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Cowboys’ shocking loss leaves Jerry Jones to ponder Mike McCarthy’s status

Mike McCarthy stands on the Cowboys' sideline during Sunday's loss to the Packers in the opening round of the NFC playoffs in Arlington, Tex. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
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ARLINGTON, Tex. — It wasn’t supposed to end this way for the Dallas Cowboys. Not this time.

And not this weekend, at the very least.

But there they were Sunday evening, leaving the field and entering the home locker room at AT&T Stadium about as quietly and solemnly as a group of NFL players and coaches can be. Another season filled with promise had ended with another shattering postseason calamity. And the Cowboys hadn’t even made it particularly competitive. They yielded the game’s first 27 points on their way to losing, 48-32, to the Green Bay Packers in a first-round NFC playoff game.

For the Cowboys and their fans — and for their owner, Jerry Jones, in particular — the refrain was far too familiar. Soon after he emerged from the postgame locker room and was surrounded by reporters, Jones was asked where this defeat ranked among the postseason disappointments he had suffered.

“Really, I can’t reach back and look at a playoff loss,” Jones said. “But this seems like the most painful because we all had such great expectation and we had hope for this team and thought that we were aligned [and] in great shape. And it didn’t happen for us, and it’s as fresh on me right now as it is on anybody else.”

It was the sort of loss that felt like it very well might produce an organizational reset for Jones and the Cowboys. Mike McCarthy has coached the team to three straight 12-win regular seasons. The Cowboys won the NFC East and secured the NFC’s No. 2 seed this season. But again it led to nothing. McCarthy’s postseason record with the Cowboys dropped to 1-3. The franchise still has not reached a Super Bowl since the 1995 season.

And now Jones has some attractive options if he chooses to oust McCarthy and hire a new coach. Bill Belichick, perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history, and Mike Vrabel, a former NFL coach of the year, are available.

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“I don’t want to get into any of the addressing of any aspects of any part of it, from the coaching to the players to what’s around the corner,” Jones said. “On a personal basis, I’m floored. Not that there’s any world’s smallest violin for me being floored. I get that. I understand that. I know where the responsibility starts and ends. And I’ve got that real clear.”

McCarthy declined to address his increasingly tenuous job security, saying during his postgame news conference: “I haven’t thought past the outcome of this game.”

Quarterback Dak Prescott said McCarthy has done an “amazing” job and should not be facing such conjecture about the possibility of being fired.

“I don’t know how there can be,” Prescott said. “But I understand the business. In that case, it should be about me as well, honestly. ... I get it. But add me to the list in that case.”

This was perhaps the one scenario by which a dismissal of McCarthy would be realistic. The Cowboys didn’t just lose. They lost badly. They trailed 48-16 before getting two cosmetic touchdowns and two-point conversions late. And they lost to the NFC’s seventh seed in the first career playoff game for Packers quarterback Jordan Love.

“This one’s burned into our soul out here tonight,” Jones said.

Belichick parted ways Thursday with the New England Patriots after coaching them to six Super Bowl triumphs. He is 71, but he gave no indication that he plans to retire. Belichick’s former boss Bill Parcells once coached for Jones and the Cowboys. Perhaps Belichick’s availability would prompt Jones to make a change.

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Vrabel, too, is a highly accomplished coach who led the Tennessee Titans to the AFC championship game in the 2019 season. He was fired Tuesday.

“A lot of things to reflect on,” Jones said. “But I haven’t done that at all. And I haven’t reflected at all on anything about coaching or any of that. We just are amazed that we are sitting here without another game this coming weekend.”

For the Cowboys, the meltdown Sunday was total. They “clearly picked the wrong day to have a bad day,” McCarthy said. They were the only NFL team to go undefeated at home during the regular season and have won their past 16 regular season games at AT&T Stadium. Yet many fans were headed to the exits Sunday by the end of the third quarter. Many of those who stayed behind were booing. By game’s end, the chants of the Packers fans cheering for their team filled the stadium. McCarthy lost to the team he had coached to a Super Bowl title.

“We’re very disappointed, to a man,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think anybody saw this coming. … We’re hurting. We’re disappointed, every man.”

Said Prescott: “Just shocked, honestly. From the beginning of the game, yeah, we got beat. There’s no other which way around it, no way to sugarcoat it. Obviously I didn’t play well.”

Prescott led the league in touchdown passes during the regular season and often was mentioned in the NFL MVP conversation. But he threw two interceptions Sunday, one of which Packers safety Darnell Savage returned for a touchdown.

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“I sucked tonight,” Prescott said. “That was it. … It’s about winning. And it’s about winning in the playoffs and getting to the last game and winning that as well.”

A defense that had been dominant at times during the regular season was no better than Prescott and the offense Sunday. Love threw three touchdown passes and had a near-perfect passer rating of 157.2. Tailback Aaron Jones provided three rushing touchdowns for the Packers, who advanced to a divisional-round meeting Saturday with the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif.

“There’s no excuses. … We had it all lined up three hours ago,” Prescott said. “This is the last place that anybody in this organization, especially in that locker room, would have thought that we were going to be.”

But that, again, is where the Cowboys are.

Jones called it “one of my [biggest] surprises since I’ve been involved in sports, period.” He said the result was “beyond my comprehension.”

The Cowboys’ season is over, and an offseason of uncertainty is at hand.

“We certainly have a background in what happens after you lose a playoff game,” Jones said. “We have too much experience with that.”