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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Paying a high price for playoff loss


FRISCO, Texas – Owner Jerry Jones said following the highly disappointing 48-32 first-round playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers that it was the worst he had experienced since buying the team in 1989.

If he had only known eventually how awfully disappointing that loss was really going to be. Er, then again, maybe he already suspected the eventual undertones when saying so.

Why, his Cowboys finished the regular season with a 12-5 record for the third consecutive year. They won the NFC East for the second time in three seasons and third in six. On the strength of squeaking by Detroit, 20-19, in the 16th game of the season to claim a tiebreaker over the Lions, the Cowboys wound up with the No. 2 NFC playoff seed, thus securing homefield advantage over the first two rounds and the right to play the seventh-seeded 9-8 Packers, the last team in that first round.

Losing really hurt.

But that is only part of it. There would be more painful consequences to come.

If ever there was a definition to being "all-in," the Cowboys defined this two-word declaration in 2023. First, they re-signed a few of their own unrestricted free agents, safeties Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson, defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, quarterback Cooper Rush, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and all-important linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.

They signed cornerback Trevon Diggs to a long-term extension, brought in running back Ronald Jones and linebacker Rashaan Evans for insurance, as well as former starting offensive tackle La'el Collins for playoff insurance. They had signed restricted free agent Terence Steele to a long-term extension. Spent $10 million to franchise running back Tony Pollard.

Struck gold when boldly deciding to go with a 28-year-old unknown rookie kicker, Brandon Aubrey, the former soccer player with only two years of kicking experience, and that in the USFL.

Also created salary cap space by restructuring the contracts of Dak Prescott, Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyron Smith by lowering base salaries into signing bonuses and prorating that money down the road.

They decided that in order to boost the offense they'd hand head coach Mike McCarthy the offensive coordinator reigns, turned consultant Brian Shottenheimer into McCarthy's offensive righthand man and financially did what they could to convince defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to hang around for one more season.

Oh, and maybe most beneficial, they traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore, which became even more prescient since Diggs tore his ACL in the third week of the season.

Yep, all that, and even bought quarterback term insurance by spending a 2024 fourth-round draft choice to bring in Trey Lance as the third guy, never playing a down in 2023, and also sent this year's fifth rounder to Kansas City for the top pick in the sixth round to select developmental cornerback Eric Scott, the rookie never playing a single down as well.

Good gosh. Talk about "all in."

Then over 17 games, Dak leads the NFL with 36 touchdown passes to finish second in the AP NFL MVP voting. Receiver CeeDee Lamb also leads the NFL with a franchise single-season record 135 receptions and ranked second with his franchise single-season record 1,749 receiving yards while his 12 receiving touchdowns were one off the receiver lead. He finished third in AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year voting.

Hybrid "Lionbacker" Micah Parsons finishes with a career-high 14 sacks, finishing third in AP Defensive MVP voting. And on top of all this, second-year corner DaRon Bland sets the NFL single-season record with five returns for touchdowns, totaling nine interceptions overall and ranking fifth in the AP Defensive MVP voting.

In fact, at times the Cowboys were so dominating they sent 10 players to the Pro Bowl, had four first team All-Pros (Bland, Martin, Lamb and out-of-the-blue kicker Aubrey) and won 12 NFC Player of the Week/Month awards with their performances.

 Yet, even after pushing all those chips in, failed to win even one playoff game. Failed once again to advance to the perennially elusive NFC Championship Game since 1995. And when it came to their 2023 team motto of Carpe Omnia, "Grab Everything," they came up far short, finishing the season with only a bad taste in their mouths.

 And now paying an even higher price for coming up ultimately empty in the playoffs, currently suffering the ensuing consequences over these past 10 days.

Why, the salary cap is swallowing them up, with approximately just $5 million in cap space, nowhere close to having enough to even think about matching the Jets' $12.25 million salary cap commitment they made to lure Tyron Smith to New Jersey, nor able commit big cap bucks to retain the likes of Pollard, Armstrong, Biadasz, Fowler, Hankins and Neville Gallimore even if they wanted to.

Just didn't have enough cap space to run it back by re-signing enough of their own unrestricted free agents, let alone making any "splash" by signing other teams' castoffs. So far, as of late Friday afternoon, March 22, the Cowboys had nabbed only one outside free agent, veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks. But hey, it's not even Easter yet.

And when it comes to next month's NFL Draft, really don't have an excess of draft capital to move around much, owning just seven picks, starting with a pedestrian 24th selection in the first round, paying the price for spending those 2024 draft choices this past season. With need high, trading down is always an option to gather more morsels.

Now you might say, well, just trade some of next year's picks to move up, though knowing the Cowboys aren't one player away from solving this dilemma. Great if acquiring vets like Cooks and Gilmore last year, but then it's same draft predicament in the 2025 draft. And on top of all that, a boatload of those restructure bonuses stuffed into voided years will start coming due in 2025. Plus on the horizon rest headaches negotiating long-term extensions for Dak, CeeDee and Micah.

Always sounds great to think going "all-in" for a single season, sort of what the Rams did in 2021 while winning Super Bowl LVI to cash in their wager. But then they paid the price over the next couple of seasons, going 15-19 the last two years and failing to win even another playoff game.

But when you push all the chips in like the Cowboys did last year, and then come up empty, there is no consolation prize to soothe the pain. The repercussions become quite challenging. See the past 10 days.

That playoff loss still haunting.

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