While four teams punched their tickets to the championship round this weekend, reality set in on just how short the Dallas Cowboys fell of their goals this season. The Green Bay Packers, responsible for sending Dallas home in the Wild Card round by becoming the first to win at AT&T Stadium in 16 tries, gave the top-seeded 49ers all they could handle in a close 24-21 win for San Francisco at home. The 49ers are now in their third straight NFC Championship game under Kyle Shanahan. Many Cowboys fans were hoping/expecting their team to be lining up against Shanahan’s this weekend for a trip to Las Vegas, but they’re left with just the 42-10 regular season loss to the 49ers, as well as two previous playoff exits under Mike McCarthy to San Francisco.
McCarthy’s tenure in Dallas has been met with questions about his job security at every possible turn. The only thing keeping those questions from reaching a fever pitch this offseason is the apparent plan Dallas has in place to not extend McCarthy, but instead let him play out the final year of his contract in what will also be a pivotal year for QB Dak Prescott as well.
This past season was Prescott’s fourth season winning at least 12 regular season games but failing to reach the conference championship game, and third straight year under McCarthy. Over this time, the Cowboys have now seen Brock Purdy go from the last pick in the 2022 Draft to consecutive NFC Championship games (and the fourth in seven years with Shanahan as HC). They’ve lived through McCarthy’s successor in Green Bay, Matt LaFleur, eliminating the Cowboys with a quarterback in his first starting season, before nearly upsetting the 49ers and setting up an all-NFC North championship game at the Lions. The Lions own appearance in the championship game may be the ultimate marker of embarrassment for the Cowboys ongoing streak without playing for a chance to reach the Super Bowl.
The Packers at 49ers Divisional game should scare the Cowboys the most that they’ve lost ground in the NFC. Conversations that have come and gone about Prescott stepping into the ranks of the NFC’s top QBs. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Russell Wilson have left the conference or retired, but the Cowboys are seeing rosters and seasons wasted under McCarthy.
There’s no denying that McCarthy has led some positive changes for the Cowboys by taking over play-calling this season and getting the best statistical seasons out of Prescott and top receiver CeeDee Lamb. The Cowboys offense lacked balance though, leaving them at home to watch other West Coast disciples execute at a level Dallas couldn’t all season - particularly on the road. The Cowboys offense played tight when away from Arlington, falling back on McCarthy’s traditional West Coast style but looking anything but smooth while doing so. Even the Cowboys ability to air it out at home, with Prescott throwing 22 of his 36 touchdowns in eight home wins, looked different in comparison to how the 49ers and Packers more consistently help their young QBs with creative route concepts that create plenty of open space for receivers.
The Cowboys had the opportunity to bring in a new head coach that prioritizes that all-important skill among others if they moved on from McCarthy after his third playoff loss to just one win. Instead, they stuck with the familiar ‘locker room presence’, or ‘leader of men’, and ‘steady press conference voices’ they’ve had in head coaches for some time.
If making a head coaching change after the Packers loss was too reactionary for some Cowboys fans, souring on the defensive leadership of Quinn after 48 points allowed is far less unpopular, and now Dallas is realizing that, seeing Quinn go from one of the first coaches expected to be hired in multiple offseasons to a name still on the market.
The Cowboys overrating their own coaches and personnel has been a consistent problem holding them back, and while another year of McCarthy’s offense with some added talent could easily see this team contend in the NFC East again, this plan loses sight of the fact playoff disappointment feels imminent with this current group.
Meanwhile, the Titans have already gone for a bright offensive mind in Brian Callahan. And similar guys like Bobby Slowik and Ben Johnson are also candidates that teams looking to invest in the next wave of play-callers remain interested in. Slowik orchestrated one of the best seasons by a rookie QB in recent memory with C.J. Stroud and the Texans, while Johnson’s team is still playing this weekend led by Jared Goff reaching new heights for the Lions.
The Cowboys keeping McCarthy is just the first warning sign that this front office and organization will again look to convince the football world that they’re closer to their goals than reality. Just like when they thought they had the next best thing in Kellen Moore, their belief that McCarthy’s offense is the long term answer here does have some merit when looking at his first season as play-caller, but still falls behind the trend of other teams that have lapped them and pushed the Cowboys down the NFC ladder.
With time still to realize this problem and come back with a more aggressive free agency and draft approach, the normal talk of the Cowboys roster coming together well in the following months will be met with some of the harshest criticism of the stagnant culture that holds these rosters back.
Maybe at some point during Divisional weekend some Cowboys followers were able to forget about the Packers loss and enjoy some high-level football being played with seasons on the line, but it likely wasn’t during the late game on Saturday night. That Shanahan vs. LaFleur, Brock Purdy vs. Jordan Love, Christian McCaffrey vs. Aaron Jones matchup that came down to the wire was nothing but a reminder of lost opportunities piling up for a Cowboys team that now finds themselves at a serious crossroads under McCarthy, Prescott, and soon-to-be free agent RB Tony Pollard.
No team in the NFL ever looks the same from year to year, and for better or worse, the 2024 Cowboys are going to be an example of this as they chase not only the Packers, 49ers, and Lions, but any other upstart team willing to not settle for average and take the risks to raise a franchise’s fortune.