SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jerry Jones strolled down the Levi’s Stadium tunnel in his dark overcoat, a hitch in the 80-year-old’s step and a sniffle in his voice.
Yet again, the Dallas Cowboys had advanced to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Yet again, the team owner and general manager was leaving a stadium wondering if he’ll live to see his team ride a deep postseason run again.
Seven times the Cowboys have advanced to the divisional round since their last Super Bowl title, 27 years ago. Seven times in that span, they've lost it. Sunday's 19-12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was just the latest example.
“Sickening,” Jones told a gaggle of media outside the visiting locker room, the word “sick” recurring six more times in a 2-minute span of Jones’ remarks.
Players in his locker room were sick, Jones said, an assertion seemingly confirmed by their tears, towel-covered faces and distant stares.
“Hundreds of thousands of Cowboys fans,” Jones continued, were sick — a sentiment Twitter mentions confirmed in spades.
Head coach Mike McCarthy was sick with disappointment. Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse, too, slow to leave the sideline bench postgame as he struggled to process a season suddenly snapped, what he felt was a winnable game assuredly lost.
“It hurts,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “All I can think about right now is this game and how disappointed I am at this point in my play. How disappointed I am for the guys in the locker room who played their asses off and we weren't able to get it done.
The clamor surrounding McCarthy and Prescott’s fitness for their respective jobs unsurprisingly grew louder, as Groundhog Day-like disappointment in the divisional round resurfaced.
Jones felt it. Until, for a few moments by the team’s buses, he transcended it.
Dak Prescott: ‘I’ve got to be better’
The game’s ending was “eerie” in its similarity to last season’s playoff loss, Jones told a handful of reporters as he strode toward the buses. This Cowboys exit came on the road in the divisional round; last year’s unfolded at home on wild-card weekend.
But for two straight years now, the 49ers have eliminated the Cowboys from the playoffs. Each year, the Cowboys regained the ball in the final few minutes, down a touchdown and hoping to capitalize on a chance to score.
The game was an old-fashioned “slugfest,” the 49ers notching the game’s initial score on a first-quarter field goal, the Cowboys reaching the end zone to take their lone lead in the second quarter.
At third quarter’s close, the pair of stingy pass-rush teams were tied at 9 points. Then the 49ers rose to the occasion, while the Cowboys faltered.
Jones knew that questions would swirl about his belief in McCarthy and Prescott.
Is his coaching staff maximizing a talented roster’s potential, managing the game sufficiently, delivering the necessary juice to propel this franchise to the playoff heights McCarthy was hired to reach? Or did another familiarly timed exit change Jones’ mind about his third-year head coach six days after the team owner said he was “sold”?
“No, no, not at all,” Jones said, endorsing McCarthy. “But this is very sickening.”
The questions were obvious with Prescott as he threw two more first-half interceptions, the difference in a game in which the Cowboys felt their lone clear advantage was at quarterback vs. seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy.
But with 5:55 to play in the first quarter, Prescott dropped back and squared his body for a throw. Then he reset his feet and considered whether he had an opportunity. Receiver Michael Gallup stopped in his tracks, thinking Prescott was ready to scramble to extend the play and hopefully allow his downfield targets to loosen from opposing defenders. Instead, Prescott fired.
49ers cornerback Deommodore Lenoir jumped for the interception and returned it to the Cowboys’ 21.
“I broke on the route and I really didn’t think he was going to throw it,” Lenoir said. “I thought it was about to be the scramble drill, but then when I looked back, the ball was coming and my hyena senses just kicked in.”
The Cowboys defense stifled San Francisco’s progress, but even so the short field start set up an easy 26-yard field goal.
The Cowboys’ next giveaway came in the final 90 seconds of the second quarter, Prescott aiming to complete a low pass to wide receiver CeeDee Lamb in traffic. Instead, the ball hit cornerback Jimmie Ward’s chest and bounced into the instinctive hands of linebacker Fred Warner. The 49ers added a go-ahead field goal as the half wrapped to make it 9-6.
“Just two throws that I can't have, you can't have in the playoffs,” said Prescott, who completed the game 23-of-37 for 206 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in addition to 22 rushing yards on four carries. “You can't have them when you're trying to beat a team like that. You can't have it on the road. There's no excuses for that. Those two are 100 percent on me.
“I've got to be better. There's no other way to sugarcoat it."
Jones agreed that “turnovers were going to make the difference” and ultimately “settled the score” in a matchup between a pair of talented teams that featured more skill depth for the home team and a more experienced quarterback for the visitors.
This wasn’t a new concern either, for Prescott, who collected a league-worst 15 regular-season picks in just 12 games. The pace was uncharacteristic relative to the quarterback’s first six seasons, his interception rate jumping from 1.7% through six years to 3.8% in Year 7.
Some giveaways resembled weird flukes with the balls, bounces that other quarterbacks might see fall to the ground seemingly landing in opponents’ hands after a tip, the Cowboys felt. Prescott made no mistakes in a spectacular wild-card round in which he accounted for five total touchdowns against the Tampa Bay Bucs.
But at some point, an interception is an interception. Debate who read or misread the defense or the option route or the play call, but the result is no different. The subsequent decision-making needed to reflect that. Prescott knew that and said he will examine the trend closely this offseason. Jones insisted his confidence in his quarterback is “just as strong as ever,” now and “for the future.”
Neither the interceptions, nor the game’s two final and fruitless drives, changed that.
“I’ll line up there five times with a like situation and if we’ve got him at quarterback, I’ll take my chances,” Jones said. “We’ll come out of here with something good out of this. That’s an edge.
“Tonight didn’t change my mind about the edge with him.”
Jerry Jones opens up on Cowboys’ playoff futility
In all, as fireworks illuminated the Santa Clara night behind him and a not-certainly-sober San Francisco fan screamed “LET’S GOOOOO NIIIINERS” from a ramp overlooking Jones, the team owner seemed conflicted.
He was frustrated, disappointed, sickened by his team’s most recent performance.
But also: He was excited about the Cowboys’ future, confident in his quarterback and head coach, and perhaps even wistful about the decades in which fans see futility but Jones sees a beautiful journey.
Responding to a question from Yahoo Sports about his concern that time is waning on his chance to experience postseason success with the Cowboys, Jones took a step back. His blue eyes sparkled, his vigor strengthening.
“I look out at my life at a lot of the missing faces that aren’t doing anything, they’re gone; or the missing faces that are doing something," he said, "but they’re not in the NFL — I’m thrilled to have this face in the NFL.
“I’m blessed. And I’m disappointed as I can be. But I’m in no way taking a chance on complaining about getting the chance to do this. I mean that.”
In a zero-sum game in which 31 of 32 teams complete each season with a loss and degree of disappointment, Jones didn’t mean to minimize the pain that he or his players or his coaches felt.
But he saw the ingredients for a near playoff run in the stifling defense that limited the 49ers' typically potent attack, in the offense that made a handful of plays even after explosive running back Tony Pollard suffered a reported broken leg and sprained ankle in the second quarter, and even in the special teams which contributed a takeaway and two field goals despite kicker Brett Maher's latest missed extra-point attempt (this one was blocked).
“As far as I’m concerned, the game just wasn’t long enough, when you look at it,” Jones said, referring to the divisional round with context that perhaps seemed also a propos for his advancing age. “I’m disappointed. But [next year], I would like to be right back here with the same hand, the same opportunity, with Dak as the quarterback, and go get it.
“They were the better team, but we got some good things happening. Consequently, tonight they won it. But in my mind, I’d rather come in here with a Dak.”