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Football

Cowboys Postseason Vibe Check: Babe Laufenberg Puts a Bow on the Playoff Loss, Then Talks Offseason Priorities

Touching base with our Cowboys vibeologist.
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Welcome back to Vibe Check, where things are not terribly sunny after the Cowboys’ disappointing playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. But just as soon as one season ends, the start of the next one begins. So we brought back our Cowboys vibeologist, Cowboys radio color commentator Babe Laufenberg, to give final thoughts on what went wrong against the 49ers and how that informs what Dallas must do this offseason to get things right for the 2022–2023 campaign.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the game itself. Give me one word to describe your feelings about that loss to San Francisco

Hmm. Well, this would be two words—

Hey, we’re friends. I’ll let you go two words.

“Not unexpected.” 

OK. So you were among those thinking San Francisco would win this game? 

I knew it was an even game. I was a little concerned with how the Cowboys had played in the second half of the season. I do think it was fool’s gold when they put 50 up on Washington and 50 on Philadelphia because both those teams were effectively playing their JV team. Washington had like 20 guys out with COVID, they played Tuesday night that week because their game had gotten pushed back, and then they traveled. Every practice squad player available was activated for that Philly game while the Cowboys played their starters. So I didn’t look at those games and say, “OK, they’ve arrived.” Really, the playoff game, at least offensively, was a continuation of kind of what we saw the second half of the season. 

I really thought it was a totally even game. Now we have the backdrop of San Francisco since going to the NFC title game, but I felt if like those two teams, as presently constructed, played 10 times, they’d probably split them. I really felt like it was that even. 

Let’s talk about Dak Prescott. Hardly at his best down the stretch, to put it kindly, and definitely not great against San Francisco. How worried are you about him big picture?

I’m not worried about him only because I think there’s enough sample size with Dak that you know he can do it. You know he can play great. And he really did it the first seven weeks of the season. In the opener, he goes toe-to-toe with Brady. It’s a last-minute drive by Brady—imagine that!—that wins it, but to go to their place as they’re literally celebrating their Super Bowl victory with their fans and play the way they did, that kind of showed me a lot. You put the first seven weeks on and, as you recall, Mike, they were talking Dak for MVP. They certainly weren’t talking that at the end of the season. 

But, again, we’ve seen it. He’s been capable of it for long stretches. Obviously, he wasn’t the same when he came back from the calf injury, but Dak’s never going to be the type to tell you, “Yeah, the calf bothered me, and it didn’t allow me to do this or that.” So I don’t know how much it bothered him, but he clearly wasn’t the same player coming back after that Minnesota game that was he was in the first seven weeks.

The other compounding factor here is the offensive line, which maybe looked even worse than Dak did against San Francisco. I’ve seen people make the case that it’s in fine enough shape between Zack Martin still being at the top of his game and three tackles who, in their respective roles, are probably as good as the best teams in the league. Plus, Tyler Biadasz made some strides. And I’ve also seen people on the other end of the spectrum, which is, as great as Tyron Smith can still be when he’s healthy, his body is starting to fail him, which means you’re basically down to one really high-end starter. Where do you fall?

When Jason Garrett took over, his No. 1 priority was to remake that offensive line. That offensive line he inherited, they were all good players, but they all got old together. And, if you recall, his first draft pick was Tyron Smith. They did it with Tyron. They did it with Travis Frederick. They did it with Zack Martin. The funny thing about that is it’s one thing to take an offensive lineman, but it’s another for them to pan out and be the guy you’re hoping they would be. Travis Frederick, as you recall, was taken very late in the first round. Zack Martin was a mid-first rounder. Tyron was No. 9. Not only did they take these guys, they got two guys who are potential Hall of Fame candidates, and the other guy went to five Pro Bowls. 

So I think they’re in that position again where they need to remake this offensive line. And you can get a year or two out of Tyron—you hope to. You know you probably won’t get a full season at this point, especially not now that they’re playing 17 games.

You’re almost trapped because when he plays like he did in the first half of the season, before the injuries set in, he looked like Tyron Smith from two, three years ago. But then, when the injuries set in—he’s not a total liability, but he can’t move the way Tyron Smith moves. 

That’s why you see the holding calls against him, too. He doesn’t get out of his stance as quickly. He’s got 11 years of wear and tear. 

It’s easy to say, “He just turned 31. Why is this happening?” Well, he came in at 20, and this is when the bill comes due. You think then, “They’ll have 15 years of this guy.” Well, probably not the way the game is played now. It’s just too much of a beating. 

And somewhere in there, [Andrew] Whitworth of the Rams, he’s 40. A few others [can last that long]. But I’ll be honest with you: once you talk a spine injury of any type, that’s a real decline, in my opinion. 

So, as we spin this forward and think about the offseason, offensive line is one priority. This is a team with a lot of really good players about to hit free agency and not a lot of money to keep them. Put on your GM hat for a minute: if you are staring down this list of internal priorities, who are you trying to retain first?

It would probably Jayron Kearse. He seems to be a leader for this team. They seem to respond to him. He’s on the backside getting people lined up, and then he can play down in the box. He’s a great defender to match up for the guys coming at you today. He’s 6-foot-4, so he can match up with a tight end when you go man. You can put him on [San Francisco’s George] Kittle, those kinds of guys, and you stand a chance. So he’d be probably the first guy I’d point to and say, “Let’s keep him and then figure out the rest.”

But I’d like to keep a bunch. Cedrick Wilson is going to be a free agent; is some team going to view him as a possible No. 2 receiver? I don’t want to lose Dalton Schultz, that’s for sure. Eventually, the money factors in, and they’re not going to be able to keep them all.

I will say this: I think the best thing the Cowboys did this past season, and it actually happened before the season, is they targeted guys who were not expensive but really made major contributions for the team. I mean, major. And that was exactly what hurt them the year before. 

Yep, we talked about it last time. Pretty much all of them missed last year. Pretty much all of them hit this year. We started this conversation big picture. Let’s end it, that way, too. What is your biggest question entering the offseason? 

We talked about the offensive line. But by hook or crook, they’ve got to figure out a way to run the ball. Obviously, that goes right back to the offensive line, but whether that’s the distribution of carries—we’re going to have to see what Zeke Elliott is after his knee injury. That’s another guy I feel like should have just been rested. Good pass blocker, but ultimately, him being in the game hurt them. 

And it’s not like they don’t have a great option behind him.

Yes. Whether it’s the running back, a blocking tight end, your offensive line—well, the offensive line, obviously—they’ve got to figure out a way to run the ball because teams just say, “You can’t run the ball so we’re going to back and play coverage.” When a team does that, you’ve got to be a team that says, “That’s fine, we’ll just run it down your throats.”  

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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