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‘We definitely underachieved’: Why do Cowboys perennially seem to fall short?

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The reverberations continued to echo.

Talent. Brotherhood. Culture. Ability.

"In all my years I don’t know if I’ve had a better chance or a better full team than this," quarterback Dak Prescott said after the Cowboys’ 23-17 wild-card loss to the 49ers.

"This is the best team I’ve been on," fellow sixth-year player Ezekiel Elliott offered. "We hurt. It hurts all of us."

Receiver Amari Cooper went further. The Cowboys were dissatisfied because "you have to wait so long to redeem yourself," the 2015 first-round draft selection said. "It’s not like basketball where you get seven tries at it to win a series. Because we do feel like we’re the better team."

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So why do the Cowboys perennially seem to fall short?

The Cowboys never led as they hosted the playoff game Sunday. Their offense scored just seven points through three quarters, their defense routinely gashed for yards after the catch. Dallas’ special teams at times made plays – a successful fake punt, anybody? – only to cede those edges thanks to management issues and undisciplined play. The delay-of-game penalty that immediately followed the fake punt was one of 14 penalties the Cowboys drew for a total of 89 lost yards.

A chance at erasing a 26-year conference championship drought disappeared abruptly when Dallas failed to spike the ball in time for one last play. This was hardly the first complaint of Cowboys clock mismanagement during the 2021 season.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he couldn’t remember a time when he was more disappointed. The performance was a "letdown," "surprising" and "extremely disappointing."

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) is sacked by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Charles Omenihu (92).
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) is sacked by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Charles Omenihu (92).

Two leaders will shoulder the majority of the blame.

‘Self-inflicting errors’ hurt Cowboys

NFL football demands dozens of bodies on the field, and dozens more minds patrolling the sideline. Operations stretch into the hundreds, the Cowboys’ North Texas headquarters called the Star a bona fide city.

But inevitably, an NFL coach and quarterback earn the most credit when the team succeeds. They draw the most blame when teams fall short.

So what does the Cowboys’ swift playoff exit say about head coach Mike McCarthy and Prescott?

"We definitely underachieved," Prescott said. "When you play for the Dallas Cowboys, you play here, you understand it’s Super Bowl or nothing. … You feel like you let your teammates down and it’s a terrible feeling.

"It sucks. Point blank."

On paper, Prescott’s season was productive. His 37 touchdowns set a franchise record, Prescott’s completion percentage and passer rating top 5, his passing yards per game close at seventh. In training camp, the Cowboys aimed to be the league’s top scoring and yardage offense. With 31.2 points per game and 407.1 offensive yards, they achieved both.

But their ability to perform against top-tier teams fell short. Their seeming lack of playoff readiness was evident. Prescott’s productive fourth quarter improved him to a 23-of-43 day for 254 yards, a passing touchdown and an interception vs. the 49ers. He rushed another four times for 27 yards and a score by ground.

But too often early, his offense couldn’t sustain drives. His offensive line wasn’t in sync with him sufficiently to avoid penalties, Prescott and his receivers not timed precisely enough to convert key drives. The 49ers ran up and down the field in the first half, sucking the chances from Dallas to rebound. Most production was too little, too late.

"Self-inflicting errors," Prescott said. "Not good enough. Simple as that. I take a lot of pride in my job and take accountability in this loss. I’ve got to be better well before that last play; in certain situations in the game, certain plays in the game I’ve got to be better to help this team win and overcome some of the things we put ourselves into it."

Prescott’s bosses didn’t publicly demean him, even after he failed to spike the ball in time for a chance at a game-winning play. And yet, the fan base knows well: Prescott signed an extension last March that netted him $40 million this season, $160 million over the life of the contract. The expectation when his salary ballooned from the sub-$1 million salary during his last postseason trip in 2018 was that production would similarly increase, even if not at the unrealistic fortyfold rate.

The Cowboys and Prescott spent roughly two years negotiating a deal, the Cowboys arguing to Prescott: There is not enough pie to go around. Paying you market value will detract from the caliber of offensive linemen around you, the value of the weapons you’re targeting. Prescott wanted to cash in. He believed in his potential even after a gruesome compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle in October 2020.

He signed his contract.

But he didn’t seal a playoff win.

Did he fail to get over the hump?

"The hump is advancing in the playoffs," Jones said. "There have been some good quarterbacks not advancing in the playoffs. I’m just sick that we’re one of them. I’m sick.

"I’m surprised and sick."

What's Mike McCarthy's job security?

McCarthy said Sunday night that he is "damn proud" of Prescott and "super happy" Prescott is Cowboys quarterback.

He also said "I don’t have any concerns" about job security. "I’m proud to be standing here today," the 15 year NFL head coach said. "I’m proud of my football team."

No matter that the Cowboys hired him two years ago to replace Jason Garrett almost entirely on account of McCarthy’s playoff resume. Dallas management felt the team had a win-now roster that simply needed the culture and direction to advance in the postseason. They believed McCarthy could deliver

McCarthy’s debut season was marred by overwhelming injury in addition to COVID-19.

The Cowboys followed up a 6-10 campaign with 12-5 this season, but struggled to sustain momentum in the second half of the season against teams not hailing from a weak NFC East.

Jones declined to entertain coaching questions in an emotional Sunday night evening, even as the Cowboys’ penalties and clock challenges prompted questions about team discipline and preparation.

"I don’t even want to discuss anything like that at this particular time," Jones said. "I’m not going to discuss coaching, the preparation any of those things. That’s not on the table. The game speaks for itself."

But Jones said repeatedly how much he believed the talent was capable of more.

As the Cowboys scattered from the stadium Sunday night, exit interviews and locker cleaning looming, the question remained: If they had the talent, they had the Super Bowl-winning coach, they had the top-tier quarterback – what is stopping Dallas from reaching the peak it believes it is destined to summit?

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter: @JoriEpstein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys 'definitely underachieved’ in wild-card loss to 49ers