With their early wild-card exit from the 2022 NFL playoffs, the Cowboys will still be stuck on last winning the Super Bowl in 1996. In the 26 years since, Dallas is one of only three NFC teams (Detroit and Washington being the others) that hasn’t made it to a conference championship game.
After getting through some lean years with makeshift post Troy Aikman quarterbacks, the Cowboys have had several promising teams with Tony Romo and Dak Prescott manning the most important position. Jerry Jones and the front office have had some great drafts to load up the talent around the QB.
But whether it’s been Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett or Mike McCarthy as head coach, something has been missing to push the team back toward the big-time playoff success it once enjoyed. Since 2007, the Cowboys have made the playoffs with 11 or more wins five times, only to not last past divisional weekend any of those times, including twice as a No. 1 seed.
No wonder Jones was frustrated to the point “he can’t remember” the last time he was so disappointed in a Cowboys’ playoff result like he was after their home loss to the 49ers. With Prescott coming back fully healthy to play at a high level and a playmaking defense, Dallas seemed to have a real shot at making a deep run, unlike some other recent editions of the team.
But now that the Cowboys went one and done, what do they need to do to get to another Super Bowl anytime soon? Here’s a breakdown of five fixes Dallas must make to fare better as a contender next year:
NFL MOCK DRAFT 2022:
Steelers pass on QBs, Cowboys pad defense, Eagles load up after playoff exits
Go back to work on improving the offensive and defensive lines
The Cowboys, in front of Prescott and their running game, are still are seeing excellent play from their stalwart future Hall of Famers, left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin. But left guard Conor Williams and right tackle La’el Collins haven’t been delivering to support Smith, Martin and young center Tyler Biadasz well. The Cowboys need to consider big change in the complementary spots to Smith and Martin and also develop youth behind them.
The defensive line was highlighted by DeMarcus Lawrence on the edge in Dan Quinn’s 4-3 scheme, but the Cowboys also were weak inside there at times. Tackle Carlos Watkins and end Randy Gregory are free agents. Although Dallas had good depth in its defensive line rotation to be effective against run and pass, some of the limitations were masked by the elite play of rookie linebacker Micah Parsons.
The Cowboys have lost their standout overall strengths in the trenches. That’s how and where the 49ers beat them on both sides in the wild-card round.
Get more offensive balance to match the explosiveness
The Cowboys, to no one’s surprise with Prescott and the aggressive play-calling of young offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, had the No. 4 passing offense in the NFL. Somehow, they also were tied for No. 9 in rushing offense (122 yards per game).
But there were many games where the Cowboys were one-dimensional or the running game was a non-factor, boom or bust from game to game. Ezekiel Elliott, with his massive volume through age 26, often looked worn down playing through his knee injury and Tony Pollard was more effective in flashes when not dealing with his foot injujry. The Cowboys were only No. 22 with their percentage of running plays, just more than 40 percent.
The Buccaneers and Chiefs can get away with big pass-happier schemes when knowing how effective they will be with Tom Brady operating for Bruce Arians and Patrick Mahomes lighting it up for Andy Reid. They still pick good spots to run to put away games and play off their downfield passing threats. The Cowboys were solid in the red zone but there was too much pressure on Prescott to deliver in key spots. They used to be a strong ball-control team in the Garrett era. The Cowboys were only No. 19 in time of possession in 2021, which also didn’t protect a defense that was vulnerable to giving big plays.
Make the secondary more well-rounded
Trevon Diggs had 11 interceptions to become a star cornerback in one regard, but he also got lost in coverage plenty of times when not making plays on the ball. Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis also were exploited often. Safety was saved a bit by journeyman Jayron Kearse, but he, Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker are all free agents. The Cowboys also played former Falcons safety Keanu Neal at linebacker to help Parsons and Leighton Vander Esch.
The Cowboys used to be more about bending without breaking. They did get aggressive to change games with takeaways, but they need to be more assignment sound in many aspects. No. 2 corner and a promising young No. 1 safety should be among the early draft considerations along with offensive and defensive linemen. Jones and his scouting team have their work cut out for them finding the best values and a few immediate impact players at those positions.
Be more consistent and congruent with their coaching
Moore sometimes looks like an absolute genius with what he’s calling for Prescott. But there are games when he forgets too much about the run or doesn’t get one of his three talented wide receivers (mostly CeeDee Lamb) involved enough. Quinn has a unit to built to tee off on teams when playing with leads, but it can wilt if teams can stay running with a positive game script. The Cowboys allowed 4.5 yards per carry.
Mike McCarthy, an old-school West Coast disciple, was a different kind of offensive-minded coach with the Packers than Moore is. Green Bay also would operate 3-4 defenses under McCarthy that didn’t resemble Quinn’s base scheme. There can be a disconnect in the overall game plan, what’s best overall to win games. The Cowboys were better playing complementary football in the Garrett and Rod Marinelli days. They were just too conservative at times then.
It’s not a surprise Dallas has aggressively gone into a stark contrast now searching for better results, but it needs to find a happy medium between the two mind-sets. That’s a sweet spot that most of the reliable NFC Super Bowl contenders have found and for which the Cowboys are still searching.
Work harder on more disciplined play
The Cowboys led the league with 127 penalties accepted against them, even ahead of the Raiders, notorious for drawing yellow in Silver and Black over the years. Dallas had been rather good in this area for recent previous seasons, finishing more middle of the pack, so that’s a trend it must reverse fast. Offensive holding and defensive pass interference calls — the ultimate drive killers and drive extenders, respectively — were especially high. That screams for those offensive line and secondary upgrades.
Dallas had a lot of sloppiness in getting to 12-5 and taking back the NFC East title with Prescott. The Cowboys were fine in division play, going 6-0, but they were only 6-5 outside of playing the Eagles, Giants and Washington and only 4-3 at home non-division, losing to the Broncos, Raiders, Cardinals. Looking back at their considerable flaws during the regular season, that foreshadowed losing to a sound, fundamental, well-coached team such as the 49ers.
The Cowboys gave themselves a high floor with Prescott again in 2021. But it will take a while to get to a ceiling that’s on par with the more established NFC powerhouses such as 49ers, Buccaneers, Packers and Rams.