13 final thoughts on Cowboys’ 2023 season

The NFL playoffs are still playoffing, but the Dallas Cowboys are not participating in late January once again. The annual postmortem is oce again for an underachieving team.

It was a third-straight, 12-win year for Mike McCarthy’s Cowboys in 2023, yet that didn’t translate into postseason success. This time, it was a one-and-done situation, even though they were the No. 2 seed and played at home where they hadn’t lost all year. For a Dallas team that had most fans back on the bandwagon, it was a rough way to finish a promising season.

Now that the shock and anger has worn off – somewhat – we can look back at what happened in the last five months. Here are 13 thoughts on the 2023 season for the Cowboys.

Mike McCarthy still has a knack for calling plays

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cowboys decided to part ways with former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, the plan was to have McCarthy become the play caller. McCarthy installed a new scheme dubbed the Texas Coast Offense and after a slow start, things clicked after the team’s bye week.

It took time for the head coach to hand over the keys to his quarterback and Dak Prescott provided the trust with perhaps his best season. The offense played at its zenith from Week 8 on, scoring at least 33 points in seven of their remaining 11 games. Prescott found his rhythm with wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, Jake Ferguson emerged as a top-tier TE, and veteran Brandin Cooks became a go-to WR in big moments.

After getting out to a horrible start with their red-zone offense, the Cowboys settled in and finished the year 12th in red zone efficiency, a remarkable jump from when they were 29th in the league in mid-October. McCarthy’s offense finished fifth in total yards and first in scoring for the 2023 campaign.

It wasn’t perfect, but McCarthy still showed he has a feel for calling plays.

McCarthy still struggled with game management

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As good of a job as McCarthy did with turning around the offense, he was equally as bad in game management situations, especially late in contests. McCarthy gave some opposing teams life late that had no business being in that position.

Against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13, McCarthy’s team held a three-point lead and were in easy field goal range facing a 3rd-and-3 with just 1:46 remaining. The Seahawks had no timeouts left and the Cowboys could’ve bled the clock down to about a minute or run out the clock if they ran for the first down. Instead, McCarthy called for a pass that wasn’t completed and the clock stopped, giving the Seahawks an extra 40 seconds to mount a comeback that luckily didn’t succeed due to a defensive stand.

Four weeks later, there was McCarthy doing the same thing against the Detroit Lions. The Cowboys could’ve used up clock and forced the Lions to burn their timeouts under the two-minute warning, except McCarthy called for a pass on second down. The pass fell incomplete, saved the Lions 40 seconds and allowed their comeback to have a better chance.

We all know what followed, the Lions easily scored a touchdown but failed on their two-point try to win the game. The fumbling of end of game situations was a problem for McCarthy and he was fortunate it never came back to haunt him.

Dak Prescott is damn good

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There are only a few of quarterbacks who can make the case they had an MVP-like season in 2023, and Prescott was among them. In fact, there’s an even better argument that Prescott should be the Most Valuable Player in the league, although he’s unlikely to win the award.

Regardless, no one can take away the year Dallas’ veteran signal caller had as a Second-Team All-Pro. Not the talk-show haters on ESPN, FS1, nor anyone else can deny Prescott’s brilliance as he had perhaps his best season. Prescott led, or was near the top of the league, in several QB categories, including leading the NFL in touchdown passes with 36 despite not heating up until Week 8.

The middle of the season was particularly good for Prescott.

Prescott also reduced the number of interceptions from last year, proving that 15-pick number was a fluke.

How the season ended shouldn’t cloud the view how well Prescott played this season, or how good of a QB he’s been for the majority of his career. Those who want to move on from the All-Pro might want to take a long, hard look at how frustrating it can be to not have a top-tier franchise quarterback. Some teams struggle for years to find a capable one and the Cowboys have one in Prescott, who proved he still has a lot left in the tank.

Tony Pollard wasn't the same

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not easy being the main guy in the backfield and Pollard found out that he’s probably better off in a shared backfield rather than as a starter who gets most of the carries. Some of it wasn’t Pollard’s fault; he was coming off a broken leg and didn’t get back to looking like himself until around the midway point of the year.

The fifth-year RB also wasn’t helped by an offensive line that initially struggled to field its intended starting five, then took some time to work into a cohesive unit before the running game gained much traction. Even when at full-strength, the run blocking and scheme wasn’t great in 2023 under new offensive line coach Mike Solari.

Pollard hit a career-high in carries, toting the ball 59 more times than he had last year, and managed to pass the 1,000-yard marker for the second consecutive season, but he wasn’t as effective. The explosive plays weren’t there either for Pollard, who averaged a career-low four yards a carry.

None of this is to say that Pollard isn’t a good RB or is washed, but he’s not going to be brought back at his current salary.

CeeDee Lamb is a top WR in the NFL

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys found out that Lamb was a true No. 1 last year, but this season it was clear the WR out of Oklahoma is one of the league’s best. There weren’t any better than Lamb in 2023, who took his game to the next level and placed himself among the game’s elite.

Lamb belongs with Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson, and Ja’Marr Chase as being talked about as the league’s best receivers after leading the NFL in catches (135) and yards after the catch (680), while placing second in yards (1,749), touchdown catches (12) and first downs. And only Hill and Jefferson averaged more yards a game than Lamb at 102.9.

Like the rest of the offense, it took a little while to get Lamb going. The fourth-year WR only had one touchdown, one 100-yard game, and one double-digit target outing through the five weeks. He made his case to the head coach and things changed from there on out.

Lamb had seven 100-yard games, 13 scores and nine contests with 10 or more targets in the final 12 weeks. In addition to being named as a first-team All-Pro, Lamb broke the franchise record for catches and yards in a season.

Everyone was wrong about Brandon Aubrey, except the Cowboys

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into training camp, many didn’t believe the Cowboys had a reliable field goal kicker. They took two into camp and only one survived, a 28-year-old rookie who had never lined up an NFL kick in his life. There was plenty of skepticism with Aubrey, but the team never wavered as Dallas never brought in a veteran kicker for competition.

He got off to a rocky start, missing his first kick in the regular season, an extra point, but Aubrey wound up having one of the best seasons ever for a kicker. The rookie shattered the NFL record for consecutive makes without missing to start a career, all on his way to an All-Pro year.

Aubrey made his first 35 field goal attempts on the year and made all of his kicks from over 50 yards this season, going 10-10.

It took until the last game of the season for Aubrey to miss. His first miss was blocked, before missing another short kick later in the game. However, Aubrey showed no loss of confidence, nailing a 50-yard kick in the fourth quarter.

Everyone who thought the Cowboys needed to add a veteran kicker ate a lot of crow as Aubrey’s record-breaking season unfolded.

DeMarcus Lawrence is still awesome

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys got some flak for their run defense this season, but Lawrence had another great year while making the claim he’s among the best two-way edge defenders in the league. At 31-years of age, the veteran had his first double-digit tackles for a loss season since 2020.

Lawrence’s status as an elite run defender remains intact coming off another big 2023. Remembering many of the biggest run stops on third and fourth down for the defense, Lawrence was the culprit.

Lawrence was second on the defense in tackles for a loss, and he was also able to pressure the quarterbacks into mistakes. He had only four sacks, but he disrupted plays and had six passes defensed, ranking third on the Cowboys.

It was a banner year for Lawrence, who continues to play at a high level all-around. Being one of the defense’s top defenders at his age is impressive.

Dan Quinn has limitations

(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

There’s no denying Quinn’s impact on the Cowboys since arriving in 2021. Dallas was coming off one of their worst defensive seasons in a long time when Quinn helped turn the unit around.

However, there have been some limitations with Quinn and his scheme. The defense needs to play a certain way for the Cowboys to get the most out of their unit. They didn’t play the run well on a consistent basis, and when they were bad, they were really bad. Quinn’s defense got trucked on more than one occasion this season, and it seems like they gave up at times.

The biggest problem for Quinn, though, came when offenses used pre-snap motion to take his defense out of their element. It was a major issue in losses to the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins, and the problem reared its ugly head in the loss to the Green Bay Packers with the season on the line.

Coaches who knew how to attack Quinn’s defense with motion were successful and kept Dallas on their heels. Quinn either never figured it out or didn’t have the ability to adjust.

He’s done a great job turning around the defense, but Quinn’s limitations, or stubbornness, was a troubling sign.

Jake Ferguson is on his way to becoming a star

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Every quarterback needs a reliable tight end to help make his job easier and Prescott found his Jason Witten in Ferguson. The Cowboys replacaed former starter Dalton Schultz without hesitation, and Ferguson came through with flying colors.

The second-year TE caught 71 passes for 761 yards and five scores as he took over as the starter, all of which were second best on the offense in 2023. Ferguson proved to be a better runner after the catch than his predecessor with 425 yards, more than Schultz had in any year with the Cowboys.

Among the TEs in the league, Ferguson was inside the top 10 in receptions, yards, touchdowns, first downs and yards after the catch.

Ferguson also brought a toughness and swag Dallas has rarely seen at TE, and his best game of the year came in the playoff loss. The 10 catches and three touchdowns were all career-highs for Ferguson, who was one of the few Cowboys who came to play against the Packers.

The arrow is pointing up for the TE with immense potential.

DaRon Bland gives Cowboys the best CB tandem in the league

(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Dallas was dealt a tough break when All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs went down for the year with a torn ACL. All was not lost, however, because the defense had an ace in the hole in sophomore sensation CB DaRon Bland.

After a rookie year where Bland led the Cowboys in interceptions with five, the fifth-round pick out of Fresno St. backed that up with nine picks in his second campaign and set an NFL record with five returned for touchdowns.

Bland’s Thanksgiving record-breaker was one of the biggest highlights of the 2023 season in the entire NFL, not just for the Cowboys. Those nine interceptions from Bland also led the league, marking the second time in three seasons a Cowboys CB led the league, joining Diggs, who had 11 in 2021.

If Diggs returns healthy in 2024, he’ll give Dallas the best CB tandem in the league.

They needed more from their rookie class

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Will McClay and the Cowboys are one of the best drafting teams in the league, but their rookie class didn’t contribute much in the 2023 season. According to ESPN, Dallas had the least productive rookie class in the NFL, and it’s hard to disagree.

First-round selection Mazi Smith was supposed to be a defensive tackle who could help stop the run, while growing into a pass rushing role. That never happened, Smith struggled with his get off and got pushed around too much. Smith also didn’t see the field as much as anticipated, even when an injury to starting DT Johnathan Hankins opened the door for more playing time. The rookie logged just 28% of the defensive snaps for the defense, not nearly enough for a first-round pick.

Luke Schoonmaker was drafted in the second round, but the tight end was never a threat to take away snaps from Ferguson. A training camp injury set Schoonmaker back and he never made an impact, catching just eight balls for 65 yards and two touchdowns. Schoonmaker’s biggest play of the year came in a loss when he was tackled short of the goal line on a fourth down in Philadelphia.

Third-round pick DeMarvion Overshown showed a ton of promise until a training camp ACL tear ended his season.

The rest of the class was just as underwhelming. Fourth-round pick Viliami Fehoko never saw the field, nor did sixth-round pick Eric Scott, who they traded for. Fifth-round selection Asim Richards, sixth-round selection Deuce Vaughn, and seventh-round pick Jalen Brooks all saw minimal playing time as rookies. Vaughn was expected to be a player who contributed, but that never happened.

Dallas’ biggest impact came from undrafted rookies. Aubrey was a pseudo-rookie at 28-years old, and was named an All-Pro, while T.J. Bass was a valuable backup who showed some promise when filling in at multiple places on the offensive line.

There just wasn’t much help from a rookie class who the Cowboys needed to step up. The opportunities were there, the players were not ready, which was a problem.

Dallas lacked a counter punch

Wm. Glasheen-USA TODAY Sports
Wm. Glasheen-USA TODAY Sports

Winning 12 games and a division isn’t easy, but the Cowboys managed to do it for a third straight season. The team found their path to victory and tried to stay on that course, which they did in most of their wins.

The Cowboys wanted to get a lead, then let their pass rushers attack the quarterback, and force turnovers. The bigger the lead, the easier it was for the defense to put away offenses pressing to make plays.

However, when teams challenged that way of play, Dallas lacked a counter punch. Offenses that could run the ball, get a lead, or keep the game close were able to bully the Cowboys, who did not respond well.

McCarthy’s team won nine games by 20 points or more, and only won two games when they were down by more than one touchdown all year. If Dallas got down double-digits, they were dead in the water. The Cowboys either blew teams out or got embarrassed themselves, there was very little in-between.

When the Cowboys played their way, they won. When they got behind in the script, they got boat raced and lost. They need to learn to counter punch next year if they want to change their fortunes.

Caused more trust issues

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The 2023 season was another year where the Cowboys failed to live up to expectations. For a team that had nine All-Pro players, won 12 games, captured an improbable NFC East title, and earned a home playoff game, the team blew an opportunity to make a deep playoff run, again.

With Prescott playing his best football, throwing to a top WR, having the best defensive player in the game, and the league’s interception champion, the Cowboys still managed to get embarrassed when it counted. All the haters and talking heads were hoping the team would choke, and when it happened, the floodgates opened to laugh at the Cowboys, again.

After a third-straight dud in the postseason, even the most ardent Cowboys fans are having trust issues. It’s going to be difficult to believe in this organization in 2024 and beyond after another failure when the team seemingly had everything they needed to make it to at least the NFC championship game.

The Cowboys will just have to sit and take it when people talk crap about them, Prescott admitted as much after the season-ending loss. Another fun offseason awaits.

The next time fans will start to buy into the team might be when the Cowboys are announced just before the start of an NFC Championship. It’s tough to be a fan of this team these days and the 2023 Cowboys didn’t make it any easier.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire