Photo by Josie Lepe
From Romo’s famous fumbled field goal snap to Prescott’s quarterback draw with no timeouts, the Dallas Cowboys never fail to amaze America in the playoffs. A team that consistently has a top offense, top defense, and strong coaching staff ends each year in an even more dramatic fashion. This year especially, the question once again presents itself, ‘Why do the Cowboys continuously lose in the playoffs?’ This article will take an analytical approach to this question and attempt to find an answer, if there is one.
The Dallas Cowboys franchise has long stood on top of the NFL in terms of support, going by the nickname, “America’s team.” Similar to the Yankees and Lakers, the team has fans from all over the world and holds its popularity regardless of record. The value of the Cowboys’ franchise is also at the forefront of sports, tallying at over 5.7 billion dollars, the highest of any sports franchise. The team is regarded as one of the most successful teams in the NFL, amassing five Super Bowl wins in the team’s 63 years of existence. This is tied for second place with the San Francisco 49ers and trails only the New England Patriots (6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (6). Unfortunately for Cowboys fans, all five championships were won nearly 20 years ago. The last three of these championship teams were led by legendary Cowboys quarterback, Troy Aikman (‘93, ‘94, ‘96). During the span of his career, Aikman went 11-5 in the playoffs. Since Aikman’s reign of terror, the Cowboys have filled the pivotal position with Tony Romo (2003-2016) and Dak Prescott (2016-present). Prescott’s devastating loss to the 49ers this year makes him now 2-4 in the playoffs, identical to that of Romo. Of course it’s important to remember that wins are not a quarterback stat, unlike passer rating, which we will be using to discuss the Cowboys’ recent playoff struggles.
Passer rating (calculated on a scale of 0-158.3) is a very common metric used to grade a quarterback’s performance based on passing attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, and interceptions. The chart below shows Aikman’s passer ratings from the years he made the playoffs. Take a guess of which three years the Cowboys won the Super Bowl (the year labels are removed).
If you guessed the three highest bars, you’re correct! Yikes Troy, what happened in those last few years? It seems very apparent that quarterback play correlates very closely to playoff success in Aikman’s case. Is this the same for Romo and Prescott, however? The chart below shows Romo/Prescott’s regular season passer rating in comparison to their passer rating in the playoff loss from the corresponding season (The year on the x-axis is the year in which the regular season was played).
In comparison to Aikman, these passer ratings don’t seem to be too attractive. However, we’re more so looking at how the regular season compares to the playoffs. In 2007, 2009, 2021, and 2022, there seems to be a rather large fall off in passer rating; although, there doesn’t seem to be a clear trend throughout the graph. There’s even a case of Tony Romo outperforming his average by a large margin in the 2014 season.
Defensive PPG Allowed
Taking a look at defense, we’re going to simplify the process by looking at the Cowboys’ points per game (PPG) allowed. The graph below shows how the average PPG allowed in the regular season stacks up in comparison to their loss in the playoffs of the corresponding season.
The first observation that jumps out is the very large point totals given up in the 2009, 2014, 2016, and 2018 playoff losses. After an incredible 2009 season with four pro-bowl defenders, including two first team all-pros (DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff), the Cowboys got hammered, allowing 34 points to the Vikings. The blame cannot be solely placed on the defense, however, as Dallas turned the ball over on offense three times. In order to account for offensive turnovers, we will look into an advanced statistic.
A measurement of both offense and defense, turnovers can define games. Expected points contributed by turnovers on offense (we’ll call this EPCOT because I’m definitely not typing that out again) measures the impact of offensive turnovers. This is calculated based on the number of turnovers, points scored, and field position given up on turnovers. While turnovers are all counted the same, this measurement makes the important distinction between major and minor turnovers. Because this stat measures the negative impact of turnovers, the best possible score is a 0. The following graph shows the Cowboys’ EPCOT for each of their playoff losses.
Offensive turnovers had major impacts on points allowed in 2009 and 2022. Using this data, we can add the EPCOT from the points allowed in order to get a better representation of defensive performance. We’ll call this stat real points allowed (RPA).
Viewing the graphs of both passer rating and RPA as well as general knowledge of each game, we’ll try to come up with a potential trend as to why the Cowboys are so bad in the playoffs.
2006-2007: Romo’s Botched Hold
Photo by Louis DeLuca
Playing in Seattle, Romo started his first playoff campaign with a pretty good performance, maintaining a serviceable passer rating of 89.6. The defense also played a solid game holding an RPA of 19.23. Down only one point with very little time to go, Tony Romo fumbled the snap on what would have been a go-ahead field goal to take the lead. Should the Cowboys have been successful in their attempt that was, as Al Michaels described, “the length of an extra point,” the Seahawks would have had just over a minute and no timeouts to get the ball in field goal range. All things considered, the Cowboys should have won the game. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the better/more deserving team doesn’t always win. The Seahawks would hold their one-point lead and win 21-20.
2007-2008: It’s the Little Things that Count
In a heated division rivalry game, the number one-seeded Cowboys hosted the Giants in what was sure to be a heated matchup. While the defense once again held strong allowing 18.79 RPA, Romo’s passer rating was deflated (64.7). This was a reflection of various factors – the most prevalent being a couple major drops by his receivers as well as constant pressure from the Giants. Romo took eight QB hits as well as two sacks. Although two sacks doesn’t sound like much on paper, both were in the final quarter and stalled crucial drives that could have kept the Cowboys in the game. Finally, the biggest fault of the Cowboys was their discipline in the penalty department. Whether it was an offsides call at the beginning of the game on third down that eventually led to a Giants touchdown or an idiotic throwaway in the pocket from Romo for an intentional grounding call, the Cowboys had a heap of unforced errors. Dallas’ 84 penalty yards tripled that of New York’s 28. Losing by a margin of only 4 points after a final heave to the end zone on fourth down, the Cowboys lost due to many minor mistakes by a score of 21-17.
2009-2010: What Went Right?
Plain and simple, the Cowboys got killed on every level of the game, losing by a score of 34-3 on the road in Minnesota. The defense wasn’t great, allowing 23.13 RPA, but the offense truly lost the Cowboys this game. Tony Romo fumbled the ball three times (twice due to sacks) and threw an interception as well. Romo was sacked six times, half of which were recorded by defensive end Ray Edwards. Poor offensive line play leads to poor decision making and tough throws, leading to Romo throwing for a passer rating of only 66.4. I’m not going to delve further into the hundreds of reasons why the Cowboys lost this game, but if you’re a Lions fan like myself and enjoy watching the Cowboys suffer, I’ve linked the highlights to the game here.
2014-2015: Dez Dropped It?
Photo by USA Today Sports/Reuters
Going into Lambeau against an incredible Packers roster, this year felt different. Tony Romo’s window was closing, along with those of fellow Dallas offensive stars DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten. After watching the highlights from the past three playoff losses, I almost began to feel bad for the Cowboys until I remembered what had transpired in Dallas the week before against my Lions. Romo played nearly a perfect game, recording an incredible passer rating of 143.6. On the other side of the ball, the defense held Aaron Rodgers to only 26 points (21.29 RPA). DeMarco Murray lost a fumble on a play that many believe would have been a touchdown; however, the biggest turning point in the game came on Dez Bryant’s famous catch that got overturned and called incomplete. The play occurs with under five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Dallas trailing 26-21. It was a crucial fourth down that would’ve given the Cowboys the ball at the half-yard line. After stretching out to cross over the goal-line, the ball hit the ground in Bryant’s possession and popped up in the air. First ruled a completed catch, the call was challenged by then Green Bay head coach, Mike McCarthy, and overturned. Dallas failed to stop the Packers from running out the clock, with the final score holding at 26-21. In potentially Tony Romo’s best shot at going all the way, his window finally closed, failing to return to the playoffs.
2016-2017: The Jared Cook Incident
Photo by Washington Post
Taken in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, rookie quarterback Dak Prescott would lead the Dallas Cowboys to not only the top of their division, but also the top of the conference. In a rematch from two years before, the Cowboys played the Green Bay Packers once more in a crucial divisional round matchup, this time on home turf. Except for a bad-looking interception, Prescott played a good game, earning a passer rating of 103.2. The defense, however, wasn’t as fortunate, recording an RPA of 28.05. The Cowboys started the game very far behind, but a late second half touchdown courtesy of Dez Bryant would put them within one score at halftime. In the second half of the game, both the offense and defense stepped up in big ways, making crucial plays along the way. Dallas was able to tie it up at 28 with four minutes remaining. A lengthy 56-yard field goal by Mason Crosby once again granted the Packers the lead with only 1:36 left on the clock. In response, the Cowboys drove down the field and got in range for Dan Bailey to kick a 52-yarder of his own. With only 35 seconds on the clock, Aaron Rodgers was able to lead his Packers down the field, most notably hitting tight end Jared Cook for a 36-yard catch with only three seconds remaining. This would once again set up Mason Crosby, who would nail the dagger for a 51-yard, time-expiring field goal to win the game by a score of 34-31. Although they had a very good second half, the damage had already been done. Simply put, you cannot expect to win in the playoffs by only playing one half of quality football.
2018-2019: The Better Team Won
After winning a close matchup against 6-seeded Seattle, 4-seeded Dallas went into Los Angeles with a chance to make the NFC Championship. Dak and the offense played a really good game, scoring two total touchdowns and recording no turnovers, earning a passer rating of 99.2. On the other hand, the defense was simply outmatched. They allowed 30 RPA, the highest in the past two decades. Long story short, the Rams were the stronger team and deserved it more. They won in a relatively close matchup, 30-22.
2021-2022: The QB Draw Incident
Hosting the San Francisco 49ers at home, the Cowboys once again seemed like strong contenders. The story of this game lies in offensive problems. Dak Prescott was held to a passer rating of 69.3, throwing a horrible interception. He was also sacked five times, losing 40 yards in the process. Probably the biggest problem that will be overlooked when looking back on this game was penalties. The Cowboys committed 14 penalties for a massive 89 yards. Whether a crucial hold that nullified a first down or a neutral zone infraction that gave the 49ers a head start on first down, the Cowboys constantly shot themselves in the foot with careless mistakes. Other than their share of the penalties, the defense played a decent game against a high-powered 49ers offense, allowing 20.8 RPA. Even with Prescott’s poor game, offensive line struggles, and plenty of penalties, the Cowboys still found themselves with a chance late in the fourth quarter. They began their final drive down six points with 30 seconds left from their own 20-yard line. With some nifty play calling from recently fired offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore, the Cowboys shot up the field, advancing to the opposing 40-yard line with 14 seconds remaining. Then, with the world watching, the Cowboys called a quarterback draw, running Prescott up the middle for a sizable gain. However, with no opportunity to clock the ball, the clock ran out, ending the game with a final score of 23-17. Although there were many factors that played into the Cowboys’ loss, the horrific execution of a very curious play call will always go down as the most memorable.
2022-2023: Dak and Dalton Schultz the Bed
Photo by Godofredo A. Vásquez/Associated Press
If you’re reading this article, odds are you watched the Cowboys crumble a couple weeks ago, once again in the hands of the 49ers. In San Francisco this time, the blame for this game once again falls mainly on the offense. Dak had an even lower passer rating than the year before (63.6), throwing two poor interceptions. Two field goals (six points) were scored off these two turnovers, a very sizable number in a low scoring game. The Cowboys’ defense was lockdown, holding the 49ers to 10.39 RPA. Once again, despite making very crucial offensive mistakes, Dallas still found themselves in this game up until the end thanks to the work of their defense. Down seven points, the Cowboys began their last-chance drive from their own 6-yard line with only 38 seconds to go nearly the length of the field. After a 9-yard out-route to tight end Dalton Schultz, the Cowboys went back to him again on the outside. Although he went out of bounds once again to stop the clock, this time he was tackled out backwards due to the high football IQ of 49ers veteran Charvarious Ward. This kept the clock rolling and took off a crucial 18 seconds before the Cowboys were finally able to get set and spike the ball. Dak went back to Schultz again for what would have been a 15-yard gain if Dalton Schultz had made a reasonable effort to get his feet in bounds. However, as replay showed, Schultz’s lackadaisical effort took him out of bounds before getting his second foot in bounds. With five seconds remaining, the Cowboys found themselves throwing from their own 24-yard line rather than their own 39-yard line. Of course with this final chance, in typical Cowboys fashion, Dallas lined up in a laughable formation, rivaling that of the Colts from 2015. The play had no chance at working out and San Francisco would hold on to win 19-12, holding one of the league’s best offenses to yet another poor performance.
Before I dive into my conclusion, I’d like to take a second to explain some of my thoughts and decisions in researching this topic. First off, we need Rich Eisen back in the booth commentating on highlights with Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders. You tend to get really connected to these guys after watching the same videos multiple times and let me tell you there is a big difference between them and the monotonous voice of Joe Buck. On a more relevant note, I didn’t go too deep into the statistics of the Dallas skill position players. This is because Dallas running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends were always consistently great (and still are). At running back, when they lost DeMarco Murray, they got Ezekiel Elliot. After Dez Bryant’s departure, they had CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper to fill the void. Finally of course, long-time Tony Romo BFF and reliable target Jason Witten was replaced by the likes of Dalton Schultz. When the mistakes of these positions needed to be highlighted, I made note of them. Overall, they were great for the most part and we’ll leave it at that.
From an organizational standpoint, like him or not, Jerry Jones has done a fantastic job constructing one of the most successful and exciting teams to watch every year. On paper, his Cowboys should have at least a couple Super Bowls in the 21st century. However, something must be said for what I like to call, ‘plugging three leaky holes with two corks.’ The three main positional issues that have killed the Cowboys in my mind are poor offensive line play, bad defensive play, and poor quarterbacking. It seems as if once Dallas ‘fixed’ each problem, another one of their problems rose again.
After pondering the possibilities and looking into plenty of film and analytics, I’ve come to three possible conclusions. The first is that the NFL is scripted and whoever is writing it truly hates Dallas. Of course, I don’t actually think the NFL is scripted; rather, this is a commentary on the Cowboys’ repeated, story-like failures in the playoffs. Conclusion number two, and the more reasonable one, is that the Cowboys have a coaching problem. Although many issues have contributed to the Cowboys’ failure, most of the time they’ve had a decent chance to get back into the game in the fourth quarter. With each of these chances came incredibly poor play-calling and/or execution of plays. This all falls back on the coaching staff. They’ve already begun the process of making changes to this position, firing offensive coordinator Kellen Moore this past weekend. If I were Jerry Jones, I would even consider moving on from head coach Mike McCarthy. Conclusion number three is that the Cowboys are simply an anomaly. I understand this is not the fun and decisive conclusion that you probably hoped for as you scrolled through this long article, but it can be argued that there simply isn’t a clear enough statistical trend. There are some instances where coaching is the issue, others where quarterbacking is at fault, and then of course when the Cowboys either got cheated out of or cheated themselves out of wins.
What Does this Mean for the Future?
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As I said, the roster construction of this team is very strong. They don’t have many glaring issues, and their team is still very young and exciting. Making changes to the coaching staff is the only conclusion of mine they can act upon and I think that’s where they should place their bets. I’m not saying Dak Prescott is perfect and, in all honesty, I think he’s far from it. In recent years, however, we’ve seen such horrible decisions and failures in clutch moments as well as poor discipline from players. If the Cowboys want to give themselves a shot while they still have young superstars like Micah Parsons and CeeDee Lamb on cheap, rookie contracts, they must make major changes in their coaching staff or else we’re going to see more of the ‘same ol’ Cowboys’ in the coming years.
Great article Jack. The amount of research you employed is deep and your conclusions right on
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