SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jerry Jones sauntered through the Levi’s Stadium tunnel in his dark overcoat, a hitch in the 80-year-old’s step and a sob in his voice.
Once again, the Dallas Cowboys had advanced to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Once again, the team owner and general manager left a stadium wondering if he will live long to see his team ride another deep postseason run.
The Cowboys have advanced to the Division Round seven times 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 group of media outside the visiting dressing room, with the word “sick” popping up six more times in the span of 2 minutes of Jones’ comments.
Players in his dressing room were sick, Jones said, a claim seemingly confirmed by their tears, towel-covered faces and distant looks.
“Hundreds of thousands of Cowboys fans,” Jones continued, were sick — a sentiment Twitter mentions was confirmed in spades.
Head coach Mike McCarthy was sick with disappointment. Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse, also slow to leave the sideline bench after the game as he struggled to come to terms with a season suddenly, what he felt was a winable game that was definitely lost.
“It hurts,” said quarterback Dak Prescott. “All I can think about now is this game and how disappointed I am at this point in my game. How disappointed I am for the guys in the dressing room who gave their best and we couldn’t pull it off. “
The buzz around McCarthy and Prescott’s suitability for their respective jobs, unsurprisingly, grew louder as Groundhog Day-esque disappointment resurfaced in the division round.
Jones felt it. Until he stood out above the team’s buses.
Dak Prescott: ‘I need to get better’
The game’s ending was “eerie” in its resemblance to last season’s playoff defeat, Jones told a handful of reporters as he walked toward the buses. This Cowboys exit came on the road in the divisional round; last year unfolded at home during the wildcard weekend.
But now for two years in a row, the 49ers have knocked out the Cowboys in the playoffs. Each year, the Cowboys recaptured the ball in the final few minutes, after a touchdown and hoping to capitalize on a scoring opportunity.
The game was an old-fashioned ‘bang fest’: the 49ers scored the first score of the game on a field goal in the first quarter, the Cowboys reached the end zone to take their lone lead in the second quarter.
At the end of the third quarter, the two miserly pass-rush teams were tied on 9 points. Then the 49ers rose to the occasion, while the Cowboys faltered.
Jones knew questions would arise about his faith in McCarthy and Prescott.
Does his coaching staff maximize the potential of a talented roster, manage the game enough and provide the necessary juice to propel this franchise to the playoff heights McCarthy was meant to reach? Or did another familiar timed departure 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, agreeing with McCarthy. “But this is very sickening.”
The questions were clear with Prescott as he threw two more first half interceptions, the difference in a game where the Cowboys felt their only clear advantage was quarterback vs. seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy.
But with 5:55 to play in the first quarter, Prescott fell back and straightened his body for a pitch. Then he put his feet back and considered whether he had a chance. Receiver Michael Gallup stopped in his tracks, thinking Prescott was ready to scramble to extend play and hopefully release his downfield goals from defenders. Instead, Prescott fired.
Cornerback Deommodore Lenoir jumped for the interception and brought it back to the Cowboys’ 21.
“I broke on the route and I really didn’t think he was going to throw it,” said Lenoir. “I thought it was going to be the scramble practice, but when I looked back, the ball was coming and my hyena senses just started working.”
The Cowboys’ defense stifled San Francisco’s progress, yet the short field start allowed for 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 Jimmie Ward’s chest and bounced into the instinctive hands of linebacker Fred Warner. The 49ers added a green field goal as the half wrapped to make it 9–6.
“Just two pitches 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 are no excuses for that. Those two are 100 per cent for me.
‘I have to get better. There’s no other way to cover it.”
Jones agreed that “turnover was going to make all the difference” and ultimately “evented the score” in a game between a pair of talented teams with more skill depth for the home team and a more experienced quarterback for the visitors.
This was also not a new concern for Prescott, who amassed 15 regular-season worst picks in just 12 games. The pace was unusual compared to the quarterback’s first six seasons, his interception percentage rising from 1.7% in six years to 3.8% in year 7.
Some giveaways resembled flukes with the balls, bounces that other quarterbacks could see fall to the floor and seemingly land in opponents’ hands after a tip, the Cowboys felt. Prescott made no mistakes in a spectacular wild card round that saw him total five 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. Subsequent decision-making should reflect that. Prescott knew that and said he will closely examine the trend this offseason. Jones stressed that his confidence in his quarterback is “as strong as ever”, now and “for the future”.
Neither the interceptions nor the last two fruitless drives of the game changed that.
“I’ll line up there five times with a similar situation and if we have him at quarterback I’ll take my chances,” said Jones. “We’re coming out of here with something good. That’s an advantage.
“Tonight I haven’t changed my mind about edging with him.”
Jerry Jones talks about the futility of the Cowboys playoffs
All in all, as fireworks lit up the Santa Clara night behind him and a not-so-sober San Francisco fan shouted “LET’S GOOOOO NIIIINERS” from a ramp overlooking Jones, the team owner seemed confused.
He was frustrated, disappointed and 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 maybe even wistful about the decades when fans see futility, but Jones sees a beautiful journey.
In response to a question from Yahoo Sports about his concern that time was running out for his chance to experience postseason success with the Cowboys, Jones took a step back. His blue eyes sparkled, his strength grew stronger.
“I look over my life to many of the missing faces that do nothing, they are gone; or the missing faces that do something,” he said, “but they’re not in the NFL – I’m really happy to have this face in the NFL.
“I’m blessed. And I’m disappointed as I can be. But in no way am I taking the risk of complaining that I’m getting the chance to do this. I mean it.”
In a zero-sum game where 31 of 32 teams finish each season with a loss and some level of disappointment, Jones didn’t set out to minimize the pain he or his players or his coaches felt.
But he saw the makings of a near-playoff run in the stifling defense that limited the 49ers’ typically powerful offense, in the offense that made a handful of plays even after explosive running back. Tony Pollard reportedly suffered a broken leg and sprained ankle in the second quarter, and even in the special teams contributing a takeout and two field goals despite kicker Brett Maher’s final missed extra-point attempt (it was blocked).
“As far as I’m concerned, the game just didn’t last long enough, if you look at it,” Jones said, referring to the division round with context that may also have seemed appropriate for his advanced age. “I’m disappointed. But [next year]I’d like to be back here with the same hand, the same chance, with Dak at quarterback, and go make it.
“They were the better team, but we made good things happen. Consequently, they won tonight. But in my mind I’d rather come in here with a Roof.
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein