Last week’s game against the Broncos was tough to stomach, but not something we’re unfamiliar with. Over the last two decades or so, it’s become commonplace - almost expected - to see a hot Cowboys team get shellacked by a much worse team.
What we’re not used to seeing, though, is the team responding the way they did this time around. Dallas thrashed the Falcons in every way imaginable, winning by 40 points. It was so bad that Atlanta pulled their starters before we had even reached the fourth quarter. And it sent a message to the NFL: Denver didn’t figure anything out, the Cowboys just beat themselves.
You’d be forgiven for having waited to see until believing, though. Usually these kinds of losses just turn into an extended stretch of letdowns for Dallas. It was especially common under Jason Garrett. His first full year as head coach saw a 7-4 team drop one in overtime to the mediocre Cardinals after Garrett iced Dan Bailey. The next week, they lost to a Giants team that had lost their previous four games. The Cowboys lost two of their remaining three games from that point and missed out on the postseason.
A similar problem arose in the 2013 season. At 7-5, the Cowboys marched into Soldier Field to take on a Bears team starting backup quarterback Josh McCown, and the Cowboys got blown out. A week later, they lost to another backup quarterback, as Mike McCarthy’s Packers beat them in Dallas with Matt Flynn. A win over Washington the next week was erased by the Week 17 loss to the Eagles and they once again missed the postseason.
This issue became a recurring problem in each of Garrett’s last three years with the team. The 2017 season featured the Adrian Clayborn game that kicked off a dismal three-game skid that effectively erased their playoff chances after starting out 5-3. While the 2018 season ended in the playoffs, the Cowboys responded to their 23-0 drubbing by the Colts with consecutive one-score wins over bad Buccaneers and Giants teams. Then the 2019 season featured two different three-game losing streaks that made up two-thirds of the team’s losses that year.
This painful trip down memory lane is meant to reinforce just how rare it’s been lately to see these Cowboys respond strongly, or even at all, after losing games they should’ve won. Not only did the Cowboys win, but they did so in convincing fashion. A week after everything went wrong for them, everything went exactly right and they came away with a massive win.
There are so many individuals that deserve credit for this response, but the head coach deserves a big shoutout. Entering the bye week, the story of the Cowboys’ season was a team that just looked different. Cowboys teams of old wouldn’t have come so close to beating the reigning Super Bowl champs or holding the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year to just 17 points, and they definitely wouldn’t have pulled out an overtime win in Gillette Stadium. Not only were they winning the close games they usually lose, but the Cowboys were blowing out bad teams they typically played down to in years prior.
At the time, some of us were giving credit to McCarthy and the culture shift he’s accomplished during his second year in Dallas. McCarthy has erased the country club mentality that’s permeated this franchise for a long time, and replaced it with a workmanlike win-at-all-costs culture. It was clearly working.
Then Dallas comes out of the bye and goes on the road to beat the Vikings without Dak Prescott. That game was a massive endorsement of the mentality McCarthy has instilled here, but it ultimately resulted in an overconfident Cowboys team letting go against Denver. That made this game against the Falcons the biggest test yet for McCarthy’s regime. It’s easy to feel confident you can pull out a tough win when you’ve already won so many games in a row. But how you respond to a demoralizing loss like the Broncos game speaks volumes.
Well, we got our answer. McCarthy mentioned earlier in the week that he struck a balance between writing the loss off as the team having an off day and picking out things to improve upon. It clearly resonated with the players, all of whom looked significantly better this time around.
That message came from the top, and so did the message of going for the throat against Atlanta. After failing on two fourth down-attempts early against Denver, McCarthy was unafraid to keep the same aggressive approach against Atlanta. It worked this time, just like everything else. And when the Falcons got the ball back with a minute left in the first half, McCarthy used up all three of his timeouts to get the ball back. He wanted to score again because his players understood the message: nothing in this league is guaranteed, so you have to leave no doubt every single Sunday.
McCarthy won a championship with this mentality before. He’s trying to do the same in Dallas. And while there’s still a lot of games left on the schedule, it’s clear that these Cowboys are in the best position to do just that.