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Déjà Vu in Dallas: What Comes Next After the Latest Cowboys Playoff Collapse?

Jerry Jones has said he would make a deal with the devil for a Super Bowl. Something will have to change in Dallas for that to become possible.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“There is absolutely nothing, short of the health and goodwill of the people I care about, there’s nothing that means more to me than if I could get a Super Bowl,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said at the NFL combine back in 2019. “Nothing.”

A couple of years later, Jones was asked whether he would make a deal with the devil for a Super Bowl.

“I found that he’s not quite as responsive to one’s individual ask as you might think,” Jones said. “I’m not trying to be sacrilegious here, but the facts are that I would. Right now, if I could, and I knew that I had a good chance to do it, I’d do anything known to man to get in a Super Bowl.”

Earlier this season, Jones described winning a Super Bowl as the “absolute glory hole.”

If that is how Jones describes winning a Super Bowl, then I shudder to think how he would describe Dallas’s 48-32 loss to the Packers on Sunday. The final score doesn’t do the game justice. The Cowboys were embarrassed from the opening drive and were down 32 points in the fourth quarter.

Dallas allowed the most points in a playoff game in team history. Green Bay had 20 points before Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb had a catch. Packers quarterback Jordan Love finished one point off of a perfect passer rating versus Dallas’s vaunted defense. When Green Bay went up 27-0, the Packers had more interception return yards (64) than Prescott had passing yards to his own team (61), per ESPN Stats & Info.

“I don’t think anyone,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said after the game, “saw this coming.”

Jones is the Cowboys owner, but he is also a Cowboys fan, and Cowboys fans are like Charlie Brown. They know that no matter how tempting the football looks, it will be ripped out from underneath them. But this Dallas team was one of the most convincing Lucys in years. The offense ranked fourth in points, the defense was perhaps the league’s most disruptive, and the rookie kicker set the franchise record for points in a season. Cowboys fans bought in, hoping for something different. But instead, the Cowboys once again brought their worst right when everyone expected their best. Dallas has been associated with playoff disappointment for decades, but Sunday was its masterpiece. Now Jones has to figure out how to lead this team back to, uh, glory.

The Cowboys are now—and forever will be—the first 2-seed to lose to a 7-seed in the NFL postseason since the league expanded the format. It’s fitting because this game felt like the March Madness game in which a 3-seeded Duke team playing with the weight of the world on its shoulders whimpered against a 14-seed Mercer playing with house money. And like a basketball upset, it started with Dallas’s best two players completely out of rhythm.

Quarterback Dak Prescott bewilderingly failed to have any kind of connection with Lamb while the game was close. Prescott missed Lamb’s outstretched arms by inches on a third-and-8 on Dallas’s first drive. After that play, McCarthy talked to Lamb on the sideline, and Prescott and Lamb looked exasperated talking to each other in the first quarter. Lamb, who led the NFL and set a Cowboys franchise record with 135 catches this season, finished with nine catches for 110 yards in this game—but almost all of that came after announcer Greg Olsen was questioning whether the Packers should bench their starters. Desperate to get Lamb the ball, Prescott forced one to him out of the two-minute warning, but Packers safety Darnell Savage jumped the route for a pick-six.

It was Prescott’s second interception of the game, after he threw a pick to cornerback Jaire Alexander, who won a physical battle for the ball, on Dallas’s second drive.

Dak’s interceptions were eerily reminiscent of last year’s loss to San Francisco in the divisional round, when Prescott also threw interceptions on the second and fourth drives of the game. The year before that, Prescott failed to get the ball spiked after a failed QB draw with 14 seconds left in the game, ending Dallas’s season in the wild-card round. At this point, Prescott’s playoff failures define his career.

“I sucked tonight,” Prescott said after the game.

But most of the ire from this game will rightfully be directed at McCarthy and the coaching staff. In a season when Dallas dominated by throwing on offense and playing man on defense, Dallas came out running and playing zone. Love shredded Dallas, starting 8-of-10 for 135 yards vs. zone coverage. It wasn’t the only mistake from the Cowboys. Micah Parsons was dropped into coverage on an early third-and-9, leading to a Packers conversion. A Dallas defender ran into the Packers punt returner on what should have been a fair catch, drawing a penalty that moved the ball from the 9-yard line to the 24-yard line (Super Bowl teams can usually defend a fair catch, but not Dallas). Packers tight end Luke Musgrave caught the game-sealing touchdown by getting about as wide open as humanly possible. The Cowboys killed their own comeback attempt by committing a penalty on a two-point conversion, which is supposed to be the best—and most buttoned-up—play an offense has. It was the classic lack of attention to detail that McCarthy teams have come to embody. But the best way to illustrate how thoroughly McCarthy was outcoached by Matt LaFleur, the man who replaced him, is through timeouts.

After the TV timeout at the end of the first quarter, LaFleur drew up a pass to Romeo Doubs for 15 yards that took Green Bay to the 1-yard line (Aaron Jones punched in the touchdown on the next play, giving Doubs the hockey assist). On Green Bay’s fourth drive, LaFleur used a timeout to draw up a 39-yard catch-and-run to Doubs. When McCarthy used a timeout later on the same drive, LaFleur drew up a third-and-7 touchdown pass to rookie fifth-round wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks. Even on defense, the Packers jumped a Prescott throw to Lamb for a pick-six after the two-minute warning. That is four clock stoppages in the first half that went for two Packers touchdowns and set up a third, plus another 39-yard gain. Every time Green Bay’s coaches had a second to breathe, they knew exactly how to attack Dallas.

This seems like a good time to note that Jerry Jones hired McCarthy in part because Dallas kept losing to the Packers. That Green Bay—the youngest team in the NFL, which was entering this season in a transition year—is defeating the Dallas Cowboys and Jones, who is apparently trying to make deals with the devil and not hearing back, makes it even more heart-wrenching for Cowboys fans. And it only adds to the lore of Green Bay bashing Dallas. The loss ended Dallas’s undefeated mark at home this season—and 16-game home winning streak. The streak that survived is Green Bay’s undefeated 5-0 mark at AT&T Stadium.

For a Cowboys team that lost the “Dez caught it” playoff game in January 2015 and the Aaron Rodgers third-and-20 game in January 2017, this loss was not just devastating—it was déjà vu. Don’t take my word for it.

The question now: What will Jones and the Cowboys do? Many will call for McCarthy’s head. But Jones has been loyal to his coaches and players for years. Jason Garrett got nearly a decade in Dallas. But last week, when asked about McCarthy’s job security, Jones said he’d “see how each game goes” in the playoffs.

Narrator: It didn’t go well. Jones said after the game it was one of the biggest surprises since he got involved in sports. Per The Athletic’s Jon Machota, Jones said, “I’m floored,” which might as well be a quote from Charlie Brown flat on his back, staring up at the sky. Dallas is the first team to win 12 games in three straight seasons and not make the conference championship game, per ESPN Stats & Info.

Plenty will pine for Bill Belichick. It’s hard to see Belichick, who will likely want complete control of the football operation, working with Jones, who prides himself on having his hands in everything, including “the socks and the jocks.”

We’ve also seen this movie before. More than 20 years ago, Jones convinced Bill Parcells to take the job, and Parcells had four unremarkable seasons in Dallas. Parcells, Belichick’s mentor, may be the perfect comparison for Belichick. There’s no guarantee Belichick would turn the Cowboys around—and Belichick would appear to need full control over the roster, something Jones is unlikely to give. The same logic applies to Jim Harbaugh, who would cement his legend status by bringing a title to Michigan and the Dallas Cowboys. But could Harbaugh work with—and for—Jones?

A good coach would do wonders for Dallas. The Cowboys draft incredibly well. They selected Prescott in the fourth round. They built a stout offensive line with (Hall of Fame) guard Zack Martin, center Travis Frederick, and left tackle Tyron Smith, and they rebuilt it with guard Tyler Smith and center Tyler Biadasz. They drafted most of their defensive contributors, including edge rushers Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence; cornerbacks Trevon Diggs, Jourdan Lewis, and DaRon Bland (fifth-rounder); and safeties Donovan Wilson (sixth-rounder) and Jayron Kearse (seventh-rounder). Dallas might be the best drafting team of the past decade. Those picks are courtesy of Dallas’s front office personnel guru Will McClay (who just got a raise after getting more general manager interview requests this month).

The Cowboys have talent. They just are always less than the sum of their parts. Fixing that is a coach’s job. There is certainly an argument that Belichick or Harbaugh would take the absurd talent on Dallas’s roster and turn the team into a proper contender in January and February in short order.

Jones would do anything for a Super Bowl—even make a deal with the devil. Perhaps if he ceded some control, he’d be amazed by what glories await. Until then, the Cowboys are in a different kind of hole.