The conversation all week leading up to the game was focused on how the 49ers posed a unique and specific challenge to the Cowboys. Many people pointed out that head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense was one of the most efficient and innovative rushing attacks in the game, while Dallas struggled to stop the run most of the year. The Cowboys were favored at home, but by the smallest margin of any Wild Card team. Plenty of talking heads went so far as to pick the 49ers to get the upset win.
Now that all of those things turned out to be completely accurate, there seems to be a sense that the Cowboys should be considered a laughingstock for having lost. Logically speaking, this doesn’t really track. We knew the 49ers were a bad matchup for the Cowboys, and we knew that if San Francisco got an early lead that it would be bad news for the home team. So why is everyone acting so surprised that the exact thing that was predicted came true? The simplest answer is that everything is bigger in Texas, even the overreactions.
Whether it’s an overreaction or not doesn’t really matter, though, because the playoffs continue while the Cowboys are left sitting on their couches. Jerry Jones may be able to ensure that those couches are really comfortable, but that’s about it; one even has to wonder if these theoretical couches are directly in the path of the bright, shining sun too.
For as many twists and turns and generally absurd occurrences as this game had on Sunday afternoon, it felt all too familiar to Cowboys fans. The way in which the dagger was plunged into our collective hearts was certainly new, but the end result was the same. The Cowboys had a huge opportunity right in front of them to prove that they’ve turned the corner, and they just failed to take advantage of it.
So what happened? This was the reason Mike McCarthy was brought to Dallas, after all. Jason Garrett did a lot of good things for the Cowboys, but his inability to come through in the big moments - losing three straight win-and-you’re-in games from 2011-2013, losing to the Packers in both 2014 and 2016, and losing to the Rams in 2018 - ultimately cost him.
McCarthy, on the other hand, is a proven winner. He’s one of only 18 head coaches in NFL history to win at least ten playoff games in his career, and he has a Super Bowl ring. The narrative that he was carried by Aaron Rodgers was always silly, considering we don’t have similar conversations about Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, or Andy Reid. The fact is that McCarthy, unlike Garrett and even Wade Phillips, knew how to win at the highest level because he’s done it before.
All that got the Jones family and the millions of fans watching on Sunday was a new way of accomplishing the same heartbreak and disappointment. There were certainly moments throughout the game where it was evident that McCarthy’s team is better than previous iterations of these Cowboys. A quick list:
- After getting gashed for 208 yards and 16 points in the first half, the defense held San Francisco to just 120 yards and one touchdown in the second half
- The Cedrick Wilson catch-and-pitch play, ran twice in this game, is the kind of creativity these teams lacked under Garrett
- The fake punt worked perfectly at the perfect moment, and the ensuing play was the kind of mind games that Bill Belichick often employs, even if it didn’t work for Dallas
- The controversial QB draw at the end was a brilliant idea that gives the Cowboys a realistic shot at the endzone if Dak Prescott only slides a second or two earlier
- Despite being criticized at the time, McCarthy’s decision to kick the field goal early in the fourth quarter is the sole reason why Dallas was in a position to win the game with a touchdown at the end, as opposed to needing two touchdowns and two two-point conversions just to tie the game
All of these were signs that, when evaluating process over results, this coaching staff is good at their jobs. All of the trick plays were things that have been practiced and planned for, which is a major departure from the coach who didn’t have his players practice with a wet football before a game that was expecting a torrential downpour.
That’s why it gives me a moment of pause to utter the sentiment that the players just needed to execute better.
It’s true, though. The Cowboys were the better team, and their ability to storm back and make things close in the end reflects that. Yet they didn’t play like the better team from the very start, the fault for which falls at least partially at the feet of McCarthy. However, unlike Garrett, we have a pretty large sample size of what McCarthy can do outside of Dallas. Did he have talented teams in Green Bay? Definitely. But he had a talented team this year in Dallas and won zero playoff games, something he did only three times in nine playoff appearances with two different quarterbacks in Green Bay.
So was this just a result of the Cowboys running into the one Wild Card team best equipped to beat them, or is it the same old Cowboys doing the same old Cowboys shenanigans. We should all hope the answer is the former. That would leave us still with some validity to those feelings in October that this team really was different, and that McCarthy really had changed the culture enough.
If the answer is the latter, though, then what is the solution? During the lowest point of the 2020 season, I wrote a lengthy piece about the deep, structural issues of the franchise that ultimately fall at the feet of Jerry and Stephen Jones. For most of this season, the Cowboys had me convinced that McCarthy had managed to overcome that. But if this was more than just a bad matchup in the first round of the playoffs, if this really is a systemic issue that isn’t going away any time soon, then what can be done to change it?
The answer eludes me, and it’s probably not worth spending too much time pondering it anyway. For now, the Cowboys simply have to hope that isn’t the case, and that everyone was right all week long in saying that the 49ers were a bad matchup for them.
Only one team ends the NFL season with a win. We know that this year it won’t be America’s Team, but that doesn’t preclude them from doing the thing next year. After having a bit of a write-off year in 2020, McCarthy showed this year that he can build a darn good football team. Now we get to see how he adapts from this season and what the 2022 Cowboys look like. That will offer us the best understanding of whether the McCarthy hire in Dallas was really worth it.