Crappy New Year! The Dallas Cowboys just finished third in a four-donkey race.
The New York Giants lost star running back Saquon Barkley to a season-ending injury in September. The Washington Football Team cut starting quarterback and 2019 No. 15 overall draft pick Dwayne Haskins, resorting to a guy coming off 17 leg surgeries. The Philadelphia Eagles were forced to swallow their pride – and plans – and demote woefully underperforming veteran quarterback Carson Wentz.
But even presented with a historically horrible season for the NFC East – one in which it took only seven wins to claim the division – the Cowboys failed to win, much less be winners. (To be fair, they had their share of excuses/injuries as well, led by quarterback Dak Prescott’s season-ending leg injury on Oct. 11.) In a year primed for the playoffs, they instead produced a paltry, peculiar performance that saw them:
*Trail by 14+ points in a franchise-record seven consecutive games.
*Surrender three safeties in their first eight games.
*Block an extra point, only to have it turn into a two-point conversion for the opponent.
*Play (and lose) on a Tuesday.
*Get flexed out of primetime by NBC.
*Fail to score a touchdown on 16 opening drives.
*Allow 57 touchdowns and 473 points, both franchise worsts.
*Have five consecutive touchdowns thrown by five different passers (Cedric Wilson. Dak Prescott. Andy Dalton. Garrett Gilbert. Andy Dalton).
*Lose two games on interceptions in the end zone in the final minute.
*Fail to beat a team with a winning record, boasting a “signature” win at 7-9 Minnesota.
But worse than just an anomaly accented by an asterisk, the 6-10 disappointment is the culmination of a quarter-century of despair. While owner Jerry Jones continues trying to convince himself and his customers that the franchise is “thiiiiiiiiiiis” close, the truth is that the Cowboys just capped 25 seasons of abject failure.
Since winning Super Bowl XXX, they own a .520 winning percentage (208-192), 24 different starting quarterbacks, seven head coaches, four playoff wins and zero appearances in the NFC Championship Game, much less any whiffs of the Super Bowl.
Before we lurch into a 2021 promising to be more positive because of Prescott’s pending long-term contract and healthy comeback, the returns of offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’el Collins, and this season’s bounce-backs by Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory and breakouts by CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz and Donovan Wilson, let’s take one long, lousy look back at a 2020.
10th draft pick.
10. Gallup’s Non-Gaffe – No way around it, two referees cost the Cowboys a chance at a game-tying field in their season-opening, 20-17 loss to the Rams.
Michael Gallup’s 47-yard catch from a perfect Prescott throw was wiped out by a bogus pass-interference penalty – called by two officials – with 31 seconds remaining. It was minimal hand-fighting. Nothing special. No significant advantage earned. Instead of a first down at the Rams’ 19 and a chance at overtime, the flag resulted in a 57-yard penalty.
Ominous tone for an awful season.
9. Feed Fumbles – Ezekiel Elliott fumbled only three times in 355 touches in 2019, but against the Cardinals on Monday Night Football – just a couple weeks after debuting his “FEED ME!” stomach tattoo – he developed the yips.
He lost the ball on consecutive carries, en route to five fumbles in his first 122 touches of the season.
Elliott’s turnovers led to a 31-3 deficit and an accurate analysis by ESPN play-by-play voice Steve Levy, “The Cowboys are, let’s face it, a helluva mess.”
8. From “Hot Boyz” to “Tabasco Fiasco” – During a Zoom press conference with reporters Oct. 27, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan attempted to explain the ineptitude. Instead, he confirmed 2020.
His unit had two days earlier been repeatedly burned in a 22-point loss to Washington, and Dallas’ run defense was embarrassingly ranked 31st out of 32 NFL teams.
“Whoops, excuse me,” Nolan said suddenly on the video call, dabbing his left eye with his COVID-19 mask. “Um, I had some Tabasco on my finger and it just went in my eye … It’s terrible! … Geez … Give me one second.”
7. Forgettable First – A Week 2 game against the Falcons that climaxed with one of the wildest – watermelon kick ring a bell? – finishes began with one of the worst 15 minutes of football in franchise history. Four fumbles on offense, including three in the first 10 snaps.
Defense allowed two touchdown passes, including a ghastly blown coverage that allowed Atlanta tight end Hayden Hurst to literally walk in from 42 yards. And on special teams, the Cowboys added a failed fake punt, a decision to return a kickoff from five yards in the end zone and a 10-yard penalty on a return. Six possessions in the first quarter without receiving the opening kickoff was like a David Blaine mind-melt. Add it all up and the Cowboys trailed, 20-0.
6. R.I.P, MP – On Nov. 24, the team canceled practice after Markus Paul, its 54-year-old strength-and-conditioning assistant coach, suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. He passed away a day later. The team wore “MP” decals on their helmets the remainder of the season.
5. Baltimore Bottom-Out – Tough to pinpoint one defining moment from a defense that surrendered 307 rushing yards to the Browns and allowed point totals of 39-38-49 in a three-game stretch, but Dec. 8 was a total embarrassment to a franchise that once hung Super Bowl banners behind a “Doomsday Defense.”
Trailing 24-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had the Ravens in a third-and-3 at Dallas’ 21. Jaylon Smith was the one-on-one spy on Lamar Jackson. But the MVP quarterback nonchalantly danced and darted, with a trailing Smith finally ushering him out of bounds after a four-yard, first-down gain.
After the play, Smith and Jackson tapped each other’s helmet and exchanged big smiles. Bottom line: Smith thought it was amusing – even funny – that he and the Cowboys got punked by Jackson on national TV.
In the same game, safety Xavier Woods flailed haplessly on a sorta tackle attempt on a touchdown, played a Jackson scramble embarrassingly passive and wound up only soft-shoving the quarterback out of bounds after he converted a third-down run, and literally tackled a Baltimore receiver even though the intended pass was overthrown by a good 10 yards.
Even Fox analyst Troy Aikman – not known for his sharp tongue – couldn’t hold back.
“That’s about as poor of safety play as you’ll see,” Aikman said after Woods’ egregious pass-interference penalty. And after he played Patty Cake with Jackson, Aikman unleashed again: “You’d like a safety that can come up and be a thumper. (Woods) has a chance to make a play and hit Lamar Jackson short of the first down. But … I just don’t know exactly what this is. It’s not what you want to see from your safety, that’s for sure.”
The Cowboys’ defense absolutely, visibly quit. And there’s nothing funny about that. To quote Ravens’ offensive lineman Orlando Brown after Baltimore’s final waltz-in touchdown: “Easy money!”
4. Head Hunting – In the good ol’/bad ol’ days of Cowboys-R*dskins, Washington linebacker Jon Bostic would have been fighting 10 players with a star on their helmet. But after his cheap-shot hit on a sliding Dalton on Oct. 25, no Cowboys did nuthin’.
Very telling. Unfortunately. The rivalry is gone. So was the Cowboys’ fight.
3. END Zone, Indeed – The Cowboys lost two games on passes that were intercepted in the end zone in the final minute. Worse, both were thrown on third down. Trailing Seattle, 38-31, Prescott’s third-and-11 prayer from the 25-yard line was picked off with 14 seconds remaining.
And last Sunday trailing the Giants by four, a bloodied, gutsy Dalton ended Dallas’ season by lofting a wobbling duck of a pass on third-and-goal from New York’s 20.
Call them premature evacuations.
2. Dak-saster – Prescott was leading the NFL in passing and was an early MVP frontrunner when he scrambled for a nine-yard gain in the third quarter against the Giants at AT&T Stadium.
With his foot caught awkwardly underneath him and tackler Logan Ryan, Prescott suffered a gruesome right ankle/leg injury that forced him from the field on a cart, in tears and headed for surgery.
In the wake of his departure and a concussion/COVID timeout for Dalton, head coach Mike McCarthy was forced to use three different starting quarterbacks (Dalton, Gilbert and Ben DiNucci). In the first three games without Prescott the Cowboys were outscored, 86-22, and the offense produced only one touchdown in 36 drives.
1. McCarthy’s McConfusion – Be careful what we wish for, eh?
A fandom that for years bemoaned Jason Garrett’s conservative, vanilla “process” this season was constantly dumbfounded by Mike McCarthy’s, um, flexible game management.
Started in the opener in Los Angeles, when – trailing 20-17 in the fourth quarter – he eschewed a game-tying field goal for a failed fourth-and-three pass.
Against the Falcons in Week 2, he tried an ill-timed two-point conversion and two fake punts, one relying on a right-handed pass from a left-footed kicker.
Trailing Atlanta 39-30, he went for two.
A week later in Seattle trailing 30-21, he kicked the extra point.
In Week 6 against the Cardinals, McCarthy ordered a 58-yard field goal attempt … trailing by 25.
Against the undefeated Steelers in Week 9, he passed on a fourth-and-inches at Pittsburgh’s 22 for a field goal and a 19-9 lead that would eventually deteriorate into a 24-19 loss.
On Thanksgiving against the WFT, he approved a pass on fourth-and-one at the Cowboys’ 34 in a 10-10 game, then green-lighted a reverse fake punt on fourth-and-10 from their own 24 down only four points with 13 minutes remaining.
The Cowboys were outscored after the inexplicable call, 21-0, and the loss ultimately cost them the NFC East to 7-9 Washington.
And last Sunday in a low-scoring brawl against the Giants, the Cowboys scored to pull within 20-15 only to have their head coach kick the extra point and, ultimately, need a touchdown on their final drive instead of a field goal.
Defiant to the criticism from the dumbfounded, McCarthy labeled the fake punt against Washington as “solid” and “a good play design”, and said the strategy to not go for two against the Giants was “a clean decision.”
The Cowboys were a bad team. Their head coach made them worse.