Friday, January 27, 2023 Jan 27, 2023
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Dallas Cowboys Checklist

The Cowboys Bowed Out the Way They Always Do

The particulars change. The outcome remains the same.
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Look familiar? Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022-23 Cowboys season is over, as Dallas once again lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 19-12. Here’s what got accomplished in yet another second-round postseason exit

Played like the Cowboys

I have started and restarted this column a half dozen times. At one point, it began with Dak Prescott. Then it centered on the players he was asked to throw to. A third version opened with Mike McCarthy, until I realized I’d written that piece around this time last year, when Dallas lost to the same team. The fourth involved the tragicomic final play, which certainly provided more in the originality department. Attempt No. 5 centered on the last half dozen-ish minutes of the game, which were so perfectly Cowboys in how they warped a mostly understandable loss into more emotional scarring.  

And now we are here, on the sixth iteration of this piece, in which I tell you that this latest Cowboys playoff blunder—a seventh consecutive loss in the divisional round, the most by an NFL franchise since 1970—involves all of those things and is bigger than each of them.

Because it is rarely simple with this team: not in the best of times and certainly not after defeats like these, the kind that gnaw at everyone’s resolve and sanity and appetite for doing all of this again next year. History tells us we’ll feel the same way in 2024, for the 28th consecutive year.

Prescott was miserable, between his meager yardage total, a glaring lack of big throws, and two interceptions, at least one of which was totally on him. (I’m willing to hear arguments on the other.) He also had nothing in the way of help beyond CeeDee Lamb, which we’ll get to in a moment. McCarthy? I’ll refer you to the excellent Doug Farrar, who vivisected his every failure (of which there were many). The final snap, less so, although the absurdity of the thing—a P.E. flag football play, possibly Ezekiel Elliott’s last memory as a Cowboy, playing center and getting bowled over like an empty cardboard box—was every bit as stupid as Cowboys playoff defeats get. And the fourth quarter said everything about this team’s architecture: the porous run defense, the penalties, Prescott’s ineptitude under pressure, the weak stomach that led McCarthy to punt on fourth down with barely two minutes remaining in the game.

It is hard not to dwell on why these things keep happening, year after year, to this one football team. Serial losers like the Eagles and the Chiefs have broken through, while this franchise, which not so long ago held a share of the most championships in league history, always seems to travel a different road back to nowhere. The time for taking any one Cowboys playoff defeat at face value came and went at least a decade ago, probably longer. It isn’t about Dak or the receivers or McCarthy’s decisions. It is about the uniform they wear and the family that writes their checks. These are the constants, the immutabilities. It’s why the outcome never changes, even as the scapegoats always do: the quarterback or the coach, the offense or the defense, the personnel or play calling.

The Cowboys are the Cowboys. Twenty-seven years ago, that stood for playoff excellence. Now it stands for the impediments to it, no matter the form they take.

Went down with their running back

The main difference between this year’s Niners defeat and last year’s? 2022 was a schematic loss. This time around, it’s on the personnel.

Dallas had a more complete roster last year; San Francisco, a more flawed one. Those roles flipped in 2023: San Francisco was better everywhere on offense aside from quarterback, at least three positions on defense (defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety), and in the kicking game, because duh. And whatever hope Dallas had of overcoming that talent gap evaporated when Tony Pollard fractured his fibula late in the first half.

The injury brings with it financial ramifications for a free agent who clawed his way out of the draft’s middle rounds and into stardom. Pollard deserved far better than this heading into the spring that should have earned him generational wealth.

Without him on the field, the offense looked feeble. That was always the risk with these Cowboys: how dependent they were on Pollard and Lamb to make big plays. The receiver played one of the most important games of his career in Pollard’s absence, but it could never be enough when Michael Gallup disappeared yet again, when Dalton Schultz mustered only 27 yards from 10 targets, when T.Y. Hilton and Noah Brown were just not good enough to play key roles on a big stage. Not that a better group of complementary receivers should be asked to overcome Elliott’s performance. With fumes in his tank, he trudged his way to 2.6 yards per carry.

No matter your opinion of Dak Prescott, Playoff Quarterback—on balance, it’s going a lot better than you might believe—there’s a reason that three of the quarterbacks playing in next week’s championship games have at least three high-end weapons to catch the ball. The fourth, Patrick Mahomes, is perhaps the most talented man ever to play the position. Only a generational quarterback could win big with supporting casts like these, and not even Prescott’s most ardent supporters consider him to be that talented. Reasonable minds can disagree on the level of resources that should be pumped into the passing game this offseason. But after a one-and-done playoff campaign last season, the Cowboys asked more of their quarterback, not less. And he delivered. Dallas got back to the divisional round in large part because Prescott performed like a superstar while defeating Tom Brady.

But when the Philadelphia Eagles asked Jalen Hurts to level up this past offseason, they delivered A.J. Brown to help him out. The 49ers, in the absence of presumptive starter Trey Lance, made a move for Christian McCaffrey midseason. Cincinnati is where it is in no small part due to drafting Ja’Marr Chase over a supposed franchise tackle in Penei Sewell in 2021, even though it had another young star receiver in Tee Higgins and a capable second option in Tyler Boyd.

Where is Dallas’ answer to those moves? If this question remains rhetorical, you shouldn’t expect next season to end much different than this one did.

Saw Reggie White reincarnated

The most resplendent silver lining about this game concerned Lamb and Micah Parsons: Dallas’ best playmakers on either side of the ball were more than up for this game. Lamb got his through volume—117 yards on 10 receptions, making him the first Cowboys receiver since Michael Irvin in 1994 to post such a line.

Parsons? Well, he did it through this:

I could lavish praise on Parsons by saying that he heaved Mike McGlinchey, a rather good right tackle, like an apathetic airline employee tossing a piece of luggage onto a conveyer belt.

But that’s overcomplicating matters. All you need to know is he moved a man with 5 inches and 50 pounds on him just like the greatest pass rusher of all time used to do it:

Got a pep talk

What’s a way-too-hands-on owner to do when his extremely shaky kicker is misfiring during warmups? Pump him up!

And how’d that work out?

Well…

Maher did convert both of his field-goal attempts, putting him on a streak of 12 consecutive makes and putting me onto the football-deviant idea that the solution may just be to make him the designated field-goal kicker and recruit someone else to handle the extra points. Or, you know, hire a different kicker. Just not the governor, unless it’s a job exchange in which Brett Maher goes to Austin to fix the power grid.

Bore witness to Joe Montana’s fashion crisis

Whole lot of “How do you do, fellow kids?” going on here.

Or as Zac put it:

Provided hope. Somehow.

Remember how I mentioned that we’re well beyond the point of taking Cowboys playoff games at face value?

Disregard that, for just one moment, and examine this roster. The Cowboys were the youngest team in the divisional round by average age, and they enter the offseason with relatively few players heading into free agency:

They need Pollard and Wilson back, and one could make similar arguments for Vander Esch (their most improved player) and Steele (depending on whether Tyron Smith is now a full-time right tackle). But Dallas can replace most of the rest of this list with barely a batted eyelash, which an optimist can attribute to their sterling work in the draft (Damone Clark stepping in for Anthony Barr, for instance, and rookies Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot moving up a slot if Schultz walks) and a pessimist can point to the talent level just not being good enough in several spots.

Which, it isn’t. San Francisco exposed that time and again Sunday. But the Cowboys have a franchise quarterback, one good enough to win with. They have a franchise wide receiver. Their rookie left tackle, a pick hardly anyone outside the organization loved last April, exceeded every expectation as a rookie as the two future Hall of Famers kept chugging along on the right side. Micah Parsons is as good as it gets, DeMarcus Lawrence is the next rung down, and they have several edge rushers in place behind them. Trevon Diggs, for all his warts as a tackler, is the best cover man this team has employed since Deion Sanders. And there is widespread competence, with flashes of much more, up and down the defensive tackle and safety depth charts.

The needs are obvious—cornerback, wide receiver, the interior offensive line. But the core has been and remains in place. That core performed like a top-six team in the regular season, even with Prescott out for a month and a half, the offensive line in perpetual flux, Dan Quinn never finding the personnel to caulk his leaky run defense, and that compulsion to make boring games interesting over the second half of the year. They took another step, however halting, toward where they need to be.

And so, despite themselves, the Cowboys provide reasons for optimism, even after a game like this. The metaphorical window remains open, even as fresh cracks now spiderweb through it. Perhaps it won’t get better, given the aforementioned uniform they wear and the family signing those checks. But as Jake Kemp pointed out ahead of the Tampa game, eventually talent trumps trauma. The Cowboys should have more of the former next season.

Are still the Cowboys

Of course, Sunday night provided more of the latter, too. Just like last year’s game. And so many winters before that. The trauma continues to accumulate, and the marrow of this thing isn’t changing.

Assemble the right collection of parts, and there’s no reason Dallas can’t succeed in spite of that. But will it? I have my doubts. And for the time being, in the hangover from an evening that felt so similar to last season’s end, I don’t have much more than those, either.

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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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