LANDOVER, Md. — The Cowboys looked in offseason form in their final regular season game before the playoffs.
Multiple disasters on special teams. Uninspiring play on offense. Little positive was accomplished Sunday in a 26-6 loss to the Washington Commanders, except perhaps callousing a fan base’s expectations as to whether or not the upcoming playoff trip will be any different than those in the recent past.
Based on what transpired at FedEx Field, it does not appear that way.
Here are five takeaways from the embarrassing outing:
Date with Tampa
Somewhere inside a Florida not-yet-retirement community, a 45-year-old Tom Brady is surely trembling in his Under Armor boots because of the well-oiled machine coming his way.
It is official: the Cowboys will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the postseason. Dallas looked not at all up to the task Sunday. The team managed one first down on its first six possessions against Washington, and quarterback Dak Prescott threw a pick-six for the third time in four games.
If the Cowboys won, it wouldn’t have mattered.
They were locked into the Tampa trip either way because the Philadelphia Eagles handled their business against the New York Giants.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy on the terrible outing his team put on film: “I’m not a ‘burn the tape’ guy.” Promises it will be evaluated and learned from. pic.twitter.com/jcMH83mHYo
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) January 9, 2023
It would have been enough for the offense to have struggled Sunday – and the offense did. More on that shortly.
But the errors on special teams were enough to bury the Cowboys on a good day.
After the opening drive quickly stalled, punter Bryan Anger fumbled the ensuing snap and was tackled 13 yards behind the line of scrimmage. That cost the Cowboys about 60 yards in field position, setting up a quick touchdown and effectively setting the tone for the afternoon.
Later in the first quarter, Pro Bowl rookie returner KaVontae Turpin muffed a punt. Kicker Brett Maher missed an extra point before halftime.
Anger’s dropped snap on a punt was fluky. So it was Maher’s extra point, considering how solid he has been all year. Dismissing Turpin’s error as a freak incident is more difficult, considering the occurrence was the second in five games; he also muffed a punt Dec. 11 against the Houston Texans.
This is a player who played 11 USFL games before three in the preseason and 17 in the regular season. Thirty-one games is a lot of football, and these recent errors make it fair to question whether Turpin has hit a wall of some kind.
Big problem no. 1
There are two areas that should concern the Cowboys most entering the playoffs.
First, the utter lack of a running game is a problem.
Right tackle Terence Steele suffered a season-ending ACL tear against Houston. In four games since, the one-time offensive strength has simply not been the same. Now, the Tennessee Titans and Washington Commanders have quality defensive fronts. But that does not excuse running backs Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott combining for 15 carries and 29 yards on Sunday.
That statistic is less about the two Cowboys backs and more about the offensive line and tight ends’ inability of late to create space for them.
Dallas expects to get back center Tyler Biadasz (high ankle sprain) for the first round of the playoffs. That helps. His presence can default the Cowboys’ offensive line to their best available combination with Tyler Smith at left tackle and Connor McGovern at left guard. On Sunday, Smith was at left guard and McGovern at center with Jason Peters at left tackle.
Resetting the line, however, is no magic fix.
Steele’s absence is felt. And come playoffs, it could really hurt.
Cowboys RG Zack Martin: “We do this again, we’ll be sitting at home next week.”
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) January 9, 2023
Big problem no. 2
Beyond knowing that Kelvin Joseph is not the answer, the Cowboys appear no closer to identifying how to proceed at their outside cornerback spot opposite Trevon Diggs since the moment Anthony Brown suffered a season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear on Dec. 4.
Or at least, proceed and feel confident about it.
Trayvon Mullen, added Dec. 14 after the Arizona Cardinals waived him, made his team debut Sunday. The experiment with him in Brown’s place may need to be contained to the regular season because he was flagged for one third-down pass interference and allowed a 52-yard catch to Commanders wide receiver Terry McLaurin.
Injury was added to insult.
Cornerback DaRon Bland, a rookie fifth-round pick who has a team-high five interceptions, exited in the second half with a chest injury. There is a chance the secondary’s hopes will be pinned on cornerback Xavier Rhodes, an accomplished player who was signed to the practice squad Saturday.
Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans awaits.
If the Cowboys find themselves trying to win a playoff game in Tampa without a run game, they’d better be able to throw the football.
They sure couldn’t Sunday.
Wide receiver Noah Brown found little separation on six targets. The only one he converted into a catch came on a 10-yard pass on third-and-5 during the opening drive. Prescott had several seconds to throw and needed every moment of pocket time.
Prescott finished 14-of-37 for 128 yards, one touchdown and the aforementioned interception that he telegraphed and returned for a Kendall Fuller touchdown. He was pulled late in the fourth for Cooper Rush.
Prescott threw for 80 yards in the first half. That total was his fewest since 53 yards in Week 1 against, of course, the Buccaneers.
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