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With step forward in playoffs but back in NFC East, Cowboys have work to do to reclaim division

New York and Washington have another offseason to bridge the gap to the 12-win Cowboys, while Philadelphia tries to stay in front.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys aren’t known for stringing together successful seasons, which on the surface makes this last campaign a positive one. The Cowboys won 12 games again, went to the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time since 2006-07, and took the step of winning a road playoff game for the first time since 1992.

These numerical stats were thrown around plenty leading up to the Divisional Round against the 49ers, but by the end of four quarters the only number that continues to matter is 1995. That season still stands as the Cowboys last NFC Championship appearance and Super Bowl, and the standard of what counts as a successful season in Dallas hasn’t changed since.

We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Hidden Yardage on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

This makes it especially concerning that the Cowboys winning 12 games in 2022 only earned them second place in a division that hasn’t had a repeat winner in over a decade. This was a mark good enough for the top spot in the division by three games just the year before. The rest of the NFC East drafted as if Dallas was the team to beat while the Cowboys looked further ahead at a playoff rematch with the 49ers.

This plan both worked and backfired at the same time. The Cowboys deserve praise for being better prepared for the latest playoff matchup with the 49ers, playing as a more physical team against the run and being better prepared for their interior pressure. This game still came down to a familiar position the Cowboys have put themselves in under Dak Prescott, relying on the advantage he gives them at the most influential position on the field to be enough.

Not only was this not enough against Brock Purdy and San Francisco, but it also didn’t have the same effect in division play for Dallas, which lost to Jalen Hurts and the Eagles as well as Sam Howell and the Commanders. If it’s true that both the Cowboys and their immediate rivals all took a step up this season, the question of the offseason for this front office becomes how well-positioned they are to take yet another step.

It may be slightly too early to quantify this with any pending free agent names or draft strategy, but the fact the Cowboys are facing eerily similar personnel decisions to last offseason is not a great start. Jerry Jones said himself at the end of last season that he doesn’t want to wait until the point his team is at now to talk about how to improve, but the same glaring positions of need persist at wide receiver and offensive line. By prioritizing the draft as much as they do, the Cowboys miss out on the improvements that teams using free agency and trades make in a hurry.

With the Eagles looking to sustain success with a stacked roster around Jalen Hurts, and the Giants ahead of schedule under Brian Daboll and Daniel Jones, the Cowboys have their work cut out just to keep pace in the division. The positive Mike McCarthy trend would say he’s on pace to win an additional playoff game next season and break the championship game drought, while the negative says the Cowboys will fall another spot in the East and be in danger of missing the playoffs. A veteran coach like McCarthy should know the importance of capitalizing when you can in the playoffs, now at risk of losing both of his coordinators to head coaching jobs. This will be a telling offseason for McCarthy to prove he has the organizational influence to have this team take a more “all-in” approach.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Commanders Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

McCarthy’s Packers were one-and-done in the playoffs twice following his Super Bowl win in 2010, and back to back misses in 2017 and 2018 ended his time in Green Bay. The Cowboys still have a window with a strong nucleus of young talent, but need to show early this offseason they’re motivated to learn from mistakes that have now cost them two seasons in a row. Having their positions of need clearly cut out for them again should set Dallas up for a strong offseason.

Free agency and the draft are still a long ways away, but first the Cowboys must watch one of their division rivals host a playoff rival in an NFC Championship game that the organization had such high hopes of playing in just last Sunday.

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