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Football

The Cowboys Underwhelmed One More Time in Their Regular-Season Finale

The result doesn't matter. How they got there might once the playoffs get underway.
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Washington was a step of Dallas every step of the way on Sunday. Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys lost their regular-season finale, 26-6, at Washington. It wasn’t very fun. Here’s what got accomplished as Dallas enters the playoffs as the fifth seed in the NFC East:

Wasted time

Let’s begin with a story.

On Friday, Tim Rogers, our esteemed editor and resident golf degenerate, aired a grievance to me via text. Apparently, he got roped into taking a golf lesson at a spot in Allen and, being the calendar-less rube he is, signed up for a time that happened to overlap with the Cowboys’ regular-season finale. He was not pleased. “I should have been more diligent,” he kvetched.

So, being the good friend I am, I reassured him using the following 10 words: “This Cowboys game is gonna be a waste of time.”

How soon, loyal readers, would you say I was proven correct?

Was it the first drive of the game, when the Cowboys disregarded common wisdom and their own tendencies to call a 2-yard run on 3rd-and-5?

Or maybe it was the ultra-reliable Bryan Anger letting a snap clank off his hands.

If not then, how about the ensuing two-play touchdown drive by the Commanders, which briefly established Sam Howell as the most efficient quarterback to ever live?

Even the optimists among you will concede that this went off the rails sometime between KaVontae Turpin’s fumbled punt return (even if the Cowboys may have been done a little dirty by the officiating there) and Dak Prescott’s latest pick-six in the second quarter.

This wasn’t terribly surprising. With Philadelphia returning Jalen Hurts and New York sitting Daniel Jones, odds were always long that the Eagles would lose and put the NFC East up for grabs. And considering that the Cowboys haven’t beaten anyone convincingly in a month and that there was nothing on the line, it wasn’t hard to foresee them coming out flatter than year-old Mountain Dew. The score was close until the fourth quarter, but for all intents and purposes, this was over as soon as Philly took a 16-0 lead into halftime. And emotionally speaking? This became a certified time suck before the first quarter ended.

So you should not adjust your priors. If you’re inclined to trust this bunch on the strength of back-to-back dozen-win seasons and a capacity to gut out tight games, one meaningless defeat shouldn’t sway you otherwise. And if you, like me, regard this season’s second half as a series of warning signs, Sunday only reinforces that position.

The Cowboys are always divisive, of course. But this season, more than most, feels like one long interpretive exercise. Next week, at last, will reveal which side read this bunch correctly all along.

(And for those who care, Tim reported after his lesson at Golftec that he “was hitting beautiful fades with a 7-iron about 30 yards farther than I’m accustomed to,” which sounds great even if I only sort of believe it. Either way, at least someone in Dallas enjoyed his game time this afternoon.)

Endured some not-so-special teams

Here, courtesy of Cowboys Wire’s KD Drummond, is how Bones Fassel’s crew performed across the board heading into Sunday:

Consider this a system failure, from Anger’s flub to Turpin’s bobble to a Brett Maher missed extra point reminiscent of the kicker who got run out of run out of town three years ago, not the one who has been one of Dallas’ best stories this season.

Given Dallas’ success in this department over the season, this doesn’t feel like a harbinger of a playoff meltdown so much as a really bad day at the office. But it wouldn’t have hurt to have taken a shred of positive momentum into Tampa Bay.

Saw Noah Brown catch a few too many strays

The Noah Brown feel-good story has reached its conclusion. The early-season darling of the receiving corps hasn’t hauled in more than one pass in a game since the loss to Jacksonville. He’s only surpassed 50 receiving yards once since Dallas’ first meeting with the Commanders, which came all the way back in Week 4. Nevertheless, he ends the regular season tied with Michael Gallup for second in wide receiver targets behind CeeDee Lamb.

To be clear, none of this is Brown’s fault. Dallas’ ongoing search for a dependable second option after Lamb (which Dan Morse covered last week) has sometimes forced him to approximate Amari Cooper as Dallas’ second receiver instead of Cedrick Wilson as its fourth. The latter is a perfectly suitable role for the former undrafted free agent. The former is not, which probably explains the barrage of tweets like these:

Meanwhile, Michael Gallup ended the day with the same line and completed the season with 131 fewer receiving yards and an identical number of targets. Pass catching is more complicated than that, of course, and no one has forgotten that Gallup is coming off a torn ACL. More can be expected from him next season, when he’s a year and a half removed from the injury and able to go through a normal offseason. More should be, too, when he’ll take home $11 million in salary plus $2 million in bonuses.

But Brown? He’s done more than could reasonably be asked, given his talent and place on the hierarchy. It’s past time for expectations to be adjusted accordingly.

Got Dak Prescott at his most shitty

That’s Prescott’s word, not mine:

Dak, never afraid to be self-effacing, was correct. He was shitty on Sunday. Shitty as in a ghastly 37.8 completion percentage per the FOX broadcast and presiding over nine three-and-outs.

Shitty as in these consecutive throws at Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller, which were the football equivalent of running your hand over a burner unscathed, then pressing your palm directly onto it.

That pick-six was Prescott’s seventh consecutive game with an interception, which hadn’t been seen in Dallas since 41-year-old Vinny Testaverde was lured out of retirement in Bill Parcells’ first season.

So, yes: a decidedly dung-filled afternoon. Even shittier than Prescott’s Week 1 disaster against Tampa, which at the time might have been the worst game of his career. Your mind has already beaten my fingers to the punch: this is the absolute worst way for Prescott to go into his rematch against the Buccaneers, which will take place on the road this time.

Over the next six or seven days, we will hear about Tom Brady’s perfect record against the Cowboys. We’ll hear about how Dallas last won a road playoff game in 1993, when Troy Aikman was 26 years old.

But most of all, we’ll hear about Prescott. Because for better or worse, so much of this hinges on him. It has to, when the run game is shot and the offensive line is held together by Elmer’s glue and Bengay, when the pass rushers not named Micah Parsons have gone cold and every single outside cornerback Dallas tries opposite Trevon Diggs gets lit up, when opposing defenses can cloud cover Lamb and dare anyone else to beat them. And, perhaps most of all, when we are one year removed from an even better 12-win Cowboys team rolling into San Francisco, only for its head coach to get exposed.

It is not fair to ask Dak Prescott to overcome all of that. Maybe he can’t. But chances are that’s the only way Dallas survives more than one playoff game. And it’s possible. This is the NFL’s most productive offense in 2022 when he is on the field. Per the FOX broadcast, he is responsible for the most points per game by a starting quarterback leaguewide since 2020—a full three points ahead of Patrick Mahomes and 2.8 in front of Josh Allen. At his best, he engineers results better than any other player at his position.

At his shittiest? You just saw it. And if we get anything near that fecal next week, Dallas’ postseason will end in a hurry.

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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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