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From contenders to pretenders: What happened to the Dallas Cowboys?

After a mysterious slide in the season’s second half, the signs were there that the Dallas Cowboys wouldn’t go far in the playoffs despite Super Bowl ambitions

DALLAS — Dallas Cowboys fans were probably disappointed watching an incredible weekend of playoff football while their squad wasn’t among the teams moving on from the divisional round. All that was left was to wonder about what could have been.

Perhaps the most frustrating part is the Cowboys from the first half of the season could have absolutely played with any of the teams that competed for a shot at the conference championship. The first half Cowboys offered the promise of being at the level of one of the final four teams standing.

However, the second half of the year ultimately showed the truth that Dallas just wasn’t good enough nor consistent enough for the biggest stage. That scenario played out over wild-card weekend when the Cowboys bowed out with a subpar performance against a San Francisco 49ers team that is playing their best football and will now play for a spot in Super Bowl LVI.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys ended their year mired in a slow descent during a topsy-turvy season that has left everyone pondering what the heck happened after they started the year looking like one of the league’s elite teams.

Dallas wasn’t granted an easy task to start out the season, getting handed the NFL’s opening night slot on the road in Tampa against Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. Yet the game gave Dallas a sense that they belonged. Week 1 was ultimately a close loss that could have gone differently had a few breaks gone their way.

The Cowboys asserted their physical ground game the following week in a road victory against the Los Angeles Chargers to even their record. After a rough opening week, kicker Greg Zuerlein redeemed himself with a game-winning 56-yard boot, but time management issues made their first appearance and remained all season long.

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From there, the Cowboys kicked off a string of dominance that appeared to signal their arrival as a legitimate contender. Dallas collected a six-game winning streak after the season-opening loss and they were playing lights out in all phases of the game. The streak was one of the best stretches of football that the Cowboys had produced in years.

In the first seven weeks of their schedule, the Cowboys won with superior special teams, an offense that was leading the league in scoring, an opportunistic defense that had the NFL’s interception leader and a burgeoning All-Pro rookie linebacker, and a quarterback playing at an MVP level. Dak Prescott was one of the best players in the league in the first half of the season and was garnering the accolades that came with his top-notch play.

Dallas was also dominating teams. They smacked around NFC East foes, beat a 3-0 Carolina Panthers team, won in New England, and was victorious with a backup quarterback on the road in a hostile environment. The Cooper Rush-led win in Minnesota over the Vikings was a top season highlight and made people believe that, if they could win through adversity, this was the year to end the championship game drought at the very least.

At 6-1, the Cowboys were among the best in the league. And then it all changed.

The Denver Broncos came to Dallas, beat the Cowboys handily, and provided what might have been the blueprint to beat Prescott and Kellen Moore’s offense. The loss kicked off a rough November for the Cowboys, who lost three out of four, including an embarrassing penalty-filled Thanksgiving defeat to the Las Vegas Raiders.

Dallas turned it around in December and January, winning five of the last six games, but there were still signs that they hadn’t figured how to get it back to their early season form. The running game couldn’t get going after leading the league in the first quarter of the schedule. The Cowboys were rushing for over 164 yards per game through the season’s first six games but fell off to just 96 yards per contest in the final 11 games.

The passing game wasn’t clicking on all cylinders either. After averaging close to 32 points in the first six games, the Cowboys’ offense could only muster just over 20.2 points in the final 11 contests.

Ironically, it was the defense that stepped up to be the main catalyst for victories down the stretch, something no one could have predicted at the beginning of the year. After a horrendous 2020 season on the defensive side of the ball, new coordinator Dan Quinn brought fresh energy to a defense that led the league in takeaways.

The final chapter of the Cowboys’ season was a flat playoff loss at home where the team didn’t seem prepared to play in a game of such high stakes. And it was capped off by a dreadful final sequence that encapsulated the last 26 years for the franchise, making them a laughingstock in the postseason.

In 2021, the team was winning games early in the year because of a dynamic offense and an opportunistic defense, but those traits masked flaws of an inexperienced offensive coordinator and an undisciplined team. All of the wins in the beginning of the season, and beating up on a bad division, covered up Dallas’ shortcomings.

Ultimately, the Cowboys were good, but not good enough to be a top-tier team. The potential was there to be an elite group that was poised to make a deep playoff run, but the Cowboys didn’t have an answer when they were punched in the mouth.

There was a golden opportunity for this team to be different from the ones that faltered in much the same way before them. It wasn’t to be, of course, and now the Cowboys are likely to lose Quinn, a few key players to free agency, and are faced with a long offseason where the thoughts about what could have been will linger.

What was the main cause for the Cowboys to go out in the Wild Card round by your estimation? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.