DALLAS — Count Troy Aikman among the experts who thought the Dallas Cowboys were set up better than usual to make a deep playoff run. Aikman was so confident in this season’s team that he was planning to attend the NFC Championship Game this Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif., expecting a matchup between the No. 1 seed San Francisco 49ers and the No. 2 seed Cowboys.
He was correct about San Francisco taking care of business. However, Dallas suffered a stunning wild-card loss to the No. 7 seed Green Bay Packers. After falling behind 27-0 late in the first half, the Cowboys trailed by 32 early in the fourth quarter before falling 48-32.
“Pretty shocked,” the Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Cowboys three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback said Tuesday. “I really liked this team all year long. I thought they were really talented. … It’s just the same old story, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s just when I’m asked about the Cowboys as to why they have struggled, they’ve put together some really great regular seasons. They just have not, for whatever reasons, played their best football when the games matter most. That’s what you have to do. That’s the key to winning in the postseason and then getting to the Super Bowl. What the answer is to that, I’m not sure.”
Troy Aikman on the surprising end to the Cowboys’ season pic.twitter.com/lSZQnABE1V
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) January 24, 2024
Aikman, Monday Night Football’s color commentator, spoke with reporters Tuesday before kicking off an event at the George W. Bush Presidential Center to recognize the city of Dallas for being named the No. 1 Sports Business City by Sports Business Journal.
Despite a third consecutive 12-win season that included an NFC East title for the second time in three years, the Cowboys again fell short of their goals, increasing their streak to 28 seasons without a trip to the NFC Championship Game. In a league of parity, it makes little sense why the Cowboys haven’t been able to put together a single deep playoff run since Aikman was under center.
Is there a sense of entitlement?
“I don’t know about a sense of entitlement,” he responded. “I think that when you play for the Cowboys, every national show leads off with the Cowboys. And there’s a lot of perks to playing for the Dallas Cowboys. There’s a lot of benefits to playing for the Dallas Cowboys. So I think the challenge for the organization and for the head coach is to be able to still keep the players with their edge. And so I think that’s the challenge of this job.
“In a lot of ways, there’s so many other things that are happening within the organization, it’s easy to get caught up in it. There’s tours going around the building and there’s a lot of distractions, if you will, and I think it creates another layer that a head coach and a staff and players have to try to compartmentalize so that they can go and be the best football players they can be.”
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How much is Cowboys owner Jerry Jones responsible for creating some of those distractions?
“I mean, he’s the boss,” Aikman said. “So whatever is done, it’s because he’s OK with it. It just is what it is. I mean, it’s been that way. It’s always been that way. And whether or not that ultimately keeps this team from doing what they hope to do, I don’t know. Does it just rear its head in January? I mean, why wasn’t it a problem during the regular season? So it’s a hard thing to kind of (wrap) your head around when you see the number of wins that they’ve had. And yet, so much disappointment in the postseason.”
In regards to Mike McCarthy returning for his fifth season as head coach, Aikman said he was not surprised. He has spoken highly of McCarthy throughout his time in Dallas.
“They had a really good year,” Aikman said. “The people who are followers of Dallas, they would point to what happened against San Francisco or what happened against Buffalo. Every team had those games, where they really struggled. San Francisco had those games. But the way that they were playing at the end of the year, they positioned themselves to be the No. 2 seed. I thought it was good.
“If you make a (head coaching) change, then you’re basically making a change for the same reason you made changes back a few years ago when you brought Mike in and you’re bringing in then somebody who you believe is going to get you over the top. Just like they felt Mike is that guy to do it. But you don’t know the answer to that until once again, you get back to January. So I think the continuity of it all, the year that Dak (Prescott) was able to have, it just seems to make the most sense for those guys to come back. Without a new contract, there’s obviously then some urgency on their part as well.”
Dak Prescott had an outstanding regular season, throwing an NFL-best 36 touchdown passes and reducing his interceptions from a league-high 15 in 12 games in 2022 to nine in 17 games in 2023. He also posted a career-high passer rating of 105.9 as he earned second-team All-Pro honors. But he didn’t play well against the Packers, bringing back memories of his playoff struggles against the 49ers a year ago.
He’s entering the final year of his contract. With Prescott having been the team’s starter for the last eight seasons and only having two playoff wins, Aikman was asked about Prescott’s struggles in big games becoming a pattern.
Troy Aikman: “I still believe in Dak.” pic.twitter.com/GBFDNhKDxG
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) January 24, 2024
“I do know that we all draw on our past experiences,” Aikman said. “And when we don’t have great experiences, those then become hard to overcome. And I think that’s the challenge for Dak, because the question for him and really for the team isn’t so much what happens in the regular season now, it’s: How are they going to play? And how is he going to play once you get into the postseason? That makes for a long year when that’s the way it works.
“I’ve been there as well, as far as when the expectations are that high. But I still believe in Dak. I think that until you do it, there’s always those criticisms. … The pressure gets higher, for sure, as they go into this offseason and then next season, but it makes it hard.
“It makes it hard to come back and put themselves in a position to do it all over again. … Hopefully they have more opportunities ahead of them.”
(Photo of Troy Aikman: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)