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What we learned: Self-inflicted wounds ultimately doom Cowboys in 2021

After a miserable 2020, the Dallas Cowboys looked like contenders in Mike McCarthy’s second season before familiar issues cropped up again in the playoffs.

DALLAS — The 2021 season for the Dallas Cowboys didn’t end at the top of the mountain. There was no hoisting of a Lombardi Trophy. Although winning a Super Bowl is always the goal, and Dallas failed in doing so for a 26th consecutive season, the Cowboys did have a good year and it wasn’t a complete failure.

Winning 12 games and claiming the NFC East made it a successful campaign for a team that went just 6-10 the year prior. Quarterback Dak Prescott came back onto the field after a horrific injury and helped the Cowboys break a few records along the way.

In the end, though, Dallas didn’t play consistent enough and made the same mistakes they’ve continued to make over this tumultuous era. After a hot start, failing to advance to the NFC Championship game, much less win a playoff game, feels like an incredible missed opportunity.

Here’s what we learned about the 2021 version of the Cowboys and what they need to do in the future to hopefully improve on the results.

The offensive line needs a reboot

A few years ago, the offensive line was one of their real strengths for the Cowboys. They had Pro Bowl and All-Pro players at three spots, as well as a fourth budding Pro Bowl player in right tackle La’el Collins.

After watching this season, that era feels like a lifetime ago. The San Francisco 49ers dominated the Cowboys upfront without even blitzing much and the offensive line for Dallas couldn’t handle it.

There was too much pressure on Prescott and that became a common theme for defenses after the Cowboys got out to a hot start offensively. The offensive line has gotten a little bit long in the tooth and wasn’t as effective as it needed to be. Remaking the unit is necessary if the Cowboys are going to learn from this season.

Let the playmakers make plays

The Cowboys had the top offense in the league, leading the NFL in both scoring and yards. Yet it didn’t feel like Dallas’ offense was consistent in the second half of the season. Only blowouts against a short-handed Washington Football Team and the Philadelphia Eagles, who were playing backups, made the offense look explosive in the last two months of the season.

Down the stretch, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore had trouble finding ways to get the ball to his playmakers. Wide receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb never reached 100 yards receiving after the win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 8 and running back Tony Pollard lacked touches in the second half of the season as well.

Pollard got double-digit touches in only four games after the bye week and had just six opportunities in the wild-card loss to the 49ers. Early in the year, Pollard had double-digit carries in five straight weeks when it was clear that pairing him heavily with Ezekiel Elliott was extremely beneficial to the offense.

Elliott is a player who does all the dirty work, but he isn’t as explosive as Pollard and not getting him enough touches in the back half of the season was a major mistake.

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Micah Parsons had a rookie season for the ages

The original selection of Parsons 12th overall in the 2021 NFL draft was met with some trepidation, but the rookie played a valuable role on the Dallas defense. Parsons had only scratched the surface of what he could be at Penn State, but the Cowboys took advantage of his elite skill set and versatility.

When the defense needed him to play linebacker, Parsons was there. When the team needed a pass rushing presence at defensive end because of injuries, Parsons stepped up at that position too, totaling 13 sacks on the season.

Parsons was the best defender on the field for the Cowboys this season and he’s already one of the best defensive players in the league. Along with the 13 sacks, Parsons was tied for second in the league in tackles for a loss with 20.

Parsons was an All-Pro as a rookie and he’s still getting better. The Cowboys made a big defensive improvement from last year and Parsons was one of the keys to the turnaround.

Defense is still missing a run-stuffer

The Cowboys had a spectacular year creating turnovers. However, the flashy, opportunistic nature of the defense masked the biggest issue with the unit which was ultimately stopping the run.

Dallas’ defense played a decent game against the 49ers and still gave up 169 yards on the ground. The team allowed 112.8 rushing yards per game this season, but that total was only that low because teams were forced to try to pass their way out of deficits when the Cowboys’ offense produced big leads.

By the time the playoffs rolled around, the 49ers grabbed the blueprint of getting an early lead and controlling the game on the ground to beat the Cowboys. Dallas went 3-5 when allowing over 110 yards rushing on the year.

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New year, same issues

The season ended in a hectic fashion, but for the Cowboys, there’s rarely ever any other way to go out. Over the last 25+ years, hectic is nothing new for Dallas. The final act where the Cowboys called for an inexplicable QB sneak as the remaining 14 seconds drained away felt completely on brand for the franchise.

Since the Cowboys last won the Super Bowl, there have been bobbled snaps, bad bounces, bad officiating, self-inflicted wounds, and miracle plays from their opponents to walk away on the losing end of too many games in big situations.

The sad fact is, most of it has been self-inflicted. This season, the Cowboys led the NFL in penalties and they never curtailed that issue until it cost them dearly in the wild-card loss.

You aren’t going to win games consistently if you keep giving officials a reason to throw flags. And while there were several questionable calls that went against the Cowboys, that’s what happens when you get a reputation for being undisciplined.

The organization, including head coach Mike McCarthy, also failed to acknowledge their lack of self control, which remains a problem. That cannot be the case moving forward. Ultimately, the Cowboys need to take a long look in the mirror before they embark on their next attempt to end the championship game drought.

Do you think the Cowboys will learn their lessons in McCarthy’s third campaign? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.