DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys saw their season end unceremoniously with an ugly 23-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Watching how the game unfolded, the only surprise was how close the final score became, with the Cowboys having a shot at the end to pull off a miracle before shooting themselves in the foot.
It was perhaps a fitting end for Dallas. In the second half of the season, the Cowboys never put it all together. They were winning games, and managed to sweep a weak NFC East, but there were glaring issues on both sides of the ball that only left doubts. The offense wasn’t playing at a high level as the season progressed and the defense kept getting pushed around in the run game.
A bigger issue that showed up all season was undisciplined play; the Cowboys were the most flagged team in the NFL. Even with all of the alarm bells and warning signs, the issues were on full display in the wild card loss to the 49ers.
The Cowboys looked lethargic from the start. San Francisco took the opening kickoff and the penalty parade started on the first play; defensive end Randy Gregory was called for one of his three penalties on Sunday. The defense then allowed a seven-play, 75-yard scoring drive, during which the 49ers had four plays in a row that went for 10+ yards.
Things went only mildly better on the second San Francisco drive. The Cowboys allowed the 49ers to convert on a 3rd-&-10 and then failed to secure a tackle on 3rd-&-21. A short pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk could have been stopped near midfield. Instead, the defense allowed Juszczyk to break tackles and get into field goal range. Kicker Robbie Gould converted for a season-high 53-yarder.
Being down 10-0 in the first quarter wasn’t an ideal way to start a game that could end your season, but it was typical for how the team had played in the second half of the year.
Dallas managed to get into rhythm in the second quarter, scoring a touchdown after going down 13-0 when San Francisco allowed them back into the game by kicking a field goal instead of going for a short 4th down attempt. However, the perfect drive to encapsulate how things went for the Cowboys was their last drive of the first half.
At 16-7, and with the Dallas offense primed to score before the half, the Cowboys moved the ball to the 49ers’ 39-yard line. Another penalty, this time an offensive holding, looked to be a potential drive-killer. A few plays later a golden opportunity went right over wide receiver Cedrick Wilson’s head because of the sun coming through the windows at AT&T Stadium. Wilson lost the ball in the glare and the Cowboys missed a shot at kicking a field goal and getting within a score before halftime.
Things got worse before they got better in the second half. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw an ugly interception after another penalty and a sack. The 49ers scored in one play to go up 16 points and forced the Cowboys to play catchup with an offense that was struggling and a quarterback who wasn’t sharp.
The Cowboys got a gift of an interception and converted to close the gap with eight minutes to play. For all of the sloppy, undisciplined play from Dallas, the team had life. The Cowboys were down six points with plenty of time left. All they needed was a stop on defense and an opportunity for the league’s highest scoring offense.
San Francisco wouldn’t score points in the ensuing drive, but two big defensive penalties kept the drive alive for longer than necessary and the clock kept ticking. The Cowboys eventually got the ball with just under three minutes left and were – despite everything – in position to win the game. They did nothing with the chance, however, as the drive stalled and Prescott’s 4th down toss to Wilson fell short.
Though all seemed lost, the Cowboys used their timeouts and produced another stop to regain possession with a paltry 32 seconds remaining. That total was 40 seconds fewer than it could have been but another defensive penalty by Dallas allowed the 49ers to bleed more time off the clock. This proved costly.
The Cowboys made use of several chunk plays and the sideline to drive to the San Francisco 41 yard line with 14 seconds remaining while needing a touchdown to win. There would be no new magical highlight to add to the historic playoff rivalry, however, as Dallas inexplicably decided to run a QB draw. Prescott’s 17-yard scamper down the middle of the field left the clock ticking as the team tried to make it to the line for a final attempt at the end zone.
The hubris of the last play was ultimately a microcosm for what the Dallas Cowboys have become. This is a team that rarely plays up to its capabilities, makes dumb mistakes too often, and folds at the worst times. When the chips are down, the Cowboys become the butt of the joke. There’s a reason the organization hasn’t been successful since the turn of the century and all those chickens came home to roost the loss to the 49ers.
These Cowboys aren’t a smart team. Smart teams don’t play with fire with 14 seconds and no timeouts. These Cowboys aren’t a disciplined team. Disciplined teams don’t commit 14 penalties that constantly jeopardize the chances to win and put the team behind the eight-ball.
These Cowboys aren’t a well-prepared team, either. On Sunday, they didn’t give their playmakers enough opportunities to make plays. Wide receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb only combined for seven catches and 85 yards against a suspect 49ers secondary. Running back Tony Pollard only got six touches all game. That’s not enough for their most explosive running back.
The coaching staff never addressed the baffling slump that invaded the team at midseason and lingered the rest of the way, and the franchise quarterback couldn’t come through after becoming the poster child for the doubts that began to creep in about where the team was headed.
With how the 2020 season went for the Dallas Cowboys, 2021 was a good campaign. As we know from the expectations for this franchise, good is not enough. Winning the NFC East is great, but there’s no excuse for being outplayed again with the promise of a long playoff run always just out of reach.
Make it 26 seasons and counting since Dallas has even made the conference championship game, a mark that represents what the Cowboys have become.
Do you think the Cowboys ultimately had a successful season as NFC East champs? Vent your frustrations to Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.