It’s not every year that Cowboys fans get to dream about postseason glory, but we’re certainly there for the 2022 season. While we don’t yet know who Dallas’ first playoff opponent will be, or even what round that game will be in, excitement is certainly mounting. But for seemingly many fans, there’s also a degree of pessimism after such a long run of disappointments in Dallas’ playoff appearances. Why should this trip to the tournament be any different?
Since the fall of the 90s dynasty until now, the Cowboys haven’t returned to the NFC Championship Game in 26 seasons. It’s been mostly due to failing to even make the playoffs, only qualifying in 11 of those 26 years since Dallas’ last Super Bowl victory in 1995. But those 11 postseason berths have had their own brand of futility as the Cowboys have only won four of fifteen games and never made it past the second round.
Now it would be silly to pin the sins of past coaches and players on this year’s squad. There’s no connective tissue between the 2022 Dallas Cowboys and many of those past teams, and barely any left even from the Jason Garrett era. But unfortunately, we only have to go back to last year’s first-round loss to the 49ers for the latest installment in this tragic series of events.
How last year went
The miasma spread right into Mike McCarthy’s first playoff appearance as Dallas’ head coach. The Cowboys went from a 12-4 regular season to another ugly exit, getting roughed up at home by the wild card Niners. Sitting at 12-4 again ahead of their regular-season finale, this year’s Cowboys are hoping that’s where the similarity to last season’s results ends.
But as a fan, especially if you’ve endured all the hardships over these many years, how much hope can you really have? Is this team any better poised for playoff success than last year’s?
Obviously, there is still a lot about the 2022 Cowboys that was there a year ago. The coaching staff is relatively the same, Dak Prescott’s still the quarterback, and Micah Parsons is still the top defensive player. And much like in 2021, the team is finishing out the regular season with one of the NFL’s hottest offenses and a sporadically dangerous defense; high on big plays but still weak against the run.
Much of this comes down to matchups and what happens in those crucial moments of games. What if the Cowboys had had one more timeout in their bag during that final drive against San Francisco last January? They almost got in position for a game-winning touchdown without it. What if the 2014 Cowboys hadn’t been screwed by a bad call on Dez Bryant’s “catch” in Green Bay? What if Patrick Crayton hadn’t dropped that pass in 2007, or if Tony Romo hadn’t botched the hold on that field goal in 2006?
Everyone projected that the 49ers were going to be a bad matchup for the Cowboys last year, and that proved true in the game. Had Dallas hosted a different wild card team in that first round, who knows what happens? Even in the 1990s, Dallas’ toughest tests came in those NFC Championship Games against San Francisco. The Super Bowl was the crowning jewel, but the Bills and the Steelers weren’t their greatest obstacles.
Let’s say Dallas winds up as the number-two this year and plays Green Bay, then moves to a second-round meeting against either the Vikings or Giants. Would either of those teams really scare you as much as the Packers do?
Thankfully, regardless of the path set before them, this year’s Cowboys do feel like they have more strengths for this playoff campaign. The connection between Dak Prescott and WR CeeDee Lamb is now one of the league’s best. More play-makers are emerging on defense with guys like S Donovan Wilson and CB DaRon Bland helping the cause. And if the game comes down to some clutch kicks, Brett Maher is having a Pro Bowl-worthy season and is a vast improvement from Greg Zuerlein. There’s also also more explosive potential with Tony Pollard’s increased role on offense and KaVontae Turpin’s work as a return specialist.
Cowboys coaches gained experience
Even if the talent was exactly the same, our coaches now have another year of experience working with this cast. They’re more familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of units and individuals within and will be better equipped for pre-game planning and mid-game adjustments.
That is one underrated aspect of this year’s group; the Cowboys haven’t had back-to-back playoff appearances since 2006-2007. With less turnover both on the roster and in the coaching staff, this should be a more cohesive group going into the tournament than in the past.
Again, it could all come down to catching the right teams and the right times and making the plays in a few key moments. The gap between many Super Bowl Champions and some team that exited in the wild card round is often not that wide. Everyone still playing next week is good, and sometimes “great” is more a product of circumstance than skill.
Predicting that the Cowboys will reach the conference championship or beyond is a blind guess, but so is assuming that they won’t make it past the first round. Be grateful for another spin at the wheel and a chance to change this long history of failure. As we’ve clearly seen from Dallas over nearly three decades now, these opportunities are hard to get.