Dallas Cowboys Just Wasted Best Opportunity to End Decades-Long Drought

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 17, 2022

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) reacts next to San Francisco 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead, middle, and cornerback Ambry Thomas (20) after the final play of an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)
Roger Steinman/Associated Press

Twenty-six years and counting. 

It's been 26 years since the Dallas Cowboys were a truly relevant team worthy of being considered a contender. The organization hasn't even reached the NFC Championship Game since it went to Super Bowl XXX.

Forget all of the ghosts of the past that supposedly crept into Sunday's meeting with the San Francisco 49ers.

Roger Staubach solidifying himself as "Captain Comeback." Jimmy Johnson proclaiming, "How 'bout them Cowboys." Deion Sanders jumping ship from the Bay Area and joining America's Team. 

None of it matters anymore because it's ancient history. 

The Cowboys under head coach Mike McCarthy are an undisciplined and situationally oblivious squad incapable of realizing its immense potential. 

The ending of Sunday's 23-17 loss couldn't have better represented what turned into a lost season in which the Cowboys had more than enough talent to emerge as a Super Bowl contender only to sabotage their own playoffs hopes. 

With 14 seconds remaining and trailing by a touchdown, the Cowboys called a quarterback draw, even though the team didn't have any timeouts left and had little chance of scoring.

Furthermore, the offense didn't do a good enough job getting the ball into the umpire's hands and letting him reset the football.

The game whimpered to a halt with the chances of a Cowboys comeback completely gone in a fog of obtuseness, bad decisions and missed opportunities. 

"When you get this combination of players together, you need to have success," owner Jerry Jones said

Now, the franchise enters an offseason when the likelihood of a talent exodus—among the coaching staff and rosteris a very real possibility, thus changing the complexion of the team and likely making them a worse squad overall. 

Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

The coaching staff is the obvious starting point. 

An overall lack of discipline is a reflection of a team's staff. The Cowboys tied a season- and all-time postseason-high with 14 penalties. As Rich Gosselin noted, only four teams were assessed 14 penalties this season. Dallas did so twice. 

"I thought they would let these teams play today," head coach Mike McCarthy told reporters when asked about the number of penalties. "That's for them to answer."

McCarthy's answer demonstrated a lack of accountability and sheer ignorance. Why? First, the Cowboys led the league in penalties during the regular season. Second, Dallas committed numerous self-inflicted presnap penalties. 

Basically, the coach is trying to shift the blame to the officials even though these issues start with him and his staff. 

To make matters worse, McCarthy defended the draw that ended the game and said he was "surprised" when they didn't get another snap. He even went as far as to call it the "best option" and the "right decision."

The Cowboys head coach stood at the podium as the living embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 16: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys scrambles with the ball on the last play of the game against the San Francisco 49ers during the fourth quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Ar
Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

As Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer mentioned, McCarthy probably won't be fired, but a coaching search will likely occur behind the scenes.

If the Cowboys stand pat, they could very well be looking for new coordinators since Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn are drawing significant interest among the eight head coaching openings. 

Quinn, meanwhile, has drawn interest from the Chicago Bears, Broncos, Jaguars, Dolphins and Vikings. 

The return of McCarthy coupled with the loss of one or both of his coordinators is a bigger disaster waiting to happen since the latter two played such significant roles in the success the Cowboys experienced this season. 

A potentially depleted staff, coupled with a revamped roster based on financial realities, will shuffle the combination of players Jones spoke of earlier.

The Cowboys will move forward with quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, guard Zack Martin, offensive tackle Tyron Smith, linebacker Micah Parsons, edge DeMarcus Lawrence, cornerback Trevon Diggs and wide receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, of course. 

But the Cowboys are one of six teams already in the red for the 2022 campaign despite the NFL's salary cap rising to $208.2 million, which is an increase of $25.7 million over the current number. Even so, Dallas is still $13.1 million over the figure, per Spotrac

Granted, the front office can rework current deals and make roster moves to get the Cowboys comfortably under next year's number. 

At the same time, the overall lack of financial flexibility will have an effect on how much talent the team can retain. Dallas may not be staring down the possibility of losing one of their star players because ownership has done an excellent job locking down the squad's top performers.

However, multiple key contributors could be gone once the franchise's litany of free agents is capable of testing the open market. 

On offense, wide receivers Cedrick Wilson Jr. and Michael Gallup are pending free agents. The duo contributed 80 catches for 1,047 yards and eight touchdown grabs. Gallup's season did end on injured reserve with a torn ACL, so he might consider returning on a short-term, prove-it deal.

Otherwise, both could be looking for more opportunities as featured receivers instead of continuing to play alongside Cooper and Lamb. 

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 16: Dalton Schultz #86 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennin
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Tight end Dalton Schultz is yet another weapon operating on the last year of his current deal. The 2018 fourth-round draft pick experienced a career year and finished tied for first on the team with eight receiving touchdowns, second with 78 receptions and third with 808 yards. 

Upfront, changes will likely need to be made. Left guard Connor Williams is a free agent, too. Center Tyler Biadasz has been the weak link.

The once Great Wall of Dallas is crumbling, as seen during Sunday's performance. The 49ers sacked Prescott five times with 14 total quarterback hits. San Francisco didn't need blitz schemes or elaborate pressure packages to do so.

More often than not, the Niners' defensive front won its matchups, despite Nick Bosa missing the second half with an injury.

Defensively, a lot will depend on Quinn's status. Linebacker Keanu Neal and defensive backs Damontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse were wonderful additions this season. They've flourished because of Dallas' current defensive scheme, but their value lessens if the current defensive coordinator goes elsewhere. If Quinn returns, the Cowboys must find a way to retain their services.

The statuses of defensive end Randy Gregory and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will be interesting as well.

After multiple suspensions stemming from violations of the league's substance abuse policy, Gregory finally put it all together this fall and finally looked like the top talent many projected when he entered the league. How much is Dallas willing to invest in him long-term, though?

Vander Esch didn't get his fifth-year rookie option picked up, yet he still finished third on the team with 77 total tackles after playing in all 17 regular-season contests. 

Dallas isn't who we thought they might be. They're a one-and-done playoff team who's clearly capable of dominating a weak NFC East but not good enough to be anything more.

The collection of talent Jones accumulated in recent years will be difficult to retain, too.

The clock will keep ticking, and the Cowboys won't be any closer to being considered a Super Bowl team than they were this season. 

"We definitely underachieved, and it sucks. Point blank," Prescott stated

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.