Mike McCarthy insisted all week that the Cowboys would play to win against the Commanders. And they had to, as a loss in Week 18 would render the results of the Eagles and 49ers games meaningless to Dallas and their longshot pursuit of both the division title and the top seed in the NFC.
Well, if that’s what playing to win looks like, then the Cowboys are in serious trouble.
The Cowboys buried themselves in a hole early with poorly executed plays on offense and two major gaffes from their special teams unit. And unlike several other games from earlier in the year, the Cowboys never mounted a comeback, instead limping to a 26-6 loss.
The Commanders were eliminated from the postseason a week ago. They responded by benching Carson Wentz (again) and pivoting to Sam Howell, a fifth-round rookie making his NFL debut. They also placed running back Antonio Gibson on the injured reserve while rookie running back Brian Robinson was ruled out with an injury.
So, the offense of a team with nothing left to play for was featuring a quarterback with zero pass attempts and two running backs who had yet to carry the ball more than 10 times in a game all year. That’s without mentioning the litany of starters or key contributors that were out on defense.
The Commanders barely fielded a team on Sunday while the Cowboys, needing a win, played all their starters. And Dallas got utterly dominated from start to finish. At no point in this game did they look like the better team. It was the first time that’s been true of this team since the season opener against the Buccaneers, who are now next up on the Cowboys’ schedule.
That’s not even the worst part, though. The Cowboys made the right decision to play to win, as it related to playing their starters, but they committed coaching malpractice in how they actually game planned for this one.
Let’s start with the offense, which easily had its worst performance since that Week 1 game. For whatever reason, Kellen Moore got extremely conservative with the game plan, often opting to slam his running backs’ heads into a brick wall on first down repeatedly. In fact, the Cowboys ran the ball on nine of their 23 first downs in the game; it should be noted that nine of their 14 first down pass plays came on two different drives, both of which had the offense running a hurry-up, no-huddle tempo.
This led to the offense being set up in third and long situations at an alarming rate. Of their 17 third down attempts, 11 of them came with more than five yards to go; just two saw the Cowboys needing three yards or less to convert. If you’re wondering why this offense had a season-low 22-2% third down conversion rate, look no further than the Herculean task that was trying to convert on third down in this game.
The Cowboys attempted a grand total of 3 play-action passes (per PFF) vs. the Commanders— Tom Downey (@WhatGoingDowney) January 9, 2023
pair that with the lack of motion, among other things, it really seemed like the Cowboys were trying to be boring + vanilla on offense
Not only was Moore exceedingly conservative in this game, but the actual play selection was extremely bland. It sure felt like the Cowboys’ plan on offense was to tighten up and show very little to the Buccaneers ahead of their Wild Card matchup.
That logic is at least somewhat understandable - even if it ultimately makes no sense considering the Buccaneers can easily watch the other 16 games of the Cowboys’ season for film - but if that was the plan, then why are the Cowboys playing integral players like Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, and Dalton Schultz? If your game plan is more concerned with not tipping your hand for next week, then why risk your most important players getting hurt? Why be conservative with your game plan but not with the players who actually have to execute it?
The defensive side wasn’t much better. Micah Parsons has been very open all season about how his body isn’t built to withstand the physicality of playing primarily on the defensive line, and he needed a club to play a week ago. But Parsons was still out there for 70% of the defensive snaps, and on two different occasions he came up slowly with what ended up being minor injuries.
That’s in stark contrast to the experiment Dan Quinn decided to run in the secondary. Even though Nahshon Wright played well against the Titans, Quinn rotated him with Trayvon Mullen, whom the team claimed off waivers several weeks ago. Not only was Quinn experimenting with Mullen, but he started playing Tyler Coyle - a practice squad safety who made his season debut on Sunday - at slot corner late in the game. Neither experiment went well.
The Trayvon Mullen experiment at outside cornerback opposite Trevon Diggs may be contained to the regular season. He allows a 52-yard deep catch to Terry McLaurin. Had pass interference earlier. Another Cowboys problem area entering playoffs.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) January 8, 2023
Just as with the offense, the defense finds itself in the same conundrum. It’s understandable to use this game - which was almost certain to end up being meaningless - to test some things out and try to find solutions to some problems before the playoffs. But if that’s the mindset these coaches are going into the game with, then rest as many starters as you can. Both DaRon Bland and Jayron Kearse got injured in the game, and Kearse actually came back well after the game was already out of reach. The Cowboys are beyond lucky to come out of this one relatively unscathed.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy: “We played poorly and that’s on me. … We need to practice better than we did last week. … Very disappointing.” pic.twitter.com/HBU0PFcUQR— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) January 9, 2023
This was coaching malpractice all the way around, and both Moore and Quinn are at fault for the way they treated this game. But it starts at the top with McCarthy, who insisted on playing to win, playing his starters the majority of the game, but also allowing his coordinators to treat it like a preseason game. These wholly un-serious game plans from Moore and Quinn only ended up making things that much harder on the players, who were unable to elevate the team past their coaches’ careless decisions.
Some have suggested that this was a bit of 4D chess by McCarthy in an attempt to humble his team right before the playoffs. Hopefully that is not the case, because it would be colossally stupid to put all these players at risk of injury in a game the coaching staff clearly never actually intended to try and win. Even if that wasn’t the intent, it was still a very ill-advised approach to the game by McCarthy and his staff.
At the end of the day, the Cowboys got lucky that their poorly conceived plans didn’t blow up in their faces. Now, they take a relatively healthy team to Florida to try and beat Tom Brady for the first time in franchise history. They’ll need more of that luck - and some good game plans this time around - to avoid yet another early playoff exit.