This was it. This was about as high stakes a game you’re going to get in the first week of October. And the Cowboys made it that way by embracing the hype around their Sunday Night Football matchup with the 49ers. CeeDee Lamb called it a measuring stick, and Mike McCarthy admitted that it was more than just a game. This would be the game where the Cowboys showed who they really are.
Apparently, who the Cowboys really are is a JV squad. From the opening seconds of the game, they got bullied and battered by the 49ers. The defense gave up a touchdown on the opening drive, and they only forced two three-and-outs in the whole first half. The offense totaled two yards on their first two drives before fumbling on the first play of the third drive. And things only got worse from there.
The Cowboys knew what the deal was in this game. They’ve faced the 49ers in each of the last two seasons, losing to them in the playoffs both times. They know the coaches, the schemes, and the players. Most importantly, they knew what a win would have meant for this team.
So how did they come out and get blasted like this? After the Cardinals loss, it was easy to explain it away: the Cowboys overlooked a severely inferior opponent, and they got burned. That’s not who they are, and they’ll be better. It even seemed correct after the Cowboys handed Bill Belichick the worst loss of his career a week later.
This isn’t that game. Not a single member of the Cowboys organization overlooked the 49ers. Rather, they were counting down the days for this one. Everyone was waiting for this game, and so much thought and preparation was put into it. They’ve dominated three different teams this year and looked like one of the NFL’s best, so long as they’re locked in, and it was clear that the Cowboys would be locked in for the 49ers.
That’s why this is such an inexcusable loss. The team was locked in and they still got stomped on national television. This game laid bare the harsh reality that the Cowboys are not legitimate contenders in the NFC. Jerry Jones said earlier in the week that the road to the Super Bowl (from the NFC, that is) would go through San Francisco. Well, the Cowboys went to San Francisco and made it very clear they are not headed to the Super Bowl this year.
So what does that mean for McCarthy? He was brought to Dallas for one thing and one thing only: to win a Super Bowl. Jason Garrett was constantly learning on the job, and he had minimal success in the playoffs. McCarthy has been there and done that, and he has a Lombardi Trophy on his bookshelf. He came to Dallas with over 13 years of experience as a head coach. He knows what to do because he’s done it before.
By most accounts, McCarthy has done well, too. Last year, he became the first Cowboys coach to win 12 games in consecutive seasons since Barry Switzer in the 90’s. His teams have had unprecedented success the last two years, with the 49ers being their only real obstacle. That led to McCarthy doubling down on himself, taking over play-calling on offense this year after Kellen Moore struggled in both games against a very good 49ers defense.
Comparatively, Moore’s track record against San Francisco would’ve been an improvement over Sunday night. McCarthy called a poor game, and Dak Prescott had a very off night, and the finally healthy offensive line got abused by Nick Bosa and that loaded defensive line from start to finish. Nothing went right on either side of the ball, but McCarthy was especially bad against a defense that he needed to succeed against.
It’s hard not to overreact to this game given all of this context, but there also is the fact that it’s just one game. McCarthy’s offense had been performing very well prior to this game too, with red zone scoring being the only real problem. But they were moving the chains, they were scoring points, and Prescott was limiting his turnovers. Just about everything they were trying to do on offense was working through four games, so is it really fair to declare the end of days for McCarthy and this offense after just one excruciatingly bad game?
It’s hard to say, truly. One game doesn’t sink a season, especially in Week 5, and the Cowboys are notorious for bouncing back strong after a loss. However, it’s really hard to imagine this Cowboys team being anything more than just an also-ran in the playoffs after that pitiful showing.
And if we get to the end of four years of previous Super Bowl winner Mike McCarthy, and the Cowboys still haven’t managed to become something more, then how much longer should McCarthy stick around? We’re still way too early to be seriously having that conversation, but this loss could serve as the final crack in the glass for McCarthy and his Cowboys tenure if things don’t get turned around quickly.