Underachievers or contenders? Wild-card game vs. 49ers will show who these Dallas Cowboys really are

Contrary to the records set by the Cowboys in a 12-5 season, they haven’t always lived up to what they seem to be.

Here’s the only joke I ever tell: Man walks into a bar leading a short-legged mutt with a goofy grin. A guy bets the man that his Doberman, name of “Devil,” could beat his funny-looking dog. Curiously enough, the man takes him up on it.

“Get him, Devil!” the guy barks, and the snarling Doberman leaps to his dire duty.

Next thing you know, the funny-looking dog drops Devil with a snap of his jaws, to gasps all around. How could this be? What kind of dog is this anyway?

“Before I cut off his tail and painted him yellow,” the man says, “he was an alligator.”

Which brings us to the question going into Sunday’s playoff game at JerryWorld and the point of this column at last:

Contrary to the records set by the Cowboys in a 12-5 season, they haven’t always lived up to what they seem to be. Who are they then? The team that started the season 6-1 with the league’s most potent offense, a distant memory evoked by late routs of Washington and Philadelphia?

Or are they the underachieving bunch that flunked November and did the same when tested by Arizona?

Sunday probably provides an answer, one way or the other. Having borne witness to all 17 games, not only did the strain force me to get new glasses, I’m embarrassed to admit I wouldn’t be surprised by much of anything.

Even with the problems the Cowboys’ offensive linemen have keeping their hands to themselves, the offense overall has too much talent to get shut down completely. The 49ers have a good defense, and a good defense can take away one player or area of emphasis and force you to win some other way. But no defense should be able to stop a record-setting quarterback, three good receivers, a surprisingly good tight end and a running tandem that includes a 1,000-yard rusher and a guy who amassed more than 1,000 yards of total offense.

Yet that’s exactly what Arizona did this month when it held the Cowboys to a meager 22 points.

Dan Quinn has worked miracles with the defense, taking advantage of aggressive schemes and an innate ability to get players to buy in. He has such good people skills, in fact, that if I owned the Broncos, Jaguars or Dolphins, I’d hire him as head coach as soon as the Cowboys’ season is over. Which, as previously noted, could be this weekend. The thing is, for all his good work, Quinn still hasn’t fixed the Cowboys’ run defense, as the Eagles’ backups proved last week.

And if there’s one thing San Francisco’s offense does consistently well, it’s run the ball. The rest of the offense is less certain. Jimmy Garoppolo? He’s better than the 49ers thought he was when they traded a couple of firsts and a third to draft Trey Lance. But he’s not better than Dak, especially if the latter uses his feet to help make up for any shortcomings in the running game.

Otherwise, the Cowboys’ talent level is at least on par with the 49ers. Critics have historically made the case that the Cowboys have always been talented, yet they manage to find ways to screw things up. Only that’s not so, or at least it wasn’t before this season.

True, the Cowboys have had plenty of talent on offense and pay dearly for it. The defense has been another story. Going into this season, you could have argued that DeMarcus Lawrence was far and away the Cowboys’ best defender. Even with all the time he’s missed, he’s no less a presence. But Micah Parsons is the biggest talent now, with Trevon Diggs and Randy Gregory peeking over Lawrence’s shoulder.

And yet the Cowboys, as talented as they’ve been since the Super Bowl days, still fulfill old critiques. It’s always something. When they’re not leading the world in holding penalties, Dak throws behind a receiver or Greg Zuerlein flubs an extra point or Anthony Brown rides a receiver like he’s Bill Shoemaker.

The reason for the offense’s difficulties at times are difficult to diagnose, though it probably starts in the line, where only Zack Martin has lived up to his reputation. Even so, no team can afford Pro Bowlers everywhere, and even playoff teams make do with average offensive lines.

Don’t think I haven’t considered the head coach’s contribution. Early on, like from his first game as head coach, Mike McCarthy has made us question his decisions, if not his sanity. But, in fairness, it’s been weeks since he went for it on fourth down on his side of the 50 or gave his special teams coach enough leash to choke North Texas.

Whatever happens Sunday, the only thing I can tell you is that I won’t be the least bit surprised. The Cowboys may not be dogs, but they could play like them. No joke.

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