It’s déjà vu for the Dallas Cowboys.
Sunday’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers was the latest in a litany of playoff shortcomings for Dallas as the Cowboys’ desire to win a Super Bowl ring appears to be as far away as ever.
Dubbed “America’s Team” and with owner Jerry Jones never afraid to speak about his title aspirations, it is almost 30 years since the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl triumph.
The 19-12 defeat to the 49ers means the Cowboys now have the longest streak of playoff appearances (12) in NFL history without a conference title game appearance.
And with questions surrounding the team’s head coach, quarterback and – surprisingly – its kicker, the offseason for the Cowboys could be a monumental one.
This was meant to be the season where everything coalesced for Dallas to become the championship team that Jones has craved for so long.
After three Super Bowl rings in four years in the 1990s, Jones has rotated players, coaches and other personnel in search of a winning formula.
Since the 1995 Super Bowl victory, the team has made the playoffs 12 times, going one-and-done seven times.
This season was meant to be different. With Mike McCarthy – a Super Bowl winner during his time in Green Bay – at the helm in his third year, the team was supposedly no longer a work in progress.
Jones hasn’t been afraid to make the public aware of the pressure McCarthy was under to deliver success.
“I think we’re in better shape today to make a run at it than when we were sitting here this time last year,” he said in July before the start of the year.
And with a star-studded offense and defense, the team looked to be in good shape. Even when starting quarterback Dak Prescott missed multiple weeks due to injury, the team didn’t miss a beat, going 4-1 with Cooper Rush at the helm.
Although a 12-5 record wasn’t able to secure the NFC East division title behind the runaway Philadelphia Eagles, the Cowboys once again made the playoffs.
Any doubts about the Cowboys’ mettle were seemingly dispelled in their Wild Card domination of Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with Prescott accounting for five touchdowns in a 31-14 win.
Yet facing the opponent who knocked them out of the playoffs last year, it was a same old story: Prescott struggling in the big moments, finishing with two interceptions against the 49ers’ No. 1 in the league defense as the Cowboys cracked under pressure.
The game ended on a strange note as, needing a touchdown with just six seconds left on the clock from their own 24-yard line, McCarthy pulled out a strange formation which saw running back Ezekiel Elliot snapping the ball to Prescott as the only member of the offensive line with everyone else split out wide.
The play didn’t work as Cowboys wide receiver KaVontae Turpin was immediately tackled by a 49ers defender and Dallas’ season was over.
“It didn’t get going,” McCarthy said of the gadget play.
He added: “I really don’t want to get into detail on it, but that obviously wasn’t the plan. It’s obviously a gadget play or whatever to end it. It’s the last-play-situation call we practice.”
The future of ‘The Boys’
Jones has never been afraid to ring in the changes at Dallas.
But, after another unsatisfactory end to the year for the Cowboys, Jones was surprisingly resolute on his coaching staff, despite reports swirling he could be in the market for a change. Jones backed McCarthy after the loss, despite former New Orleans Saints’ head coach Sean Payton lurking as a potential replacement.
“No, no, not at all,” Jones told reporters, per The Athletic’s Jon Machota, when asked if the result changed his mind on McCarthy as a head coach of his team. “But this is very sickening.”
McCarthy himself said he was “extremely disappointed.”
“This has been an incredible journey with this group of men,” he told reporters. “We just came up short tonight to a very good football team.”
If McCarthy is to return for a fourth season, he will have quite the job on his hands with the pressure presumably ratcheted up another notch or two.
He may have to construct an offense without its current coordinator, Kellan Moore, who has attracted interest from other teams about head coaching vacancies.
And the topsy-turvy nature of Prescott’s play will be a worry. One week, the 29-year-old can look like one of the NFL’s best, and the next will struggle mightily, like he did on Sunday.
After the error-strewn defeat, Prescott shouldered the blame for Dallas.
“Guys that played their asses off: defense, who gave us an opportunity to win this game, who played hard against a really, really good offense, a really good team,” he told reporters.
“And for us to only put up the points that we did, that’s unacceptable, and it starts with me. I’ve got to be better. No other way to sugarcoat it.”
Prescott explained that his performance against San Francisco, which included some mistakes which are atypical of a championship-winning quarterback, has given him plenty to work on during the offseason.
“Yeah, it’s very frustrating. Something I’ve got to get in the offseason. Take a look at all of them. As I’ve said before, they all have their own story. But two [interceptions] tonight. Unacceptable,” he said.
“Can’t put the ball in jeopardy like that. Whether they’re tipped up in tight throws or I’m late on a stop route, just can’t happen. The number that it has gotten to is ridiculous. I can promise that the number will never be this again. I can promise that.”
The Cowboys are one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, but no titles in almost 30 years will be a worry for everyone involved.
Not for the first time, its back to the drawing board for “America’s Team.”