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5 final takeaways about the 2021 Dallas Cowboys: A once hopeful season ends early again

This is a Dallas Cowboys team we will remember for years to come, but not for joyful reasons.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A playoff loss is a pain unlike any other. The hope that we had been building up all season comes to a screeching halt.

The reality is that the 2021 Dallas Cowboys will be remembered as a special team, playing at a Super Bowl level going into the bye week. But at the same time, we will never be able to grasp what went wrong over the back half of the year. So, what do we know about one of the more confusing Dallas teams in recent history?

The Cowboys struggle to control the line of scrimmage

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

There is no aspect of this team more confusing than the offensive and defensive lines. On paper, the roster did not lack talent, and they would occasionally live up to their potential. But when they struggled, there was no hope of a Cowboys victory.

Neither the offensive nor defensive line is in any way a liability. By PFF grading, the Cowboys finished as the second-best run-blocking team, the second-best pass-blocking team, and the seventh-best team in the pass rush. But both units were inconsistent at best against good teams.

It happened against the Cardinals, and we saw it again on Sunday afternoon. The Cowboys offensive line allowed a season-high 25 quarterback pressures and tied their season-high of five sacks allowed.

Compare this to what the Dallas defensive line did, generating eleven pressures with no sacks. Granted, Jimmy Garoppolo did not throw as frequently as Dak Prescott did, but the San Francisco 49ers thoroughly dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

This has to be a focus in the offseason. Assuming the Cowboys can re-sign Randy Gregory, they need to add more speed at linebacker and another defensive interior player to stop the run. Leighton Vander Esch played great over the back half of the year, but he is not the player the Cowboys need right now.

For the offensive line, maybe it is as simple as setting a lineup early and gaining consistency with your front five.

However, the sad truth is that the Cowboys have to start thinking about Tyron Smith’s replacement. Dallas might kickoff next season with three new faces starting on the offensive line, and hopefully, that is enough to give Prescott some time in big games.

We know that Dak is not good enough to overcome abysmal offensive line play. This is not a criticism because 99% of quarterbacks can’t either. But if the Cowboys want to contend, they have to prioritize winning at the line of scrimmage. Because in 2021, they couldn’t do it when it mattered.

Dallas is undisciplined, and it ended their season

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Contrary to what several Cowboys players might think, the referees were never out to get the Dallas Cowboys. The final play was unfortunate, but Dallas had several opportunities to win the game before the last drive but couldn’t capitalize due to their own mistakes.

It was an issue all year, and it ended a once hopeful season. Let’s review just how bad the Cowboys were at committing penalties:

  • Penalties per game: 7.8 (1st)
  • Penalty yards per game: 66.2 (1st)
  • Penalty first downs allowed per game: 1.8 (15th)
  • Penalties per play: .06 (1st)

Dallas will not be contending for a Super Bowl anytime soon unless this is fixed. There is no scenario where you beat four of the best teams in the NFL by gifting them 66 free yards per game, on top of two first downs.

The issue with offensive penalties is that it leaves no room for error. When Dallas committed a holding penalty or a false start, and then Dak takes a sack, you might as well punt at that point. If every other facet of this team were perfect, maybe the penalties don’t become a significant issue.

But this team is not perfect; they had their flaws, which means that penalties are drive-killers.

We will have to swallow this pill all offseason, but maybe if the Cowboys were a disciplined football team, this year could have been different. But they got in their own way, and it ultimately ended the season.

Dak’s ceiling continues to be a question mark

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

This will likely become a topic debated heavily throughout the offseason. However, while it is easy to bring up contracts and financials, we must remember that Dak Prescott is still an above-average quarterback, even in a slump.

With that said, there will likely be two groups that emerge during the offseason:

  • Group A: Believe that Dak was over-performing during the first five weeks of 2020 and the first six weeks of 2021. He is a quarterback that can flash at times but will not consistently carry a team.
  • Group B: Believe that, before the injury during the final play of the Patriots game, Dak had put up MVP-caliber numbers in his previous 11 games. The injury affected him more than we know, and he is still an elite quarterback.

The truth probably falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, but both sides have a valid argument. Because here is the truth; we don’t know what Dak Prescott is truly capable of yet. That is frustrating within itself because it has now been five and a half seasons with Prescott under center.

But if we have to label it at this point, here is how we should view our QB1: Dak is a player that can shoulder the burden if need be, but Dallas should not consistently count on it. He will not single-handedly lead a team to a Super Bowl on his talent alone.

But that is okay; there are only three or four quarterbacks in the NFL right now where that is reasonably true. Dak is well above average, and if the pieces around him are right, he can be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But it will take a complete team, even more talented than the 2021 Dallas Cowboys.

There is still hope that an entire offseason to rehabilitate and train will revitalize Dak. But here is the bottom line: Prescott will have to return to weeks one through six Dak Prescott, or Dallas will have to build a dominant team with excellent leadership.

The defense is a few pieces away from being truly special

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

For a little more optimism, the Dallas defense surprised even the most hopeful Cowboys fan in 2021. This complete turnaround is a large part of why the Cowboys were competing in the postseason.

Here is where the Dallas defense finished by various metrics:

  • EPA per play: 3rd
  • DVOA: 2nd
  • Weighted DVOA: 1st
  • Points per game allowed: 7th
  • PFF: 13th

The Cowboys possessed a top ten defense by nearly every metric, and the argument could be made for top three. However, while the defense was good enough to carry the team through the back half of the season, they had their shortcomings.

Namely, the rushing defense remained a weak spot throughout the season. Because if we look at the same metrics as above by rushing defense only, it seems a bit different:

  • EPA per play: 20th
  • DVOA: 14th
  • Weighted DVOA: 16th
  • PFF: 27th

This goes to the point earlier regarding controlling the line of scrimmage. Neville Gallimore, Brent Urban, and Osa Odighizuwa are all great players. However, the rushing defense would be significantly improved if the Cowboys could add a game-changing defensive tackle and speed at linebacker (outside of Micah Parsons).

This would vault the Dallas defense from elite to season-changing. Even without takeaways, opposing offenses would be unable to move the ball against the Cowboys. This would alter the outlook for 2022 and maybe give Prescott the team he needs.

Out of pain, hope abounds

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

If there is one sentence that Cowboys fans are tired of hearing, it is “we can look forward to next season.” It always hurts to hear after a loss because this was supposed to be the year, but it is true once again.

When the season started, the Dallas Cowboys were tied for the league’s seventh youngest defense and tied for the sixth youngest offense. This is an incredibly youthful team, and these younger players are outproducing most veterans.

Let’s review some of the players on their rookie contracts: Tony Pollard, CeeDee Lamb, Connor McGovern, Tyler Biadasz, Terence Steele, Micah Parsons, Kelvin Joseph, Trevon Diggs, Donovan Wilson, Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, and Trysten Hill.

Dallas’ quarterback was dealing with a shoulder and calf injury throughout the year, in addition to the season-ending ankle injury from 2020. We have already discussed it, and maybe it wasn’t as large of an issue as we might want to believe. But an extra offseason of getting healthier can only benefit Dak.

It hurts for now, and there is no excusing what happened on Sunday afternoon. The Cowboys were the better team, and they were thoroughly out-coached and outplayed; they deserved to lose the game. It is a devastating way for the season to end.

But at least there is a glimmer of hope for next season.

It is moments such as these that make life difficult as a Cowboys fan—the promise of a different outcome, the inevitable disappointment, and then the hope that arises again. We fall into the trap every time.

But we shouldn’t have it any other way. Our standards are higher than most other fanbases, rightly or wrongly; it is a Super Bowl or bust for the Dallas Cowboys. Next season we will be ready to believe again, but it is only pain for now.