ARLINGTON, Texas — DeMarcus Lawrence described the Cowboys’ postgame locker room as “sickening.”
“We’re at home, we’re facing two teams,” he said. “Hopefully the NFL can sit down with their team, review the film, learn from their mistakes and get better from it.”
After Dallas’ 25-22 loss to Arizona dropped them from the NFC’s No. 2 seed to fourth, Cowboys players did not hold back. They railed against an officiating crew that flagged them for 10 penalties and a collective 88 yards, while the Cardinals were docked 45 yards off seven. The referees’ most infuriating decision, in the eyes of Cowboys defenders, arrived in the final 3 minutes of the game: on a fumble that wasn’t.
Even head coach Mike McCarthy mentioned officiating in his postgame locker room address.
“We’ve got to keep battling with everybody,” linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said of the coach’s message. “And not just the other team, if you catch my drift.”
As the game neared its end, Cowboys defenders thought they had at last positioned offensive teammates to deliver the punishing score.
The scenario diverged from the 22-7 deficit Dallas carried after three quarters, the offense only settling into a rhythm in period four. It was then that Dak Prescott found receiver Cedrick Wilson for a 2-yard touchdown and Amari Cooper for a 4-yard score. Wilson completed a 2-point conversion play and the Cowboys’ momentum was nearly robust enough to overshadow Prescott’s lost fumble sandwiched between the two touchdown drives.
With 4:42 to play and their lead narrowed to 3, the Cardinals took the field. They began marching, quarterback Kyler Murray scrambling for 15 and finding tight end Zach Ertz for 11 on either side of runs from Chase Edmonds. The Cardinals began bleeding clock. The Cowboys used their final two timeouts to stop the clock. Now, 2:51 remained.
Murray pitched left to Edmonds, with Lawrence and Randy Gregory in pursuit. Lawrence punched loose the ball, Cowboys defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa grabbing it as Edmonds tumbled out of bounds. An official stood roughly 5 yards upfield. No whistle was blown. And with 2:45 to play, requesting a challenge necessitated a timeout. The Cowboys had none.
“It was totally a fumble,” Vander Esch said. “And I just don’t understand how with the technology we have these days, even if we don’t have timeouts these days, to call a challenge and challenge it. It’s so obvious. Certain things are so obvious that refs are messing up.”
Cowboys players were surprisingly vocal about what they deemed overeager and at times imprecise officiating.
“If you look around the league, this isn’t just the first time it happened,” Vander Esch continued. “It’s like there are games around the league that have been dictated from just, I don’t know if it’s incompetence or what it is, but don’t make sense to me. It’s not hard to fix that. Especially, if like I said, it’s so blatant on the field and so obvious, why is someone at the top not radioing down like, ‘let’s get this right’? ‘Cause that’s not hard. That’s just the ethics of the game, getting it right. ‘Hey, you made a mistake here, fix it. Here’s the right call.’
“To me, we’re playing more against the refs than we are the other team.”
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The Cowboys offense drew penalties, too. Four of five Dallas offensive linemen drew penalties on third downs in a contest where Dallas converted just three of 11 attempts.
Receiver CeeDee Lamb said that laundry collection disrupted the offense’s ability to find rhythm.
“Every big play was called back because of some kind of call,” Lamb said. “The refs, I feel like, dictated that game. It’s no secret.
Prescott said he wouldn’t “gripe” about rule enforcement and he would “play against the eleven (defenders) and the others if we have to.” As a Cowboys leader, would Prescott recommend his teammates focus more on themselves and less on officiating after emotions died down? He would not, he said.
“They can express their feeling about their frustrations,” Prescott said. “It is what it is. I think we’ve got got to do a better job of trying to keep them out of it, but I’ve become accustomed to it. I understand wearing the (Cowboys) star and what it means. Sometimes things don’t go your way.
“We’re going to play the hand that we’re dealt and try to overcome things.”
Officiating or not, the Cowboys understood clear areas where they must improve if they want to make a run in the playoffs. Sure, at 11-5, Dallas has clinched the NFC East title and thus at least one home postseason contest. But the running game that powered early-season wins managed just 45 yards and 2.6 yards per carry during Sunday’s loss. A passing attack that has struggled to perform consistently since October again featured drops and overthrows, as well as six deflections. Prescott ultimately completed 24 of 38 attempts for 226 yards and three touchdowns.
“We just need better communication, better communication between everybody,” said Cooper, who caught three of seven targets for 18 yards and a touchdown. “Players, receivers, quarterbacks, running backs, coaches. Better communication talking about the things we like and the things we don’t like so we can just go out there and play fast.”
Did the Cardinals scheme muddy Prescott’s vision? Cardinals All-Pro safety Budda Baker said Arizona practiced confusing after determining Prescott was too powerful when he mastered his reads. Prescott said he believes teams have consistently disguised coverages more this year against him than against other quarterbacks.
“So it’s just important for me to watch my film study and see the post-snap,” Prescott said. “I think I did a solid job of it. They did a good job of disguising, trying to show blitzes and then got out there, brought a couple of them. They did a good job of getting their hands on some DB pressures, batting the ball down and things like that.
“Credit to those guys for what they did, but we’ll see them again.”
On defense, Murray’s escapability neutralized some of what had been a potent Cowboys pass rush in December. Without the same aptitude for collapsing the pocket, Dallas struggled to get Arizona off the field on third downs. No matter that the Cowboys entered the game allowing a league-best 31.22% success rate on third downs. The Cardinals converted seven of 13 attempts (53.8%) through three quarters before Dallas stopped each of Arizona’s three fourth-quarter attempts. Still, the resulting 43.8% third-down defense would have ranked worse than 28 defenses across the season.
Developing offensive rhythm earlier and generating third-down stops at a greater clip will be emphases for the Cowboys next week in Philadelphia and the following week in the wild-card round. So, too, will be recapturing the complementary football that buoyed them through December. Dropping to the No. 4 seed after Sunday’s loss, the Cowboys may now host the Cardinals as soon as in two weeks. Players said they would welcome a chance to pick up where fourth-quarter momentum left off, believing they had found clarity on what would work. Players reiterated the NFL aphorism that beating a team twice in close succession is difficult. And defenders said seeing Murray’s threat would aid film study.
First, Dallas will travel to Philadelphia for a game that was flexed to Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. ET. Then: back home.
“If we start this tournament against (Arizona), we’re excited,” Prescott said. “Definitely disappointing we didn’t come away with the win. But damn sure not discouraged.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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