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The McCarthy Chronicles: The Cowboys may just be who they have been for two decades

Maybe this is just who the Cowboys are, and always will be.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Jacksonville Jaguars Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been following along with these weekly McCarthy Chronicles, you know that I have a good bit of faith in Mike McCarthy and think he has built this year’s iteration of the Cowboys into legitimate contenders with a killer instinct. Before we get into the commentary following the team’s loss to the Jaguars, though, let’s revisit my pre-game prediction:

I haven’t been this nervous about a Cowboys game (prior to kickoff, that is) since the Packers. Jacksonville is a really well coached team and they have some extremely talented young pieces on offense and defense that are starting to gel. That’s a recipe for an upset on any given week, and the Cowboys just gave us all a very good reason to worry last week.

To me, this will be a very good test of this team’s resolve. If they come out and play like they have most of the year, Dallas will win this easily. But if they play like they did for 58 minutes against the Texans, they’ll lose and that Christmas Eve game will suddenly mean a lot less. Personally, I believe in Mike McCarthy and his grip on this team, but a loss this week would shake my faith. Until then, though, I’m staying true to blue.

Cowboys win 28-20.

Consider the faith shaken. In McCarthy, that is, not in my predictive abilities. Unfortunately, this game played out all too similarly to that Packers game. Dallas started out strong and was showing they were clearly the better team, leading by three scores at one point. But a calamity of errors in the fourth quarter allowed Jacksonville to tie things up and take it to overtime.

Now, overtime is an extremely dangerous proposition for any NFL team. Despite recent rule changes, overtime still has a sense of the sudden death rule that allows for the inherent randomness of football to reign supreme. All it takes is one weird bounce (of which there are plenty in this sport) for the game to suddenly be over. Against Green Bay, it was DaRon Bland falling down and allowing Allen Lazard a huge catch-and-run that set up the field goal. This week, it was a pass to Noah Brown that hit him square in the hands and, inexplicably, bounced into a defender’s hands who then returned it 52 yards to end the game.

That’s why smart teams do their best to ensure the game never makes it to overtime in the first place. Just take these Jaguars, who a few weeks ago scored an upset win over the Ravens by going for two at the end of the game instead of kicking the extra point to tie and head to overtime. Doug Pederson understood that it’s much harder to control things when you get to overtime, so he opted to decide the fate of the game on one play in regulation. Win or lose, he knew his team at least had control over that play, something they wouldn’t be afforded in overtime.

The Cowboys, unfortunately, are not a smart team. McCarthy has undoubtedly done plenty of good in his near three years in Dallas, and he’s unquestionably an upgrade over his successor; in fact, McCarthy is the first Cowboys coach this century to make the postseason in consecutive seasons. But McCarthy is not without his flaws, either, and they’re starting to shine through.

For example, the Cowboys have been flirting with disaster almost as long as they’ve been flirting with Odell Beckham Jr., and they’ve done so in the midst of an easy stretch of games. Dallas throttled the Vikings and then handled an injured Giants team on a short week. That led to three games against the bad AFC South, which many anticipated to be three easy wins for the Cowboys, who looked to be peaking at the right time.

For three quarters, they tried really hard to lose to the Colts; a dominant 33-0 fourth quarter put some really expensive lipstick on that pig. Then came the Texans game, where Dallas needed a 98-yard touchdown drive to avoid being the second team all year to lose to Houston. The one team who has lost to them? The Jaguars, who just overcame a 17-point deficit to beat the Cowboys in overtime.

Everyone knew that these Jaguars were not to be trifled with. Pederson is too good of a coach, and Trevor Lawrence too talented of a quarterback, to let them hang around the way Dallas did with Indianapolis and Houston. The hope was that the Cowboys would have learned from their scare last week to get an early lead and then keep their foot on the gas. That’s what led to their big win over the Vikings the last time they blew a big lead.

Well, they got the first part right. The Cowboys led 21-7 at halftime, but they settled for field goals twice to start the third quarter and then gave up three unanswered touchdowns. Simply put, this team took their foot off the gas and once again refused to play a complete game. Just like in Green Bay, they showed that they were the superior team but then played down to the opponent.

This has been a recurring problem for the Cowboys for decades now. After that Vikings game, though, it felt like McCarthy had finally changed things. The Colts game offered some concern but was easy to overlook; the Texans game was worrisome, but could be washed away with a strong response against Jacksonville. Well, they responded alright, but the answer was not what anyone hoped for.

There’s still time for things to turn around, but right now it’s painfully clear that McCarthy has not, in fact, changed this team for good. They’re still too soft, too unfocused, and too susceptible to playing down to their opponent’s level. Maybe this is just who they are, and who they’ll always be. But when talking about the 2022 Dallas Cowboys, they have so far shown no reason to expect any change in result once the playoffs begin.

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