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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Gauging the success of the 2022 season

Making sense of a season that had plenty of high points, but still ended in disappointment for the Cowboys.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Commanders
The bottom line is certainly successful, but how do you feel about the results on the field?
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

We are all unhappy about the Dallas Cowboys getting sent home from the playoffs. They failed once again to get out of the divisional round. It has been one season of failure after another for longer than some of you have even been alive.

Our David Howman completely understands that. But Tom Ryle looks at it differently. In the last point/counterpoint of the 2022 season, they explain their takes.

Tom: Many fans and media think this was another dismal flop for the Cowboys. But as wiser people than I have said, winning NFL games is hard. Winning it all is harder. If you only judge a season by whether or not your favorite team hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end, then you are going to almost always going to be miserable, because 31 teams don’t every year.

That perspective would be good to adopt by Dallas fans. Not only is winning in the league hard, building a roster and a coaching staff that can do it is a real struggle. There is the completely artificial constraint of the salary cap, the nepotistic way coaches are hired, and the constant depletion through injury all teams deal with. Add in how some teams are saddled with some meddling and troublesome owners (yes, you know exactly who that shade is thrown at) and a little nuance is needed in our evaluation.

No, the Cowboys did not fulfill all their goals. But they still accomplished some things and deserve credit. On balance, 2022 was actually a successful season, even if we want more for 2023.

David: I’m not about to say that nothing in 2022 was good. After all, Mike McCarthy became the first Cowboys coach this century to make the postseason in consecutive seasons, and they beat Tom Brady in the playoffs, the first time this franchise has ever done that. Oh, and they won their first road playoff game in 30 years. There were certainly a few things to feel good about this year.

The reason it all ultimately feels like a failure to me, as well as others, is the way that things ended. The Cowboys got bullied down the stretch by the San Francisco 49ers, even after they spent their whole offseason trying to get “tougher” after suffering the same fate to the same team a year ago; the 49ers defense once again sat on every shallow route Kellen Moore drew up, knowing the Cowboys didn’t have any legitimate downfield threat so long as they doubled CeeDee Lamb; and the offense fell apart when Tony Pollard went down and the offense had to rely on Ezekiel Elliott, the $90 million man this front office still insists is the straw that stirs the drink despite everyone else knowing his tank has been on E for the last three stops.

Make no mistake about it, this year’s Cowboys team overachieved. Going 4-1 without Dak Prescott was not in the cards after Week 1, and the offense playing as well as it did despite the front office deliberately worsening the receiver corps in the offseason was also unexpected. So, too, was the defense leading the league in takeaways for a second consecutive season and not experiencing any meaningful regression. In a way, the front office got lucky, and they rode that wave until their luck ran out against a competently built team. The bad news for the Cowboys? There’s no accountability for the front office in Dallas, and the same brain-trust that ignored - and even created - this roster’s flaws that San Francisco happily exploited will continue to control the team going forward. I struggle to see how that bodes well for the team.

Tom: Whenever a team falls short, as all but one inevitably do, what their supporters want to see is improvement. From a purely objective viewpoint, the Cowboys had a more successful postseason this time than the year before. That was a step forward. It may have been incremental, but it was still improvement.

I am right with you about the front office, and have felt for some time that the coaching staff has to find a way to win despite them. But Mike McCarthy has shown he can do so twice in a row, and that is with some real injury limitations and the obvious failures in roster building last offseason, almost entirely on offense.

Getting double digit wins in the NFL is in itself a major accomplishment. It is far better than stringing 8-8 seasons together, or 9-8/8-9 now with the 17 game slate. I agree, the 49ers have become the new hurdle they must clear, and the Philadelphia Eagles are going to be a problem for a while, it appears. We face an open question about Kellen Moore being able to get this offense past them. But I strongly believe they made real progress on defense, and Dan Quinn coming back again is a highly significant development. If they shore up the offensive talent and don’t have to rely on Dak Prescott playing error-free ball, I truly think this team can continue to improve.

David: At the end of the day, though, this still comes down to everything having to be perfect for the Cowboys. Dak has to play mistake-free football, and McCarthy has to keep the players mentally focused each week, and Moore has to perfectly compensate for a below average receiving corps, and Quinn has to tinker with the cornerback depth in the final few weeks of the season. It has very little to do with my belief in any of those coaches or players, but everything to do with the fact that this front office would rather create cap space for themselves than make the team’s collective job easier with a more aggressive team building strategy.

The Cowboys have won a lot the last two years, and I generally don’t like complaining about wins, but a closer look at their schedules those two years is a little revealing. In 2021, the Cowboys’ slate of opponents was the seventh easiest across the league based on team DVOA that year; this year, they had the sixth easiest schedule. The wins are nice, but what good is it if you fold once the real competition shows up in the playoffs

If Jerry and Stephen Jones - and Will McClay too, as he’s not immune from criticism here - really wanted to show they’re committed to next year being different, they’d change their ways. The Eagles were aggressive last year in getting A.J. Brown and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, while the 49ers went after Christian McCaffrey during the year. Now they’re both in the NFC Championship Game, something the Cowboys haven’t done since the 1995 season. The one constant during that very, very long drought? The man who signs the checks. Bill Parcells couldn’t win big in spite of Jones, and so far McCarthy is showing the same struggle.

Tom: Improvement needs to happen at the top, certainly, and there are real doubts about that happening. But I argue that McCarthy has shown he is better at overcoming those struggles than anyone since Jimmy Johnson.

We have to wait and see if the ownership can finally make some more aggressive moves in free agency. Then they have to continue to have some hits in the draft, and the coaching staff must do their jobs. It will be another year before we will be able to evaluate their success.

My great hope is that they finally get to that conference championship game. I want more, but that would be a sign things are indeed on an upward trajectory. I tried to take a wait and see stance last year, and frankly, when I try and step back to look at the big picture, I’m not unhappy with the results. Dallas got further than 24 teams in the league. They need to do more, but let’s see how they do. We can give them credit for what they did accomplish while still looking for more.

David: I’m not trying to take credit away from what the team did this year, but it does feel to me that this team maxed out their potential under this front office. Think about it this way: the Green Bay Packers traded away Davante Adams and they posted their first losing season since McCarthy’s last year there. Now, there’s rumors they’re going to lose their quarterback too.

Elsewhere, the Tennessee Titans traded away the aforementioned A.J. Brown and thought they could simply replace his production with a rookie. Sound familiar, Jalen Tolbert? Not only did the Titans miss the playoffs and suffer their first losing season since 2015, but the general manager who decided to trade away Brown was fired before the season even ended. There’s no guarantee the Titans will be better next year because of that change, but there was at least accountability for those who made decisions that hurt the team.

That simply doesn’t exist in Dallas, and it’s a symptom of the owner also being the general manager, as well as having given life to the other top decision makers in the building. Until the people in charge have to worry about being held accountable for their foolish decisions, there’s little reason to hope for things to get any better around here. And that makes it hard to consider this year as some sort of significant step forward.

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