Saturday, January 29, 2022 Jan 29, 2022
37° F Dallas, TX
Football

Dallas Cowboys Week 17 Checklist: What Got Accomplished Versus Arizona

This was the Cowboys' chance to show up big against a playoff-caliber opponent. They failed.
By  |
Image
An important test failed. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys lost to the Cardinals 25-22 in what could amount to a playoff preview. Here’s what else got accomplished along the way:

Took (and failed) their pre-playoff test

This was the proving ground.

Beginning with the Denver game on November 7, the Cowboys had spent the better part of two months playing mediocrity. The Kansas City Chiefs (now 11-5) were top-notch opposition, and the Raiders (9-7) lurk on the fringes of the AFC playoff picture. But the Saints (8-8) are milquetoast, while the Broncos (7-9), Falcons (ditto), and Washington Football Team (6-10) are also-rans. The less said about the Giants (4-12) the better. A murderer’s row, this was not, and yet the Cowboys struggled against so many of them, winning more than they lost—Dallas went 5-3 in total—but seldom flashing the form that made them look like Super Bowl contenders during their incandescent 6-1 start.

You can blame the offense for this—you, me, and everyone else in town has—but the defensive line was finally healthy while Micah Parsons had leveled up from superlative rookie to superlative player, which was enough to imagine a new pathway to victory: take away the ball, snuff out the possessions when they can’t, and give the offense enough shots at out-talenting the opposition even if the results aren’t as efficient or prolific as they ought to be.

Then came Week 16, a comprehensive beatdown of Washington that doubled as the Cowboys’ most complete win of the season. Maybe, possibly, things were sliding into place on both sides of the ball.

Arizona would be the reality check, the first and last high-level opponent remaining on the schedule until the playoffs. The Cardinals were in a funk of their own, dropping five of their last eight games, but they are among the game’s best road teams. They arrived with the NFL’s best road record (7-1, the wins all coming by double digits) and turnover margin on the road (+17) while ranking second in point differential (+94). And Kyler Murray was undefeated in AT&T Stadium dating back to his days at Allen High School. Beat them, no matter how, and the Cowboys would erase any doubt about their playoff readiness.

They did not, of course. Sunday was hardly a bad loss, but it was not a great one, either; the three-point final margin obscures the Cowboys playing from behind the entire game. Once again, they were outgained on offense, with Arizona racking up 399 yards to Dallas’ 311 despite the Cardinals missing their best receiver, running back, and left tackle. It didn’t stop them from engineering the most ruthless scoring drive Dallas experienced all year:

Nor did a defense down two key starters have much trouble limiting Dallas’ running backs to 25 total rushing yards, their two best receivers to 69 total receiving yards, and the offense at large to three third-down conversions in 11 attempts. It was Dak Prescott, not Murray, who committed a backbreaking turnover, a fourth-quarter fumble in Dallas territory on what could have been a game-tying drive. It was Mike McCarthy, not the embattled Kliff Kingsbury, who committed the worst coaching gaffe of the night by burning through his timeouts prior to the two-minute warning, leaving Dallas unable to challenge a possible Arizona fumble.

Afterward, CeeDee Lamb and Randy Gregory were among the Cowboys pointing the finger at officiating, with Lamb declaring, “Refs—I feel like—dictated that game.” But “feel” is the operative word here. Dallas accrued 88 penalty yards on 10 flags compared to Arizona’s 45 on seven, all of them called by a crew that isn’t predisposed to whistleblowing. This was hardly the Thanksgiving game, in other words, when abysmal officiating eclipsed so much of the game itself. The Cowboys lost Sunday because the Cardinals were simply better.

Which isn’t a terribly encouraging prospect given that, if the playoffs were to start today, the Cowboys would host the Cardinals at AT&T Stadium in a playoff rematch. The margins were small enough to dream on a different outcome, that a full game of Prescott’s second-half form and one fewer turnover and a little more luck getting to the quarterback or parts of all of those would be enough to tip the scales in Dallas’ favor. But the Cardinals also figure to be healthier by then, too. If Dallas couldn’t beat them now, how will they with even higher stakes?

Nothing is preordained; football is a strange game made all the stranger by COVID’s impact on the sport in 2021. All we know for now is Sunday was the 2021-22 Cowboys’ last chance to measure up against an elite opponent before the playoffs, and they failed. We’ll spend the next two weeks wondering whether they are a contender.

Built a balanced backfield and made us wonder whether that’s a good thing

A 6-yard reception in the first quarter brought Tony Pollard to 1,000 scrimmage yards on the season, joining Ezekiel Elliott as the second Cowboys running back to crack four digits this season. They’re the first Cowboys duo to accomplish the feat in the same season since Tony Dorsett and Herschel Walker in 1986. Consider it proof of what we’ve written about so often this year: Elliott’s contract notwithstanding, this is a duopoly, and a damn good one.

But their pace has slowed in the second half, which is a serious issue heading into the postseason. I chronicled Elliott’s struggles back in Week 15, and after some small flickers of life gave way to a short day at the office in last week’s blowout, the 26-year-old plodded his way to 16 yards on nine carries. Since the bye week, his yards per carry average has plummeted to 3.36 on 117 attempts. Leave it to friend of the program and Cowboys Vibe Check correspondent Babe Laufenberg to sum up just how bad it has gotten:

Pollard, the more explosive of the two, has stayed efficient but is touching the ball less (10.3 touches after the bye week compared to 12.7 before), and his productivity dropping from 80.2 yards per game to 62.7. Some of Pollard’s efficiency can be chalked up to a smaller workload, and it’s a fool’s errand to extrapolate the same production over a much larger one. Case in point, back in Week 2, Dan examined the data dating back to last season and concluded that Elliott remained the better runner over a larger workload at the time.

Those last three words are the caveat, of course. A quarter of a year has passed since then, and Elliott’s play has deteriorated while Pollard’s has held steady. The argument against shifting the workload in Pollard’s favor grows flimsier by the week and is now papier-mache thin after Dallas’ sixth poor offensive game in seven. A backfield shakeup isn’t the answer to the Cowboys’ offensive woes. It’s on Prescott and the receiving corps to become that. But there is too much on the line with too little time left in the season to avoid trying it, even if only for the rest of this campaign. The offense is too rickety for Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore to turn their noses up at any bit of creativity.

Got victimized by the catch of the year

Two weeks ago, the Giants’ Saquon Barkley made the play of the weekend against Dallas, a physics-defying one-handed grab out of the backfield. It was spectacular. It was enthralling.

And it was child’s play compared to what the Cardinals’ Jonathan Ward delivered on Sunday: the catch of the season. Yes, the entire NFL season—all 512 games’ worth.

That was David Tyree’s legendary helmet catch on someone else’s helmet, and it was only the first act. The second involved Ward maneuvering the ball across Cowboys cornerback Nahshon Wright’s back. For his third, maintaining control and reverse somersaulting over Wright as they crashed to the turf.

We will not see something like quite this again this year, or next, and maybe not ever. It’s athletic artistry, and it’s worth appreciating no matter what uniform it comes in.  

Treated us to—what else?—more Micah Parsons brilliance

We’ve told you he’s a generational talent. We’ve told you he should be the defensive player of the year. Hell, early in the season, Roberto even apologized to the man for doubting his abilities. So there really isn’t anything left for me to convey with words.

So how about some visuals instead?

(Probably) said a premature farewell to a team stalwart

Pro tip: anytime a player is ruled out of a game within minutes of getting injured rather than given a hazy “his return is unknown” designation, you should presume something very bad has happened. Unfortunately, such is the case for impending free agent Michael Gallup, who, the team believes, tore his ACL during a second-quarter touchdown catch.

The market doesn’t open for two and a half months, which leaves time to hope against hope that Gallup will be back in Dallas next year. He is the type of player teams generally try to retain: young (25), home-grown, and with a long track record of playmaking. The issue is, of course, money and whether the Cowboys should commit a ton of it to Gallup with Amari Cooper already on the hook for big money and CeeDee Lamb guaranteed to join him down the road. As I wrote back in Week 4, Gallup was a second receiver shoehorned into a tertiary role with the Cowboys, and he’ll have plenty of suitors eager to pay him starter’s money to fill a starting role. If his asking price has possibly dipped because of this ACL tear and a calf injury that cost him seven games earlier this year, so, too, has his importance in the passing game now that fellow free agent Dalton Schultz has cemented himself as Prescott’s security blanket. Dallas might not prioritize either player given the glut of talent about to hit the market; Randy Gregory is the best player in need of a new deal, and Dallas might try to sign any of their three surprising safeties on one-year deals. But if they’re keeping a pass catcher, Schultz is the priority.

So Gallup is probably gone, leaving behind a legacy that won’t do him justice. His best season was his second, one year after Cooper arrived to ease the defensive pressure on him as a rookie, one before the Cowboys lucked into Lamb, at which point Gallup slid down the pecking order through no fault of his own. He never complained, nor was he content to let his talent fade into the background. Cooper is the technician and Lamb the run-after-the-catch machine, but Gallup was perhaps the most breathtaking of the three, a body-control maven who contorted his limbs like he was operating in bullet time to make catches.

Nowhere was that truer than near the end zone, which would make this a fitting final play for him as a Cowboy:

The Cowboys’ high-powered receiving trio will soon become a duo, one that still is everything Dallas needs to win—on paper. But things will be less fun without Michael Gallup around. The Cowboys can only hope they’ll be able to win him a Super Bowl ring before they confront that reality.  

Author

Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

View Profile
Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

Related Articles

Image
Football

Dallas Cowboys Week 13 Checklist: What Got Accomplished at New Orleans

It won't go down as anyone's favorite win. But it is a win—and that's all Dallas needed.
Image
Football

The Dallas Cowboys’ Bye-Week Checklist

How has Dallas emerged as a 5-1 powerhouse? And what does that mean the rest of the way?