FRISCO, Texas – Time to pick up the pieces with The Star suddenly turning pretty quiet with the season having come to a close yet again short of every season's yearly goal.
Win a Super bowl.
At least get to the NFC Championship.
Yet, once again here the Cowboys are, player exit interviews mostly over.
Player exit physicals mostly over.
The pain of losing 19-12 to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs still quite raw. Likely will be for quite some time. Never is easy to go 100 mph from the last week in July through the first 15 days of the 2023 New Year then all coming to a screeching halt.
After the Feb. 12 Super Bowl, things will start kicking up. Franchise tagging players runs from Feb. 21-March 7. Teams can start contacting free agents and negotiating from March 13-15. And the new league year commences at 3 p.m. March 15, with the draft a distance away, April 27. All be here before we know it.
So, buckle up, here we go, have a lot of ground to cover.
- Nothing Is Free: According to the Cowboys, they have 20 unrestricted free agents and two restricted free agents. Most prominent are running back Tony Pollard, tight end Dalton Schultz (franchised during the 2022 season), safety Donovan Wilson, cornerback Anthony Brown and kicker Brett Maher. Pollard could be looking at a franchise tag, the Cowboys certainly wanting to keep him. Tagging Schultz two consecutive years would mean a 20 percent increase from 2022, so $14.36 million in 2023. Brown will be coming off a ruptured Achilles, so that will impact his market value. But the one person seemingly falling through the cracks is Leighton Vander Esch, the linebacker coming off what could have been a Pro Bowl season, playing 65 percent of the snaps, only because missing nearly all of four games with a pinched nerve in his shoulder. Yet LVE finished second on the team with 100 tackles, just eight behind the leader Wilson. Said Cowboys VP of player personnel Will McClay Monday Night on Cowboys Hour, "I remember talking to Leighton right before we drafted him (2018), 'Where do you see yourself in five years,' standard question I ask, and he said, 'Being the captain of this team and leading them to the Super bowl.' And that still burns inside of him. And to see him progress and to go through what he went through the scare and then come back on the field and be even better, he's grown even more so in my mind because of that." Franchise problem here, this projected $20.9 million tag is inflated by those passing rushing outside linebackers. So, we'll see, probably trying to sign him to a long-term deal since the franchise projection at running back for say Pollard is just $10.1 million
- Super Defense: Couldn't have asked for more from the Cowboys defense in the playoff game against San Francisco, holding the Niners to just 19 points. You realize that after the Niners lost those back-to-back games to Atlanta and Kansas City and now have gone on a 12-game winning streak, the only team holding them to fewer than those 19 points was the Saints, losing 13-0 to San Fran. In seven of the other 10 games San Francisco scored at least 31 points.
- POY Candidates: AP has announced their various Player Of Year candidates, with Micah Parsons among the top three vote getters for Defensive Player Of Year, along with the Niners Nick Bosa and KC's Chris Jones. Bosa (18½ sacks) and Jones (15½) had more than Parsons (13 ½) but Parsons should get more brownie points for his versatility playing linebacker and his 69 QB pressures. Thought maybe OT Tyler Smith would get some consideration for NFL Rookie Of Year, but that certainly isn't going to happen with an offensive lineman, since the top three are Niners QB Brock Purdy, Seattle RB Kenneth Walker III and Jets WR Garrett Wilson.
- QB Rematch: So, it's Philly QB Jalen Hurts vs. San Francisco QB Brock Purdy in the NFC title game, a rematch from their college days when Hurts led Oklahoma to a 42-41 victory over Iowa State when Purdy's heroic fourth-quarter comeback came up short in the final seconds, getting intercepted on the two-point conversion. What a game, Hurts putting up 341 total yards and five touchdowns with Purdy 337 and six touchdowns. By the way, two of Hurts' TDs went to some guy named CeeDee Lamb, eight catches for 167 yards and scores of 43 and 63 yards.
- Only The Cowboys: The Cowboys were one of seven teams this 2022 season with at least 12 wins, going 12-5 in back-to-back seasons. But guessing the only head coach of the bunch the owner was being asked if the guy's coming back was Mike McCarthy. On top of that, McCarthy, with 24 wins in the past two seasons, is one of just three head coaches with as many as 24 wins, along with KC's Andy Reid and Buffalo's Sean McDermott. Like I said, only the Cowboys.
- Endorsing DQ: With Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn interviewing with the Arizona Cardinals a second time, he received a huge endorsement much earlier in the season from Cardinals all-time leading wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald when asked what his thoughts were on Arizona possibly hiring Quinn as the next head coach: "He'd be No. 1 in my opinion. No question about that. What he's done. Obviously, his experience. He did really good in Atlanta and had he run the football a little bit more he'd have a Super Bowl championship. So, I don't think it'll be much longer until Dan Quinn is back on the sidelines as a coach in the National Football League. I think for him, most importantly, it's finding the right situation. You don't want to go to a team where you don't have a quarterback, you don't have a chance to win. You want to be in a place where you have a legitimate shot. Those type of jobs are difficult to come by. They don't turn over often." And of the five vacant head coaching jobs, Arizona with Kyler Murray might have the best potential at quarterback of the bunch.
- Off The Wall: Of the seven teams with at least 12 wins, three of the four teams with the most are in the conference championships games, Philly 14-San Fran 13 and Kansas City 14-Cincinnati 12 (with one unfinished) . . . When 2023 salary cap talk begins, know the Cowboys already have $9 million in dead money before they even consider moving on from veteran players who might increase that total . . . While offensive coordinator Kellen Moore interviewed with Carolina for the head coaching position, Frank Reich reportedly was being brought back for his second . . . Ol' "Matress Mac" in Houston put $2 million on the Cowboys to beat San Francisco with two separate $1 million bets and stood to take in $3.5 million. Oops . . . Also saw where someone on a four-player parlay to name the first player to score a touchdown in each of the four playoff games over the weekend collected $72,795 when Dalton Schultz sauntered into the end zone against the Niners to go four for four . . . And in case you are wondering with teams interviewing Sean Payton for the head coaching job and knowing they will have to compensate the Saints since he still has two years left on his contract, why back on Feb. 18, 2002, Tampa Bay sent the Raiders two first-round picks, two seconds and $8 million for Jon Gruden's rights. But they did win Super Bowl XXXVII 11 months later, uh, over the Raiders coached by bill Callahan.
And for the final word, let's go back to Levi's Stadium, a distraught Micah Parsons had this to say after the 19-12 loss to the Niners when asked what head coach Mike McCarthy had to say to the team after the game.
"Just that he feels for us," Parsons said. "There is no feeling like this, I mean I hurt for the guys, hurt for the fans, I hurt for myself, how much I pushed through this year trying to get this title – just not enough. I really give my all every week for these guys, and they give it back to me, but it just wasn't enough.
"Going into the game we knew they wanted to get their players into open space. We contained Deebo, we contained McCaffrey for the most part, but like I said, they made more plays. We eliminated, we tackled, we ran . . . but they made more plays."
Leaving the Cowboys this week to pick up the pieces in the end.