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Football

The Cowboys Have Never Looked Worse. When, If Ever, Will It Get Better?

Green Bay humiliated Dallas in a way no one saw coming. Now, after the worst Mike McCarthy playoff exit yet, it's time to ask what's next—and how much any of it will matter.
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Dak Prescott was one of many Cowboys who turned in an awful performance. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Rinse. 

Repeat. 

Sort of.

I wish I could just copy and paste the columns I wrote the last two times the Cowboys were bounced early in the playoffs, but that wouldn’t come close to doing this justice. I’m no football historian, and I respect my elders, but this has to be the worst loss in franchise history. How does it get worse than this: a roster littered with All-Pro selections, on a 16-game home winning streak, goes into the game favored by a touchdown and gets annihilated at home by the youngest team in the league in the first round?

Because these were not the Cowboys of the past two years. This year’s team, with the emergence of CeeDee Lamb as arguably the best wide receiver in the sport and Dak Prescott morphing into an MVP candidate, among other positive developments, was better than the rosters of the last two years. And they lost to a team far less scary than the San Francisco teams that ended their seasons early. And they lost in much uglier fashion. 

What makes this particularly difficult to digest is that I don’t even know where to start apportioning blame. Prescott played one of the worst games of his season—if not the worst—when it mattered most. The defense, which had been teetering a bit late in the season but was still considered dominant, got taken to the woodshed. We wondered if the roster composition on that side of the ball would be a problem. It was. Lamb was a nonfactor when the game was still a game. Tony Pollard found nothing behind poor run blocking, and nothing on the times he did get loose, too; he averaged 1.9 yards after contact per carry compared to Packers running back Aaron Jones averaging 3.1. This is an area where Pollard usually shines. On Sunday, he had nothing. Even the nearly automatic Brandon Aubrey missed an extra point (albeit from farther than usual after a penalty pushed the Cowboys back 10 yards). No one on this team played to their usual standard when it mattered most. 

So here we are. Again. With a team that has won the second-most regular-season games over the past three seasons and has absolutely nothing to show for it. The other teams that accompany them at the top of that list? Kansas City, Buffalo, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cincinnati? These teams play in Super Bowls, or at least conference championships.

The producer of my podcast, Blake Jones, did some digging, and the numbers are worse than you could imagine. Just for fun he looked at how Dallas’ playoff ineptitude matches up across all four major sports. Turns out the Cowboys are the only franchise over the last 25 years to have a top-10 regular-season winning percentage and never reach a conference championship game. They are one of only three teams in that group not to make their league’s finals. We are looking at a singular effort in failure. 

Now comes the question of “What’s next?” Mike McCarthy is a great football coach who has skins on the wall, and the last three years in Dallas have unquestionably been better than any stretch of the Jason Garrett era. But Garrett was fired because he didn’t win in the playoffs, and McCarthy, now 1-3 when it matters most, sits in the same position. What do you do with a coach who wins at a high level in the regular season but hasn’t been able to succeed in these finite, distinct intervals we call the postseason? 

Then again what’s the alternative? Bill Belichick’s availability throws high-octane gasoline into this discussion, but are we sure that’s an upgrade given what the last several years of New England Patriots football have looked like? I’m not. The most commonly mentioned candidate to replace McCarthy is Dan Quinn, but his defense just had nearly half a hundred hung on it by a no-name offense with a quarterback making his first playoff start. Is that palatable? 

The same could be said about any discussion of the quarterback. Prescott just had the best season of his career and is possibly due for a contract extension. He also just had another terrible game in the playoffs. I suppose the Cowboys could let him play out his deal, gather another year of data, and deal with it next February. But that is not how franchise quarterbacks in their prime are typically treated. 

So you have a coach and a quarterback who have both proven themselves to be highly capable under the Jones regime, which is not easy to find. But neither has come close to getting where they’re paid to go. A re-rack at head coach would mean a third offensive coordinator in three years for the QB; I’m not of the mind that Prescott couldn’t handle it, but it certainly isn’t ideal. 

The truth is, this is a maddening existence. I’m prone to referencing Sisyphus in these columns, for two reasons. First,  it’s really the only Greek mythology story I know. But more importantly, it just feels too apt when describing the Dallas Cowboys. They’ll be around, they’ll push the boulder up the mountain, all the way up, and the boulder will roll back down for eternity. 

I wish I could tell you that I think of the Cowboys as a football team instead of some sort of mythological, even Biblical entity. But I would be lying. This organization exists as a metaphor for frustration. There are great people involved in it at every level. But the sum total is a team that is just good enough to make you believe and not good enough to fulfill any of its promise.

The Cowboys are stuck, in every conceivable way. They have a painful decision to make at head coach. Their quarterback, who just was instrumental in losing a playoff game, has them over a barrel. They have All-Pros who need top-of-their-profession raises because they deserve and have earned those contracts. And their owner and general manager often jokes about his own mortality, so I’m not sure what the stomach for a new direction will be. 

I can almost promise you that if the Cowboys simply ran it back, and extended Prescott, Lamb, and Micah Parsons, they will be in the playoffs again next year. I can also promise you that nothing will be different. Push the boulder back up the mountain. It’s going to crush you in the end. 

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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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