By: Mark Lane (@therealmarklane)
Well, it happened again.
The Dallas Cowboys lost in the NFC Divisional playoffs 34-31 to the Green Bay Packers to become the first No. 1 seed since the 2012 Denver Broncos to lose after their playoff bye week. And it also gave the Cowboys the ignominious distinction of having the most divisional playoff losses after earning the No. 1 seed since 1990.
Stop me if you haven’t heard this story four other times since 1996.
Last week, I argued how the Cowboys having a bye was a benefit, and it still was a benefit. Just because two bye-week teams lost in this year’s playoffs doesn’t mean teams should avoid taking wildcard weekends off. The number from last week improves to 27/108 since 1990 on wildcard teams winning in the divisional round.
Since 1996, we have bore witness to the Cowboys being both the wildcard winner looking for an upset (’96, ’09, ’14) and also the home favorite out to protect home-field (’07, ’16). And every result is the same: Dallas conducting their exit interviews and physicals on a Monday in mid-January.
Let’s just trot out George Santayana and his famous quote about folks who don’t learn from their history constantly repeating it.
But here is why the 2016 playoff loss is different from 2007. First of all, the 2007 squad was built on one offensive element: passing the ball. That was the year first-year starting quarterback Tony Romo broke single-season team records in passing yards, completions, and touchdowns. Receiver Terrell Owens caught 15 touchdown passes and broke Frank Clarke’s record. Tight end Jason Witten caught 96 passes. The Dallas aerial assault coordinated by first-year offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was the wave of the future that was washing ashore in the present.
When Dallas got into the playoffs, they were beat up and unhealthy. Owens was trying to rehab from an ankle injury. Center Andre Gurode was hurting and the offensive line was nearing the downside of its prime, and it showed against the Giants pass rush. The Cowboys weren’t able to run the ball effectively.
These were the same issues that consistently plagued the Cowboys from 2008-10 until Dallas rebuilt the offense around Romo with Tyron Smith at left tackle and DeMarco Murray at running back. The run couldn’t get anywhere or would be given up on, Romo would have to mount a game-winning drive, and he would have to avoid a pass rush the whole time. How else do you think we got the patented Romo Spin?
The Cowboys earned their No. 1 seed and 13-3 record in 2016 with the best running game in the NFL. Ezekiel Elliott gained 1,631 yards on the ground and averaged over 100 yards a game. The offensive line is just now hitting its prime and appears to be reloading with youngsters such as La’el Collins and Chaz Green stepping up.
What made 2014 unbelievable for many Cowboys fans was the fact they jumped out to a 6-2 start when the narrative was Romo would break his back on the next snap. In fact, you had commentators parading around like Chuck Schumer, so sure of themselves that Romo would crack his back and be out for the season. Well, technically, he did miss a game due to a back injury, but it was a transverse process fracture and not anything related to his herniated disc. But how Dallas protected Romo’s back was by giving it to Murray and letting him set the Cowboys’ single-season record for rushing yards and going 12-4 and winning the NFC East.
The same formula was followed in 2016, but just sub out Dak Prescott for Romo and Elliott for Murray. It was the exact same formula, and it worked. And the formula is the exact same one from the 1990s: have an elite offensive line and build your offense off the big uglies up front.
Obviously, teams are going to study tape on how to defend this Cowboys offense in the off-season. But recall what Jerry Jones said about what fellow NFL competition committee members told him after Dallas won Super Bowl XXVII. We’re talking legendary Don Shula, Tom Flores, Marty Schottenheimer, and longtime New York Giants general manager George Young telling him how they knew what the Cowboys were running but couldn’t stop them.
“They told me everybody in the league is reading your signals from the sideline,” said Jones. “And everybody knows when you’re going to pass or run and they usually know the play and they can figure out which way you’re going to go. But so much for knowing what you’re going to do, we can’t stop you even though we know where you’re coming and when you’re going to do it.”
Though Prescott and Elliott will be under center and in the backfield for the next 10 years, the Cowboys’ postseason chances are linked to the effectiveness of that road-grading offensive line. The 2007 squad didn’t have that same offensive line, and that is why the Romo Cowboys never earned another first-round bye. Don’t expect it to be the case this go-around.