit out of bounds in the fourth quarter; last year around this time, exactly no one did that for Andy Dalton when a different Washington defender laid him out.
Sunday’s win happened because the Cowboys have grown intangibly and defensively, their two greatest areas of concern heading into the season. That will go only so far if the offense keeps sputtering, but beating Washington sets the floor at a division title, which effectively buys Dallas time to patch up the passing game without the specter of “win to get in” football looming over them. It certainly beats the points-or-bust mentality that so often defined them for the previous two seasons.
This team can be more than it showed today, and McCarthy understands that better than anyone. Turns out he knew what he was talking about pregame, too.
Delivered the latest and greatest Micah Parsons masterclass
Last week, I tweeted the following during the Cowboys’ win over New Orleans:
— Mike Piellucci (@mikelikessports) December 3, 2021
If you haven’t read Jake’s piece yet, fire that up once you finish this column. It’s awesome and, frankly, essential reading as the Penn State product continues to surpass every reasonable expectation of what an NFL rookie can do. We are watching something generational.
To prove my thesis about Jake’s thesis, here are three moments in today’s game when you’d have license to retweet that story, beginning with the one that inspired me to re-plug it myself:
Micah Parsons is a superstar.
— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) December 12, 2021
Next up was this, which took Parsons up to 9.5 sacks over his last six games, the most for a rookie since 1986.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) December 12, 2021
Finally, for good measure, here’s Parsons doing midgame pushups on the sideline, a totally normal way for an athlete to recuperate between snaps.
Micah Parsons just keeps going.
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) December 12, 2021
Two months ago, the conversation was “Maybe Micah Parsons will win rookie of the year.” A month ago, it evolved into “He’s going to win rookie of the year—and maybe we should talk about him for defensive player of the year, too?” Now Parsons is a focal point of the DPOY conversation, perhaps even the frontrunner.
He set the tone in arguably Dallas’ best defensive game of the season, a total suffocation both in yardage (Washington put up only 224 of them on 3.6 yards per play) and efficiency (4 of 16 on third and fourth downs). They forced four turnovers and probably should have had twice as many, and they successfully clamped down on Antonio Gibson, who gashed them in both games last year and came in playing his best ball of the season. For good measure, they tossed in five sacks and nine quarterback hits. It was a championship-caliber performance, and their best performer — once again — was a 22-year-old who didn’t play football last year. Incredible.
Micah Parsons since Week 9
9.5 Sacks (Most in NFL)
16 QB Hits (Most in NFL)
10 Tackles for Loss (Most in NFL)
3 Forced Fumbles (t-Most in NFL)
lol WHAT?!?!?! pic.twitter.com/6sXRqvJeqa
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) December 12, 2021
Welcomed back Randy Gregory—and Randy Gregory’s dominance
Parsons turned in the most exciting defensive performance, but Randy Gregory made the play of the afternoon in his return from a calf injury, a gorgeous pirouetting double-tip interception:
Welcome back RANDY GREGORY pic.twitter.com/d3q9xNfovg
— Dallas Texas TV (@DallasTexasTV) December 12, 2021
Parsons’ emergence as arguably the game’s most dominant front-seven force makes it tempting to consider the prospect of letting Gregory walk when he hits the open market this spring. He’s 29 years old—the same age as Lawrence, to whom the team has already committed considerable resources—and has never eclipsed 14 games in a season. The Cowboys have beefed up the front seven well enough that they’ll likely manage fine without him, and that’s before whatever reinforcing they’d do at a much lower price point. Add in the cap gymnastics required to stack a big deal for Gregory onto what is already the NFL’s most expensive roster, and this is a hardly a “whatever, pay him” scenario.
But these four seconds are everything the Cowboys dreamed of when they bought into Gregory’s talent over his off-field concerns in the 2015 draft and stayed patient as it took seven seasons to fully bloom: the length, the awareness, the body control, the awareness, the mobility. They were on display again during his game-sealing strip-sack
This is what an elite edge rusher looks like, and having three of them was an overriding factor behind Dallas winning this game. The Cowboys may be able to survive without Gregory, but they thrive with him. That ought to seal his place atop their list of offseason priorities.
Played mind games
Word circulated Sunday morning about the Cowboys importing custom-made benches for this game, replete with a blue-and-white paint job featuring the team’s name and logo. Needless to say, the locals were not thrilled.
As if the #Cowboys couldn’t be any more contemptible, they flew in their own sideline benches for the game … first time and only team that’s ever done that at FedEx … wild #WashingtonFootball pic.twitter.com/Qu46kPmP5P
— Mitchell Tischler (@Mitch_Tischler) December 12, 2021
Apparently there was justification for this. According to ESPN’s Todd Archer, Dallas got tipped off by the Seattle Seahawks that the heated benches at FedEx field repeatedly shorted out during their game with Washington two weeks prior, leading the Cowboys to find a manufacturer in Cleveland that could import better ones.
Now, strictly speaking, was the paint job necessary? Nah, and neither was this:
Before every home game, Washington sells a “matchup” t-shirt in the stadium.
The Cowboys denied Washington permission to use their logo on merchandise today. There will be no shirt. pic.twitter.com/2mqCx7d5Tb
— michael phillips (@michaelpRTD) December 12, 2021
I endorse all of it. The NFL so often feels like a sterile, soulless corporate playground masquerading as a football league, which makes any bit of chippiness enlivening. Together with McCarthy’s pregame guarantee, hijinks like these make a rivalry game feel petty and personal—exactly how it ought to be.
Proved Dak Prescott’s struggles are no aberration
Dak Prescott had made a habit of torturing the Washington Football Team going into Sunday, posting a career passer rating of 111.2 and 17 total touchdowns against one interception against Dallas’ longtime rival. Viewed in that light, Sunday’s struggles—22 of 38 passing for 211 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions—are an outlier.
Relative to how he’s played following the Cowboys’ bye week, however, they’re right on trend. Prescott sizzled in the first month and a half of the season, tossing 16 touchdowns against four picks and an overall passer rating of 115. He missed Week 7 due to a calf injury and, upon returning from the team’s Week 8 bye, has thrown just seven touchdowns against four interceptions and a passer rating of 87.4.
Perhaps it’s health-related, not that Prescott would likely concede as much. The more likely explanation is the league catching on to his troubles with teams that abandon the blitz and sit back in coverage:
Per @NotJackKemp on the postgame show: thru first 8 weeks, Cowboys offense was blitzed 38% of the time, most in NFL.
Weeks 9-14, they've been blitzed 17% of the time, 3rd least of any offense. #Fangio
— ChristmasTIMe (@RookieMisteak) December 12, 2021
Whatever the cause, the diminished results were obvious Sunday. The interceptions were glaring, but so were the myriad passes that floated just high, or long, or short, or plain off—hardly the work expected from a quarterback who has made his bones with precision. With Ezekiel Elliott hobbled and Tony Pollard sidelined with a foot injury, there was no running game to bail Prescott out this time, either. He floundered and so the offense did, too, right along with him.
And, as Jake warned us when he first highlighted this blueprint after the Denver loss, teams will keep following it until Prescott and Kellen Moore find a way to beat it. With only a month left to go until the playoffs, consider them formally on the clock.