Another reality check for Cowboys
LOS ANGELES – So this is how it ends for the Dallas Cowboys.
The rising defense gets run out of town. Ezekiel Elliott gets stuffed – even on a crucial fourth-and-one. The weirdest calls go the wrong way. Hope is put on the shelf until next season. Rams 30, Cowboys 22. The Cowboys, with some of the NFL’S best young talent and two division titles in three years, may believe they can envision a championship run from here. But until proven otherwise, what a mirage.
“We can grow, and we have to learn from our experiences,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett contended.
Here’s a real-time reality check: The divisional round of the playoffs is Dallas’ glass ceiling.
For the third time in five years, the Cowboys have been good enough to find themselves in the second round of the NFC playoffs. And once again, this is the end of the line. Two years ago as a No. 1 seed, they were eliminated by a last-minute dagger from Aaron Rodgers. Before that, it was the Dez Bryant catch that wasn’t. Now it’s L.A.’S two-headed rushing monster – Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson – as the symbol of doom.
With Gurley and Anderson both cracking triple-digits, L.A. rushed for 273 yards – most in playoff history for the Rams, most in playoff history against the Cowboys – to flip the script for what might have been.
Wasn’t it the Rams’ D that was supposed to have the problems stopping the run?
L.A. allowed an Nfl-worst 5.1 yards per carry during the season. But with former Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, of all people, crafting the scheme as defensive coordinator, the Rams held the NFL’S rushing champ to 47 yards, 2.4 per carry. Meanwhile, the Rams’ high-flying offense, with the fancy passing game creations of young wizard Sean Mcvay, suddenly found a new identity especially for this moment.
You might think that the 32-yearold Mcvay, the league’s youngest coach, is the NFL’S version of Harry Potter, given his magic touch for scheming open receivers. Well, on Saturday night, Mcvay turned into Ground Chuck, and the Cowboys had no answers to slow down a Rams running game that was reminiscent of the run-first system that Chuck Knox employed for the Rams in the ‘70s.
The Rams ran on a season-high 48 attempts while Jared Goff threw just 28 passes. Of course, there was the Mcvay touch to all of the ground work, as the Rams repeatedly used the so-called “jet-action” – typically fake end-arounds or “ghost sweeps” that threw Dallas’ defense for a loop.
“The reality of it is they’re a team that (uses) a lot of shifts and motions, and they can get your eyes,” Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith told USA TODAY as he left the Coliseum. “You have to be locked in and queued into your key. That’s something that got the best of us tonight.”
And add it to the list of lessons the Cowboys need to learn from. Dallas had the NFL’S fifth-best run defense during the season, but the unit looked like a shell of that on Saturday.
You heard that by listening to Kris Richard, the highly regarded assistant who calls the defensive plays for the Cowboys. He sounded disgusted when someone asked him if the run fits were out of sync.
“If a team is running the ball, we’re not fitting correctly,” Richard said. “It’s as simple as us getting out cleats in the grass as doing things correctly.”
Maybe the Cowboys will learn from this. Like every team, there will be personnel tweaks here or there.
Just to get to this point represents a sign that they have something decent to build on. The Cowboys were 3-5 back in November, but emerged as one of the hottest teams in the NFL down the stretch.
Garrett, like Smith, Richard and others, compared the setback to a scar that can heal over time.
Maybe they will indeed learn from their fresh scar. But there’s no promise they’ll get back to the divisional round any time soon, which is why the opportunity must be seized when presented. That lesson needs to be the biggest takeaway for the Cowboys in the wake of another sad ending.