The Cowboys got bullied by the 49ers just like everyone outside of Dallas predicted they would, and the result is that Mike McCarthy and the rest of the team are going home to try and figure out how to get better next year. The season may be over for the Cowboys, but their future still shines bright.
That’s because the team has an impressive collection of young talent, featuring their 2021 rookie class that will soon claim the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Even though the season ultimately ended in disappointment, Cowboys fans are left saying “Well, at least we have Micah Parsons.”
Micah Parsons, LB
Micah Parsons is a shoo-in for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and he’ll likely end up in the top three of vote-getters for Defensive Player of the Year as well. He’s just been that good, and he’s done it all year long.
Anyone thinking that wouldn’t continue in the playoffs was mistaken. Parsons had another dominant performance in his young career against the 49ers, even if it isn’t reflected in the box score. He finished with ten tackles and one tackle for loss with no sacks, but Parsons was playing primarily off the ball in an effort by Dan Quinn to use his speed to counteract the 49ers’ outside rushing attack.
It didn’t exactly work, as San Francisco still ran all over the Cowboys, but Parsons was still making an impact. In the first half especially, it seemed as if Parsons made a big play or the defense didn’t make a play at all. He was all over the field, and even got a few pressures on his rare pass rush attempts.
Parsons missed three snaps early in the game when he was evaluated for a concussion, but finished the game out strong. While the Steelers’ T.J. Watt or Browns’ Myles Garrett will likely win the DPOY award over Parsons, this game was an example of why Parsons may be better than those two because of his ability to impact the game even when he’s not rushing the quarterback. The Cowboys have a real gem in this kid.
Kelvin Joseph, CB
Anthony Brown played every single down in this one, which meant Kelvin Joseph was back to his regular special teams role. More than that, actually, as Nahshon Wright was inactive for this one, meaning Joseph tied with Luke Gifford and Darian Thompson for the most special teams snaps.
Going forward, though, Joseph has to be in a competition with Brown for the starting cornerback spot next year. Brown played better than most realize this year, but his limitations have become obvious. Joseph, in a small sample size this year, has flashed some serious potential that could give the Cowboys a nice cornerback tandem for years to come. This may be the last game where Joseph functions primarily as a special teamer.
Osa Odighizuwa, iDL
Against the 49ers’ highly efficient rushing attack, the Cowboys were going to need exceptional play from their interior defensive linemen. Losing Justin Hamilton from their practice squad several weeks ago and Quinton Bohanna being inactive for this game only compounded the problems they’ve been facing since Brent Urban’s season-ending injury.
As for Osa Odighizuwa, it meant the athletic and twitchy pass rusher would need to serve primarily as a run defender this time around. Considering that’s one of his weaknesses, Odighizuwa mostly rotated in and out while Carlos Watkins and Neville Gallimore led the interior defensive line in snaps. Still, Odighizuwa was out there for 45% of the defensive snaps.
He was productive, too, with five tackles, a quarterback hit, and a few pressures. However, Odighizuwa was also the first of two Cowboys to be called for defensive holding, a rarely-called penalty in the NFL. It was the lone blemish on an otherwise solid game for Odighizuwa in which he was asked to do that which he’s not best at. It was a fitting conclusion to his rookie year, which saw Odighizuwa outperform his expectations before hitting a bit of a rookie wall.
Chauncey Golston, EDGE
Chauncey Golston had become a bit of a utility player for Dan Quinn in recent weeks, and that was evident against the 49ers. Most of the year he’s functioned as an athletic edge-setter and an undersized interior pass rusher. Against the 49ers, that wasn’t a good fit for him, so Tarell Basham and Dorance Armstrong played above him in the rotation behind starters DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory.
That meant eight defensive snaps for Golston, second-lowest on the team behind Luke Gifford, who saw the field only when Parsons was temporarily out. As such, it was a quiet day for the rookie, although he proved this season that he can be a productive hybrid player in the trenches for Dallas. With both Gregory and Armstrong set to enter free agency this year, Golston’s solid rookie year may play a role in the Cowboys’ upcoming decisions.
Nahshon Wright, CB
In a bit of a surprise, Nahshon Wright was inactive for this game, as Dallas chose to instead elevate Darian Thompson from the practice squad and fill Wright’s role on special teams.
Going forward, Wright’s status is a little unclear. He’s been one of their best special teamers all year, but both Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis are under contract for next season, along with Trevon Diggs and Joseph returning. Could he compete for a starting role on defense, or is Wright looking at another year as a top special teams player in Dallas?
Jabril Cox, LB
Jabril Cox tore his ACL a while back now, but his services would have been appreciated in this one after Keanu Neal was out with an injury. Between Neal’s average play this year and Leighton Vander Esch’s expiring contract, Cox is looking at a good shot to become a starter - or at least a key contributor - next to Parsons next year. His recovery from the ACL tear, however, looms large.
Josh Ball, OT
Josh Ball was on the injured reserve all year, although his practice window was activated in the final month for Cowboys coaches to get a good look at him. With how poorly the offensive line played against the 49ers, perhaps the coaching staff will look to Ball to compete for a more meaningful role next year.
Simi Fehoko, WR
As has been the case most of the year, Simi Fehoko was inactive in this game. However, both Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson have expiring contracts this year. If Fehoko used his de facto redshirt season properly, he might be able to figure into things on offense next year.
Quinton Bohanna, iDL
Quinton Bohanna was inactive for this game. He didn’t play much his rookie year, as Bohanna’s role was largely to eat up space in the A-gaps on early run downs. To that point, Bohanna had a solid rookie year, giving the Cowboys a large presence at nose tackle that they’ve been missing for a while now.
Israel Mukuamu, S
Israel Mukuamu was added to the injured reserve ahead of this game, ending his season. Like Fehoko, he was inactive most weeks this season, but also has a shot to compete for a bigger role next year. Three of the Cowboys’ four safeties this year - Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, and Damontae Kazee - all have expiring contracts. How they handle those pending free agents could say a lot about how the staff sees Mukuamu.
Matt Farniok, OG
Matt Farniok was inactive for this game, although he spent most of his rookie year blocking for Greg Zuerlein’s kick attempts. Last week against Philadelphia, Farniok got some extended time on offense and showed some juice as a run blocker. Like Ball, Farniok may be set up for a chance at a larger role going into 2022 despite starting this year as an afterthought.