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Cowboys at 49ers: The dimensions of a disaster

If you are easily disturbed, avert your eyes.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
When all you can do is look on and wonder what is happening.
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have twelve games to play. They have the time and the opportunity to figure things out and still make the playoffs.

That is the most optimistic thing you can say after the San Francisco 49ers absolutely dominated the Cowboys on Sunday night. It was so bad, there is hardly anything helpful to be learned from the stats. It is hard to talk about what needs to be fixed when the flaws encompass nearly everything. In looking through the numbers from the game, I came up with only two rather pitiful positives. Brandon Aubrey continued his streak of made kicks, including a 50 yard field goal, and Johnathan Hankins broke up two passes from his DT spot.

Everything else is, well, crap.

This was a stunning collapse of both the offense and defense for Dallas. They couldn’t even muster 200 yards of total offense, finishing with 197. Meanwhile the San Francisco offense seemed to move the ball and score at will on multiple drives, ending up with 421 yards. That is more or less what you’d expect from the score. Kyle Shanahan and Steve Wilks completely outcoached Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn.

We have to start with the coaches. This was a total systemic failure. McCarthy’s Texas Coast offense was impotent and inept, despite the much awaited debut of the full starting offensive line for the Cowboys. Meanwhile, the team that invented the West Coast offense completely baffled Quinn’s defense. The stars for the 49ers shone brightly in the game, while none of Dallas’ seemed to be there to play football.

Whatever the coaching staff needs to do to fix things, they first need to start with long, hard looks in the mirror. Things went dreadfully wrong in the biggest game of the season for the Cowboys, and when the mistakes and failures are so pervasive, you have to look to the top of the organization.

There were some comments on social media about laying this at the feet of Jerry Jones and how he runs the organization, but it is hard to see how he is responsible for this. This is, on paper, one of the best rosters in the league. McCarthy has led the team to back-to-back 12-win seasons, which is a lot more difficult than most appreciate. Quinn has been called a genius at times.

No, this one has little to nothing to do with the owner and general manager. The team went to the Bay Area completely unprepared. Shanahan is seen as a genius in his own right, but it is still baffling how badly Quinn’s defense played. Of course, you can say exactly the same for the offense.

Let’s look at the two leaders of the team. Micah Parsons came into the game being touted as one of the best defensive players in the NFL, only to be absolutely neutralized by San Francisco. And by having the answer for him, the 49ers offense shut down the entire pass rush. Brock Purdy was only sacked one time. He would complete 17 of 24 passes for 252 yards and four touchdowns. There were two scoring drives when he went four for four. That in turn set up the running game. Parsons was visibly frustrated at times as he repeatedly failed to have any impact on the game, and would be banged up in a collision with Leighton Vander Esch, with the latter leaving the game with a neck injury.

Meanwhile, Dak Prescott was just flat bad. He went 14 of 24 for 152 yards and the lone TD scored. His worst stat was his three interceptions. After nearly silencing the criticism from last season about how many picks he threw, he reawakened all of it with one dismal failure.

When your biggest stars on both sides of the ball are effectively erased from the game, you are seldom going to win, and a complete humiliation like this one becomes much more likely.

Meanwhile, the offensive performance by San Francisco was a story of spreading the wealth. There were no 100-yard performers, just a bunch of people contributing. George Kittle led all receivers with just 67 yards on three catches. They all just happened to be scores. But Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel both had over 50 yards. Running the ball, it was also a case of spreading the load. Dallas actually did a good job of keeping Christian McCaffrey under control, holding him to 2.7 yards per carry. Jordan Mason was more than willing to take up the slack, averaging 6.9 yards per carry on his way to a total of 69.

This seems to be a real contrast to what was going on with the Cowboys. CeeDee Lamb was once again kept under control by the defense, and as has happened before he seemed visibly upset by something, although it is hard to say exactly what. Jake Ferguson was a rare member of the offense that looked good when targeted, but with constant pressure on Prescott, including three sacks, drives could not be sustained. Neither Michael Gallup nor Brandin Cooks made any significant contributions. Prescott was badly off target on many throws, including at least a couple of his three picks. KaVontae Turpin gave us one bright spot with his touchdown reception, but was injured later and had to leave the game.

Defensively, the 49ers had multiple standouts, led by linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. They combined for thirteen tackles, two sacks, three tackles for a loss, two QB hits, an interception, two pass breakups, and one forced fumble. Nick Bosa was Prescott’s chief tormentor in the backfield, with a half sack and four QB hits. This was a pitiful performance for the Dallas offense, particularly the offensive line.

One issue that did not show up for the Cowboys was the inability to score in the red zone, but that was because they had exactly zero trips inside the 20. Defensively, they allowed the Niners to score TDs on four of their five trips, with the sole stop being on the fumble forced by Jourdan Lewis, yet another player to be banged up later. One recurring problem that came roaring back was penalties. It was not the numbers so much, as only six were accepted by San Francisco. It was more timing. Dallas had three flags on the first 49ers possession to set the tone for the game. And three of the penalties gave first downs to the opponent, usually negating what would have been a third-down stop.

I could go on and on, but the numbers all paint a simple picture. The Cowboys were obviously the inferior team Sunday night, and it was pervasive. It is almost impossible to point to anything specific that can be done to prepare for the next game against the Los Angeles Chargers, another dangerous offense, this one led by Justin Herbert and called by Kellen Moore. There is little cause for optimism. The main question now is whether this is the start of a bad decline, or whether this team can figure things out during the coming bye week after the Chargers game. It’s going to be hard, especially with the multiple injuries that accumulated in the last game.

What is really disturbing is that this is the second game out of the five played so far where this team came unraveled. The pattern so far is that they are completely different teams when they have a lead from the incompetence they display whenever they fall behind. It’s not time to give up on Dallas just yet. But the possibility that time is coming for 2023 is now a real one.

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