The Dallas Cowboys season came to an abrupt end Saturday night at the Collesium in the Divisional round of the playoffs. The culprit, a superior Los Angeles Rams team effectively flipped the script against the Cowboys and beat them at their own game, possessing the ball, draining the clock, and playing smashmouth football to break the will of the defense. The result was a 30-22 Rams victory.
For a season that stumbled out of the gate with a 3-5 start, it’s impressive that Jason Garrett and the team’s leaders were able to hold the locker room together and rattle off 7 wins in 8 games to finish 10-6 and win the NFC East. But rather than falter once the playoffs began, Dallas instead largely dominated the Seattle Seahawks to get their first win of the 21-4 Era of Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott.
When Cody Parkey then missed his 43-yard field goal attempt to allow Philadelphia to hold on for their own upset, the hands of fate seemingly smiled upon Dallas. Rather than match up with the highly motivated New Orleans Saints, whom the Cowboys had humbled just a few weeks prior, Dallas would instead head to Los Angeles for a date with the unproven Rams. Despite being powered by a top 5 defense and playing a borderline home game, the Cowboys remained solidly the underdog, and as it turns out, for good reason.
LA racked up the most rushing yards in a playoff game in its franchise’s history behind CJ Anderson and Todd Gurley, gashing a proud Cowboy defense for 273 yards and nearly 6 yards a carry. Elliott, meanwhile, was held to just 47 yards on 20 carries. When your offensive identity is built around being about to run the ball, that’s not going to cut it. Making matters worse was Zeke’s 15 total yards on 10 first down rushing attempts, immediately putting Dallas behind the 8-ball drive after drive and contributing heavily to their going 1-10 on 3rd down.
And yet in spite of everything: the questionable officiating, several ticky-tack calls, the defense forcing just one LA punt and sacking Jared Goff 0 times, Dallas lost by just one score. Dak Prescott didn’t commit a turnover, meaning the Cowboys are now 26-2 in such situations. The offense put up 20 points as well, making this their first loss of the season in 11 games in which they scored at least 20. It was a night for breaking season-long trends, and the defense is the clearest example of just that.
It’s on me. I have to do a much better job of having our guys prepared to execute when we get out there on the field. … We didn’t attain our goal. Our goal is as simple as us being the best that we can absolutely be. Tonight, we did not show that.
The Dallas defensive line surrendered 100+ yards to a running back just 3 times all season but gave up 2 in the same game against the Rams. More specifically, 4 of those 5 runners reached the marker after Week 15 (Mack – 139, Barkley – 109, Anderson – 123, Gurley 115). The defense also managed zero quarterback hits despite ripping Pro Football Focus’s rating system earlier in the week for not ranking them higher.
So how will this loss affect the Cowboys moving forward? Their proud defense was humbled -borderline humiliated by a more physical opponent as they amassed 459 total yards. The much-maligned offense upheld most of its responsibilities, scoring 22 points (season average was 21.9), and avoided turnovers but for most of the second half, Dallas was chasing from a double-digit deficit.
Losses like this hurt -and damn bad at that. But from these defeats, a team can go one of two directions. Either they get angry and come back hungrier the following season, or they fall off the following season. With Dallas being the youngest team in this year’s playoffs with an average age of 26 years and roughly 3 weeks, this team’s window should just be beginning to open.
The offensive line has seen some substantial change the past two seasons, and will likely see more moving forward. Travis Fredrick is currently projected to return to action for the start of Training Camp in August, and Connor Williams may end up flipping positions with La’el Collins in the offseason. The defense, meanwhile, is flush with talent and will benefit from potential reinforcements and another year of development within Kris Richard’s defense.
Speaking of Richard, it’s looking very likely at this point he returns to the team next year as the only remaining Head Coaching job he was being linked to has now pivoted toward New England’s Defensive Coordinator, Brian Flores. Expect Richard to get a pay raise and to be elevated to DC while Rod Marinelli transitions to a senior defensive advisor role, something Marinelli has said he’s more than willing to do to keep Richard in Big D.
Beyond that, Dallas has some personnel decisions to make moving forward. DeMarcus Lawrence, Cole Beasley, Geoff Swaim, Tavon Austin, L.P Ladouceur, Cam Fleming, Damien Wilson, Rod Smith, and David Irving are all officially out of contract, and Sean Lee is reportedly contemplating retirement. Dallas could franchise Lawrence once more but it’s more likely the team finally gives their “war daddy” a multi-year contract given his phenomenal play and the leadership role he has assumed the past two seasons.
The biggest change to the coaching staff should be at Offensive Coordinator as Scott Linehan, the source of much of Dallas’ offensive criticism the past two seasons, is expected to be replaced, though the exact list of candidates for the job is currently unclear. Despite most fans longing for a young, bright offensive mind like a Lincoln Riley or some other Sean McVay-type, odds are the Cowboys and Jason Garrett, who is expected to sign a lucrative new contract this offseason, will make a far less “splashy” signing with someone who philosophically fits their existing system.
While nothing is certain, the core of this team is expected to be back in 2019, meaning the memory of this sound beating will remain within the mental mainframe of that locker room. Another year of development and a hungry team determined to prove its doubters wrong as it seeks to break out and claim what it feels it has earned. It happened with the 1991 Dallas Cowboys, and with one more good draft and a lot of cap money at their disposal, it can happen with these 2018 Cowboys as well.