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Football

Welcome to Dallas Cowboys Nihilism

Once again, they came up short in a big game. And once again, we're left to wonder how much any of the positives matter without the important results to match.
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The Cowboys were only two inches short of a different outcome against Philadelphia, but those two inches spoke volumes. Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The season is (sort of, kind of?) halfway over, and two things are clearly true: the Cowboys are an exceptionally talented team capable of beating any opponent on any given Sunday, and after this particular Sunday, the rest of this regular season will be greeted by a healthy dose Cowboys nihilism and a collective “who cares?”

Obviously, yesterday’s loss in Philadelphia was not in the same hemisphere as the beatdown Dallas took from the 49ers a month ago. And it does appear that the club has made real progress since that loss. In a vacuum, this would be very encouraging. To a certain extent, it still is. But the last quarter century of this franchise’s history—heck, the last two and a half years—do not exist in a vacuum. 

I am not someone who walks away from losses like yesterday’s muttering same old Cowboys. The current iteration of this team is so much more dynamic than anything we have witnessed in a long time. If you are someone who recites that phrase ad nauseam after every loss, however, you don’t really care about that. You just want them to beat a good team in a big game. 

And it matters that it’s November; that was a huge game. These Eagles are not what they were last year, which made the NFC East crown considerably more attainable this time around. Now Dallas is two and a half games behind Philadelphia with the 12th-toughest remaining schedule in the NFL. The Eagles’ is 24th. 

Realistically, it would’ve been silly to expect the Cowboys to sweep the Eagles this season. A split was always the most likely outcome, and it’s still on the table. At the same time, even after the valiant effort in Sunday’s loss, it’s a bit difficult to see them winning the rematch next month. Because they just haven’t gone out and done it

(As a slight digression, the real problem is that loss to the Cardinals. Even if Dallas splits with Philadelphia, barring a few highly unlikely outcomes, it will be very tough to match the Eagles’ conference record to set up a potential tiebreaker. The Cowboys lost … to the Cardinals. And it wasn’t close. If they draw a daunting path in the playoffs and fail to reach the conference championship yet again, that will be the game that haunts them this season.)

In many ways, Dak Prescott serves as a microcosm for the team over the last 40 games. He’s good—really good—yet people who cover or support the team perpetually label him not good enough to win at the highest level. Considering there may only be four or five signal callers who are good enough, this can be a fair charge instead of a critique, no matter how much it’s leveled as the latter. Just because the Cowboys haven’t pinpointed one of that tiny handful doesn’t mean they’re not the envy of 20 other teams. 

The problem is, the Eagles might have one of those guys. I don’t care what the passing stats say; Jalen Hurts was a bit better than Prescott last night. Prescott was really good! Hurts was a bit better. Five years from now, when Hurts turns 30, maybe his game will change in the same manner that Prescott’s has. Perhaps his effectiveness drops a tick when the Eagles can’t lean on his legs to bail them out time and again. For now, though, his skill set and point guard IQ allow the Eagles offense to do things few other teams are capable of. And the Cowboys certainly aren’t one of those teams.

Prescott was pressured a lot last night, as Terrance Steele has been a liability this season after tearing his ACL last year. Hurts, however, was pressured at a higher rate. Hurts has more weapons at his disposal, but thanks to the bona fide breakout of CeeDee Lamb as a Super Bowl-caliber No. 1 option, the gap is at least more narrow than it was last year.

Even with all the Eagles’ offense designed and executed, the Cowboys’ defense kept the game alive by forcing three consecutive three-and-outs in the fourth quarter. It didn’t matter. As Micah Parsons remarked after the game, “Sometimes you play good enough, and good enough isn’t good enough. That’s just the reality of the game.” 

That certainly was not the case in any of Dallas’ last three games against the 49ers. But for most people, it just won’t matter until it actually is good enough, and the Cowboys can string together a couple of big-time victories. Considering Dallas is trending toward its third consecutive double-digit-win regular season, it probably won’t matter until it happens in the playoffs. Twenty-seven years of running in place will do that to a fanbase.

There was a heavy dose of gallows humor in yesterday’s loss. Because if we’re talking about a team that is very close but just not quite there, losing by what was essentially 2 inches just feels way too on the nose. Luke Schoonmaker’s overruled fourth-down touchdown catch and Prescott’s failed two-point conversion on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter … I mean, what can you say? I know what a lot of people were saying, of course: same old Cowboys! Why didn’t he run that route deeper? Why didn’t Prescott take a better angle and fully extend the ball? This is what always happens.

That’s a lot to extrapolate from a distance the width of a credit card, but, again, I understand it. There’s a pretty good chance the Cowboys will go on to reel off three straight victories. That would make them 8-3 after Thanksgiving, en route to what should be 11 wins—10, at minimum. A huge swath of people who cover or care about this team will put absolutely zero stock in any of it. 

But they will when the Cowboys have to go on the road in the first round of the playoffs, and the second, should they advance. Losing either one of those games will rocket everyone back to where we are now: tired and numb, cynical and fed up. This is what 28 years of futility do to you. And while a coaching change or a regular-season run on par with Philadelphia’s could stave off some of it, for the most part, everyone will remain stuck in that place until Dallas delivers results. 

Cowboys nihilism is upon us. It’s on the team to make people care.

Author

Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…
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