FRISCO, Texas – Should be immune to this, how these Dallas Cowboys seasons can suddenly come to a screeching halt, many times when least expected.
Sunday was the 19th playoff appearance during my years of covering the Cowboys. The 32nd playoff game, so just a tad fewer than half of the 67 playoff games they've played in their history. The season came to a screeching halt, shockingly unexpected for a team finishing the regular season with a 12-5 record, a second NFC East title in a three-year span – fourth in eight years – the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and guaranteed homefield advantage if they could win in the wild-card round.
The Cowboys couldn't, Packers 48, Cowboys a distant 32. Let the grumbling begin. Time to start lopping off heads. Why, why does this continue to happen? The 15th time since my first Cowboys playoff appearance in the 1985 season that they didn't make it to the NFC title game, those four straight appearances from 1992-95 spoiling those old enough to remember back some 30 years, three of the seasons ending with a Lombardi Trophy held high.
Now, three days later, is the time to take the emotion out of this loss, no matter how badly it was, and look at this whole deal more pragmatically. Somehow the playoffs cause this. They expose any warts being disguised during regular seasons that can seduce us into false perceptions that all is good.
But upon further review, no matter the 12-5 record, leading the NFL in points scored (509), finishing undefeated at home (8-0) and outlasting the 11-6 Eagles for the East crown, here are a few telltale signs taken for granted.
During the regular season, of those 12 wins, the Cowboys only beat four teams with winning records, and in order: The 10-7 Rams when they were but 3-6 after nine games; the 9-8 Seahawks who were 6-7 before winning three of their final four; the Eagles in a three-game swoon and losers of five of their last six; and the 12-5 Lions by a mere point (20-19). Of those teams making the playoffs, Eagles, Rams and Lions, only Detroit won in the first round.
And get this: Of the five losses, only 4-13 Arizona didn't qualify for the playoffs, didn't win at least 11 games, the Cowboys losing to 12-5 San Francisco, 11-6 Philadelphia, 11-6 Buffalo and 11-6 Miami. If you add up the scores in those five losses, the Cowboys were beaten by a combined score of 151-79, three of the losses by 12, 32 and 21 points.
Here is another thought: The Cowboys strength of victories was a .392 percentage, sixth worst in the NFC and seventh lowest in the NFL, those 12 teams they beat combining for just 80 wins, an average of 6.7 apiece. And four of the five losses were to teams with a combined 45-23 record, a winning percentage of .692.
So here come the Green Bay Packers for the 18th game. Get it, they were only 9-8, but a winning record. Only the NFC seventh seed but a playoff team because after starting the season 2-5 with first-time starting quarterback Jordan Love, they streaked to the finish at 7-3. And to the Packers' credit, they beat the 12-5 Lions, 29-22, and the 11-6 Chiefs, 27-19, two division champions along the way.
Sooo … maybe the only shocking thing about losing to the Packers for the fifth time in nine playoff matchups is the 48 points given up, the most playoff points scored by a Cowboys postseason opponent in this their 67th playoff game. And sorry if this drops a whole bunch of salt in this playoff wound, but the Packers scored one more point than the three combined playoff teams scored against the Cowboys in their 1992 run to the Super Bowl XXVII title and just three fewer than the 1993 title run.
Now there are a lot of excuses being strewn around for this upsetting loss. A lot of blame.
But here is some food for pragmatic thought for a fifth loss to a team with a winning record this season, the Cowboys 4-5 in those nine games, and I know it hurts and might not be popular reasoning:
But by all these numbers presented, how about just not good enough?
- Zoning Problems: This was a curious defensive decision. After playing predominately man-to-man coverage during the season, the Cowboys mixed in a whole lot of zone coverage against the Packers. And think we know why, but still. Cowboys veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore was trying to play through a separated shoulder that required surgery this week to repair a labrum tear and were trying to take man-coverage stress off him instead of replacing him with the inexperienced Nahshon Wright. Well, it didn't work, Love shredding the Cowboys defense for 272 yards passing and three touchdowns. Worse, the Packers struck seven times for pass plays of at least 19 yards, five of those for at least 26 yards and a high of 46. While the Cowboys corners were playing off-coverage during those zone calls, the safeties usually were way deep and their eyes too many times were not in the right place, like on Love's 38-yard touchdown pass to an awaiting tight end Luke Musgrave.
- Beef Up: The Cowboys thought they were getting bigger on the defensive front when drafting defensive tackle Mazi Smith with the 23rd pick in the first round, checking in at around 330 pounds. But Smith ended up getting smaller, by some accounts dropping just below 300 pounds. Well, going back and rewatching the game, on two goal-to-go situations against the Packers, the Cowboys were out there with six defensive backs, running back Aaron Jones scoring two of his three touchdowns from the three and one yard out. And on his third rushing touchdown from the nine, the Packers were in a two-tight formation, yet the Cowboys still had six defensive backs in the game (counting converted linebacker Markquese Bell in those six). Lone linebacker Damone Clark jumped to the outside, with Micah Parsons getting cut-blocked on the edge, Johnathan Hankins falling down and Bell running into Neville Gallimore as Jones sauntered into the end zone virtually untouched. Really need "The Maz" to make that huge second-year jump.
- Schedule Beware: We know the Cowboys' 2024 opponents, just not the order of games, but check this out: The Cowboys, division winners and now with the first-place schedule of opponents, will play 11 of 17 games against teams finishing the 2023 season with winning records, and nine of those games against playoff teams. Not to mention both conference No. 1 seeds, San Francisco and Baltimore. Four of the six games against teams with losing records will be the two apiece with the Giants and Commanders and then Atlanta and Carolina. Their strength of schedule jumps up from the .446 ending this year to .505 next year, and that includes division winners Baltimore, San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Houston, as we see paying a heavy price for winning the division but having nothing to show for in the playoffs.
- This & That: The Cowboys have 16 projected unrestricted free agents at this point, and that includes eight starters: Tony Pollard, Tyler Biadasz, Tyron Smith, Hankins, Gilmore, Jayron Kearse, Jourdan Lewis (nickel back) and deep snapper Trent Sieg, who was pretty much perfect in that role … While former Cowboys special teams coach Rich Bisaccia moves into the second round of the playoffs with the Packers, two former assistants from last year's team who were let go will move into the second round with Tampa Bay, running backs coach Skip Peete and linebackers coach George Edwards, not to mention head coach Todd Bowles (secondary, 2005-07) and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers (defensive line, 2003-07) … Current Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is busy Zooming with teams looking for a head coach, including Carolina and Tennessee Wednesday, Washington scheduled for Thursday along with Seattle and Friday with the Chargers. In person interviews can begin next week … And in the world of what have you done for me lately, Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni, as of 5 p.m. Wednesday by the way, already is under fire after just his third season, having gone 9-8 in 2021 for second place in the NFC East, taking the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 2022 with a 14-3 season and now this year 11-6, second in the East but losing that first-round playoff game, proving patience in the NFL is no virtue.
And for the last word, as we await for papal-like smoke to waft out of owner Jerry Jones' second-floor office window at The Star to announce how the Cowboys will go forward after three consecutive 12-5 seasons but another first-round playoff loss, down in New Orleans, general manager Mickey Loomis invokes the name of Tom Landry when qualifying going forward with head coach Dennis Allen for a third season after going 7-10 and then 9-8 this season, though missing the playoffs.
"Bill Belichick, here's his first three seasons: 6-10, 7-9, 7-9. Tom Landry: 0-11 (and 1, come on Mickey, it wasn't that bad), 4-9, 5-8, 4-10, 5-8. Hall of Fame coaches, all of them. Bill Walsh: 2-14; second year, 6-10," Loomis told reporters on Wednesday.
"So I think the easy thing to do is just look the results and say, 'Oh no, we've got to have a change.' You need to look beyond that. What are the reasons why we were 9-8 instead of 13-4. It's collective. It's the players, it's the coaches, it's me. It's our personnel staff, our roster, it's variables sometimes that we don't have control of.
"And so my assessment is Dennis Allen is a good coach."
Let the offseason begin.