FRISCO, Texas – Picking up the pieces.
Seen this happen too many times since leaving Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., after the Cowboys defeated Pittsburgh to win Super Bowl XXX and then crashing the Cowboys' post-bowl party in a huge tented-structure adjacent to the team hotel.
After the loss to Carolina to end the 1996 season, after losses to end the 1998-99 seasons, then ending 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2014, 2016, 2018 and now this one. They all hurt.
This one, though, the hurt cuts to the bone. Hurts like the one to the Giants following the 2007 season in the second round after earning that first-round bye when the Cowboys went 13-3, had the No. 1 seed, homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and had already beaten the Giants 45-35 and 31-20 during the regular season. In fact, when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is asked about his biggest regrets, he often says not getting Tony Romo to the Super Bowl, especially after that 2007 season when the Giants ran the table by winning every playoff game on the road and then beating the Patriots, 17-14, for the Super Bowl XLII title.
So here we go, another offseason. During a near 47-minute press conference Wednesday here at The Star, head coach Mike McCarthy brought clarity to moving forward as the head coach that COO Stephen Jones affirmed on Monday with an "absolutely he will be." We wait as coordinators Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore go through the interview process with multiple teams looking for new head coaches.
And next thing we know, the Senior Bowl will be here, the NFL Scouting Combine, the new league year and free agency with it, the NFL Draft and offseason workouts.
Then time for the Cowboys to take their next shot at it for the 2022 season.
- One Last Time: Well, maybe. If I hear one more person ask McCarthy or Dak Prescott if he should have handed the ball to the umpire after sliding down at the 24-yard line with nine seconds remaining in the 23-17 playoff loss to San Francisco, I'm going to scream … again. "Hand it to who?" is what Mike and Dak should have asked. There was no official there, the two guys on the sideline never moving off their spot and the umpire was 29 yards behind the play on the other side of the 50-yard line. Even head referee Alex Kemp, who lines up behind the offense at the same distance as the umpire, was at least crossing the San Francisco 40 as the play ended. The umpire, Ramon George, still had not crossed the 50. The guy must have fallen asleep. As McCarthy says, his guys followed the mechanics they were taught. If nothing else, hand the ball to the center, get lined up and set for when the umpire touches the ball. Unfortunately, took the guy six seconds to get to the ball and then even after he spotted it, for some reason he moved it back a tad, and by time he jumped out of the way, behind the defensive line, time had expired. Maybe the NFL competition committee needs to readjust where the umpire lines up in the final two minutes of a game when hurry-up situations occur most. Meaning, I've got two rule changes for 2022 to be proposed, this one and put a large horn on the play clock so the back judge knows when time has expired. Or least in a hearing device so he doesn't have to look here and then there before ruling on a delay of game … or not.
- PCL: Stands for posterior cruciate ligament, and that is the knee ligament Ezekiel Elliott sprained back early in the season that initially was termed by some as a bruised knee. Well, as McCarthy said on Wednesday, he first injured his knee in the Carolina game on Oct. 3, yet Zeke played through the sprain, starting all 17 games and finishing with 1,002 yards, 287 more receiving and 12 total touchdowns. Guy is a warrior. And I'm told the sprain is healed.
- So Sorry: That's what Dak Tweeted out Tuesday evening after his unfortunate comment about fans throwing debris at the officials as they ran through the Cowboys' player tunnel after Sunday's loss at AT&T Stadium. And just so you know, Dak didn't just come out and say that during his postgame press conference. Initially he was asked what he thought about the fans throwing debris at the Cowboys players after the game as they left the field after the loss. He diplomatically answered the bogus question that was looking for a salacious response, instead complimenting how hard the fans cheered at the game and supported the team all season long without answering the question. But after several members of the media then pointed out the fans were really throwing stuff at the officials after they left the field following their bungled mechanics cost the Cowboys one last shot at the end zone, Dak very curtly said quite uncharacteristically, "Credit them." Then he doubled down when asked if he wanted to clarify what he said. Reminds me of how Tony Romo's answer after the final-game loss to Philadelphia costing them a playoff spot that 2008 season got twisted worse than my favorite hard sourdough pretzel. Remember? All anyone knew was Romo said, "If this is the worse thing to happen to me, I'll have had a pretty good life." But, and I paraphrase, the question went like this: After you dropped the snap on the potential winning field goal in the 2006 playoff game and you ended the 2007 playoff game with an interception in the end zone, and now this loss, how do you go forward next year? Context is always important. If that was me, they wouldn't have been able to print my answer after I told the guy where to go.
- Blinded By Sun: Remember the third-and-20 play from the San Francisco 49-yard line with 38 seconds left in the first half, when Dak threw the ball over the middle to Cedrick Wilson who lost the ball in the sun. Well, prior to the snap, there was 49ers linebacker Fred Warner standing at the 39, crouching down and then with his hand up to shade his eyes from the sun barreling down out of the west so he could see. Think about this: Had Wilson caught a very catchable ball he couldn't see at the Niners 37-yard line – OK, short of the first down – the Cowboys could have trotted out Greg Zuerlein for a 55-yard field goal attempt with 35 seconds left in the half. Can't assume he would have made it or the game would have played out the way it did on the Cowboys' final possession, but had Wilson been like 5 yards farther to the right to catch the ball and Zuerlein connected, the Cowboys would have only needed a field goal on that last drive to send the game into overtime. Just saying. Just weird.
- QB Hits Matter: Not only did the 49ers register five sacks in the game, but also totaled 14 QB hits. They matter. Take this play, third-and-7 from his own 45-yard line, the first series of the second half extended by the roughing the kicker penalty on San Francisco, Dak is stepping up to throw to CeeDee Lamb for the first down when left tackle Tyron Smith loses Niners defensive end Jordan Willis, who slams into Dak just as he's delivering the ball. The pass misses Lamb, looking like a bad pass on his part, but replays show there is a reason why.
- Stop It: There seems to be this notion floating around that the Cowboys can save a bundle of salary cap money for 2022 by simply cutting wide receiver Amari Cooper to save his $20 million base salary, though stuffing $6 million of dead money into their salary cap. Seriously? You want to cut your best, most consistent wide receiver? Then what? Lamb and who, because there is no guarantee the Cowboys can re-sign Michael Gallup. And remember, Cedrick Wilson is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, too. So, what you going to do, use that money to hopefully find another free-agent wide receiver? No guarantees that can happen for less. Don't just look at the numbers, 68 catches for 865 yards and eight receiving touchdowns, or the dollars. Got to look at the sense of such a move.
- Dead Money: Even before the Cowboys begin to make roster adjustments, they already have $7 million in dead money for 2022, $6.8 of that for releasing Jaylon Smith. They will incur another $2 million when Keanu Neal's contract automatically voids 23 days prior to the league year. And, if you happen to think it's time to move on from right tackle La'el Collins, he has three years left on his contract, and $6.48 million of his 2022 base salary of $10 million guarantees the fifth day of the league year. And should the Cowboys just outright cut him, that stuffs $13.95 million of dead money into the cap. Bad idea.
Oh, there is so much more to deal with but better save some items going forward, so the last word goes to McCarthy when asked how he deals with all the swirling talk and headlines about his job security since the playoff-ending loss to the Niners that has silenced all the talk about Coach of the Year honors, Dak being NFL Player of the Year, Micah Parsons being Defensive Player of the Year, gosh, maybe even Quinn being the Assistant Coach of the Year and Quinn and Moore slam dunks to be hired away for head coaching jobs.
"I think internally, and I think for people in this profession, it's accepted. It's part of the job. I get that, and I understand why you're asking the question. It's part of the job. You have a job to do and I have a job to do here today and answer your questions appropriately and respectfully.
"But yeah, I don't put a lot into it because I know what I personally put into this. I understand what goes on here every day. I know how to win. I know how to win in this league. I know how to win playoff games. I know how to win a championship. So, I have great confidence in that. What we've built here in two seasons, I feel very good about, and I think with that, you just stay true to that.
"The hard part is the personal. We all have kids. That's the part that I don't like. I just hope people are respectful to that."