With their early exit as a wild card for the 2022 NFL playoffs, the Cowboys will remain stuck on winning the Super Bowl for the last time in 1996. In the 26 years since then, Dallas is one of only three teams in the NFC ( Detroit and Washington are the others) that has not reached a conference championship game.
After going through some tough years with makeshift quarterbacks after Troy Aikman, the Cowboys have had several promising teams with Tony Romo and Dak Prescott holding the most important position. Jerry Jones and the front office have had excellent drafts to load up the talent around the QB.
But whether it was Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett or Mike McCarthy as head coach, something has been missing to push the team toward the huge playoff success it once enjoyed. Since 2007, the Cowboys have made the playoffs with 11 or more wins five times, only to fail to make it through divisional weekend on any of those occasions, including twice as the No. 1 seed.
It’s no wonder Jones was so frustrated to the point that he “can’t remember” the last time he was as disappointed with the Cowboys’ playoff performance as he was after their home loss to the 49ers. With Prescott coming back fully healthy to play at a high level and with a playmaking defense, Dallas seemed to have a real chance to make a deep run, unlike other recent editions of the team.
But now that the Cowboys are done, what must they do to get to another Super Bowl soon? Here’s a breakdown of five corrections Dallas needs to make to get better results as a contender next year:
Go back to work on improving offensive and defensive lines
The Cowboys, facing Prescott and his running game, are still seeing some excellent play from their future Hall of Famer stalwarts, left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin. But left guard Conor Williams and right tackle La’el Collins haven’t been providing good support to Smith, Martin and young center Tyler Biadasz. The Cowboys need to consider a big trade in the complementary spots to Smith and Martin and also develop youngsters behind them.
The defensive line was highlighted by DeMarcus Lawrence on the edge in Dan Quinn’s 4-3 scheme, but the Cowboys were also weak inside at times. Tackle Carlos Watkins and end Randy Gregory are free agents. Although Dallas had good depth in its defensive line rotation to be effective against runs and passes, some of the limitations were masked by the elite play of rookie linebacker Micah Parsons.
The Cowboys have lost their outstanding overall strengths in the trenches. Here’s how and where the 49ers beat them both ways in the wild card round.
Get more offensive balance to match the explosiveness.
The Cowboys, to no one’s surprise with Prescott and young offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s aggressive plays, had the No. 4 passing offense in the NFL. Somehow, they were also tied for No. 9 in rushing offense (122 yards per game).
But there were plenty of games where the Cowboys were one-dimensional or the running game wasn’t a factor, boom or bust from game to game. Ezekiel Elliott, with his massive bulk up to age 26, often looked worn playing despite his knee injury and Tony Pollard was more effective in flashes when he wasn’t dealing with his foot injury. The Cowboys were only No. 22 with their rushing percentage, just over 40 percent.
The Buccaneers and Chiefs can get away with big happier passing schemes when they know how effective they will be with Tom Brady running for Bruce Arians and Patrick Mahomes turning him on for Andy Reid. They still pick good running spots to save games and play off their downfield passing threats. The Cowboys were solid in the red zone, but there was too much pressure on Prescott to deliver on key points. They used to be a strong ball control team in the Garrett era. The Cowboys were only No. 19 in time of possession in 2021, which also didn’t protect a defense that was vulnerable to making big plays.
Make high school more complete.
Trevon Diggs had 11 interceptions to become a star cornerback in one appearance, but he also got lost in coverage plenty of times when he wasn’t making plays with the ball. Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis were also frequently exploited. Security was saved a bit by Officer Jayron Kearse, but he, Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker are all free agents. The Cowboys also played former Falcons safety Keanu Neal at linebacker to help Parsons and Leighton Vander Esch.
The Cowboys used to be more about bending without breaking. They got aggressive in changing games with takeout, but they need to be more solid at assignment in a lot of ways. The No. 2 corner and a promising young No. 1 safety should be among the first draft considerations along with offensive and defensive linemen. Jones and his scouting team have their work cut out to find the best values and some immediate impact players at those positions.
Be more consistent and congruent with your training.
Moore sometimes seems like an absolute genius with what he’s calling out to Prescott. But there are games where he forgets about the run too much or doesn’t involve one of his three talented wide receivers (mainly CeeDee Lamb) enough. Quinn has a unit to build to tee off teams when playing with leaders, but he can wither if teams can continue to function with a positive play script. The Cowboys allowed 4.5 yards per carry.
Mike McCarthy, an old-school West Coast disciple, was a different offensive-minded coach with the Packers than Moore. Green Bay would also run 3-4 defenses under McCarthy that didn’t resemble Quinn’s base scheme. There may be a disconnect in the overall game plan, which is better overall for winning games. The Cowboys played better complementary football in the days of Garrett and Rod Marinelli. They were too conservative sometimes then.
It’s no surprise that Dallas has aggressively entered a stark contrast now in search of better results, but it needs to find a middle ground between the two mindsets. That’s a sweet spot that most of the NFC’s reliable Super Bowl contenders have found and the Cowboys are still looking for.
Work harder in a more disciplined game
The Cowboys led the league with 127 penalties accepted against them, even ahead of the Raiders, known for drawing yellow on silver and black over the years. Dallas had been pretty good in this area for the past few seasons, finishing more in the middle of the pack, so it’s a trend that needs to be reversed quickly. Offensive and defensive pass interference calls, ultimate drive killers and drive extenders, respectively, were especially high. That cries out for that offensive line and secondary upgrades.
Dallas had a lot of oversight going to 12-5 and regaining the NFC East title with Prescott. The Cowboys were okay in the division game, going 6-0, but were only 6-5 away from the Eagles, Giants and Washington and just 4-3 at home outside of the division, losing to the Broncos, Raiders, Cardinals. Looking back at his considerable failures during the regular season, that foreshadowed losing to a solid, fundamental, well-coached team like the 49ers.
The Cowboys gave themselves a high floor with Prescott again in 2021. But it will take a while to get to a ceiling that’s on par with more established NFC powerhouses like the 49ers, Buccaneers, Packers and Rams.