After a stellar season, the Cowboys were the NFL’s best until Aaron Rodgers knocked them from the playoffs. Why so much love? (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Since the Cowboys fell to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers Sunday the strangest thing has been happening. The Cowboys have been let off the hook. I’ve lost count how many puff pieces have been written about the Cowboys bright future or how the Cowboys came close but fell short. HUH?!?!?
Dallas was the top seed in the NFC and probably the NFL’s best team this season. They had home field advantage and no significant injuries. I don’t care how good Aaron Rodgers is; the Cowboys should have won that playoff game. This wasn’t an up-and-coming team falling juuuuusssst short of taking down a Goliath. This was a Goliath falling on its face.
Ezekiel Elliott is one of the top three running backs in the NFL. You could place him first and I wouldn’t argue. Elliott finished Sunday with 23 touches. His 22 runs produced 125 yards, better than 5.5 yards per carry. Here’s where Cowboy apologists like to point to the 21-3 score. I understand the logic, but this is postseason football. The Pittsburgh Steelers give Le’Veon Bell the incessantly because he’s their best player. Bell has 63 touches in two playoff games. Elliott is Dallas’ best player. There’s no reasonable explanation for him finishing that game with less than 30 touches. None. Seriously, why are the Cowboys throwing bubble screens on 2nd and 1? Bad teams like the Eagles and Rams throw bubble screens.
Obviously, Elliott’s touches weren’t the only reason Dallas lost. The mismanagement of the clock at the end of the 4th quarter was Andy Reid bad. When you walk off the field with a field goal in that situation AND a timeout remaining you know you screwed up. The 1st down spike was unnecessary and foolish. Dallas did that thing where you’re content to tie rather than go for the win. Sure, Dallas likely wins in overtime, but if that’s your logic you can’t leave any time left for Rodgers. Everyone watching knew that was a get six or kick for three as time expires situation. Well, everyone except Garrett.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the media coverage following Dallas’ loss has been exceptionally kind. Do people covering the Cowboys pay attention to the rest of the NFL? I lost count how many “Cowboys lose close one, but they’ll be back” or “Cowboys come close but future is bright” pieces I’ve read this week. This isn’t the NBA where a talented roster guarantees you a postseason berth and spot in the Conference Semifinals. The Carolina Panthers won 15 games last season and missed the playoffs this year despite nearly the same roster. The Denver Broncos slightly improved their quarterback situation after winning the Super Bowl in 2015 and missed the playoffs in 2016. Dallas won 14 games (ok 13, but it would’ve been 14), got home field throughout the playoffs and managed to avoid the one team that gave them trouble this season. Seasons like this don’t come around every year. Obviously, Dallas has an impressive nucleus of young stars protected by the NFL’s best line, but this is the NFL. Injuries scuttle seasons, careers and franchises by the week. Playoff opportunities cannot be wasted. Look at New England, the NFL’s standard for greatness. They’ve won fewer than 12 games only twice in the last 11 seasons and have only one Super Bowl title to show for their efforts over that stretch. Nine of those eleven seasons ended with a playoff loss (in 2008 they missed the playoffs despite 11 wins). Aaron Rodgers is the greatest quarterback to ever play football. He’s been to the postseason each of the last seven years. Six of those seasons have ended with a playoff defeat. Postseason failures can’t be written off with “they came close,” especially when you’re the favorite to represent your conference in the Super Bowl.
Also, Dallas likely won’t get an easier season than the one they got in 2016. Seattle was banged up. Green Bay would’ve have welcomed the injury bug over the injury virus that destroyed their roster. Atlanta is a surging offensive powerhouse. The NFC East gave Dallas fits this season. Football is hard. And while Dallas is absolutely talented and likely to be back in the postseason, it’s shortsighted to simply write off a defeat when you’re the supremely talented and healthy team.
But whatever. At least Sad Cowboy is finally back. It’s been too long.