After the Cowboys’ last crushing playoff loss, Jerry Jones assesses the future of Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jerry Jones strolled through the Levi’s Stadium tunnel in his dark overcoat, a hitch in the 80-year-old’s gait and a sniffle in his voice.

Again, the Dallas Cowboys had qualified for the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. Once again, the team owner and general manager was leaving a stadium wondering if he would live to see his team go through a deep playoff run again.

Seven times the Cowboys have advanced to the Divisional Round since their last Super Bowl title 27 years ago. Seven times during this period they 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 visitors’ locker room, with the word “sick” recurring six more times within 2 minutes of Jones’ remarks.

The players in his locker room were sick, Jones said, a claim 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 has been confirmed in spades.

Head coach Mike McCarthy was sick with disappointment. Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse was also slow to come off the sidelines after the game as he struggled to process a suddenly broken season in what he considered a winnable game for sure lost.

“It hurts,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “All I can think about right now is this game and how disappointed I am at this stage of my game. How disappointed I am for the guys in the locker room who played each other out of their asses and we we couldn’t do it.”

Unsurprisingly, the clamor surrounding McCarthy and Prescott’s fitness for their respective jobs intensified, as the Groundhog Day-like disappointment in the divisional round resurfaced.

Jones felt it. Until, moments by team bus, he transcends her.

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy suffered his second straight playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif.  (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy suffered his second straight playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez)

Dak Prescott: ‘I have to be better’

The end of the game was “strange” in its similarity to last season’s playoff loss, Jones told a handful of reporters as he walked to the buses. That Cowboys outing came on the road in the divisional round; last year was held at home during a wild-card weekend.

But for two straight years, the 49ers have knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs. Every year the Cowboys would get the ball back in the final minutes, losing a touchdown and hoping to capitalize on a scoring chance.

They did not do it.

The game was an old-fashioned “slugfest,” with the 49ers scoring the game’s opening score on a field goal in the first quarter, with the Cowboys reaching the end zone to take their only second-quarter lead.

By the end of the third quarter, the pair of pass-rush stingy teams were tied at 9 points. Then the 49ers rose to the occasion, while the Cowboys faltered.

Jones knew questions would swirl about his belief in McCarthy and Prescott.

Is his coaching staff maximizing the potential of a talented squad, managing the game enough, providing the juice needed to propel this franchise to the playoff heights that McCarthy was hired to achieve ? Or did another outing at a familiar time 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 it’s very sickening.”

The questions were obvious with Prescott as he threw two more interceptions in the first half, the difference in a game in which the Cowboys felt their only clear advantage was at quarterback against seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy.

But with 5:55 left in the first quarter, Prescott backed up and squared his body for a pitch. Then he put his feet back up and wondered if he had a chance. Receiver Michael Gallup stopped short, thinking Prescott was ready to scramble to extend the play and hopefully allow his downfield targets to get away from the defenders. Instead, Prescott fired.

Cornerback Deommodore Lenoir jumped for the interception and sent it back to the Cowboys’ 21.

“I broke on the course 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 when I looked back the ball was coming and my hyena senses kicked in.”

The Cowboys defense stifled San Francisco’s progress, but even so, the short start to the field set up an easy 26-yard field goal.

The Cowboys’ next giveaway came in the final 90 seconds of the second quarter, with 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 field goal as the half ended to make it 9-6.

“Just two throws that I can’t have, you can’t have in the playoffs,” said Prescott, who finished the game 23 of 37 for 206 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in addition to 22 rushing yards on four doors. “You can’t have them when you’re trying to beat a team like that. You can’t have it on the road. There is no excuse for this. These two are 100% on me.

“I have to be better. There’s no other way to coat it.”

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) was blamed for offensive shortcomings in Sunday's playoff loss to the 49ers.  (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) was blamed for offensive shortcomings in Sunday’s playoff loss to the 49ers. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

Jones agreed that “rollovers were going to be the difference” and eventually “settled the score” in a clash between two talented teams that featured more skill for the home team and a more experienced quarterback for the visitors.

Nor was it a new concern for Prescott, who had the league’s 15-worst regular-season picks in just 12 games. The pace was unusual compared to the quarterback’s first six seasons, with his interception rate going from 1.7% in six years to 3.8% in 7th year.

Some giveaways looked like good luck with the balls, rebounds that other quarterbacks might see falling to the ground seemingly landing in opponents’ hands after a tip, the Cowboys felt. Prescott made no mistakes in a spectacular wildcard round in which he scored 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 outcome is no different. Subsequent decision-making had to reflect this. Prescott knew that and said he would look closely at the trend this offseason. Jones insisted his confidence in his quarterback was “just as strong as ever” now and “for the future.”

Neither the interceptions nor the two final and unsuccessful drives of the match changed that.

“I’m going to line up there five times with a similar situation and if we get him as a quarterback, I’m going to take a chance,” Jones said. “We’ll come out of here with something good. It’s an advantage.

“Tonight, I haven’t changed my mind on the edge with him.”

Jerry Jones opens up on Cowboys playoff futility

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 in conflict.

He was frustrated, disappointed, sickened by his team’s last performance. But also: He was excited about the Cowboys’ future, confident in his quarterback and head coach, and perhaps even nostalgic for 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 running out on his chance for playoff success with the Cowboys, Jones took a step back. His blue eyes twinkled, his vigor growing.

“I look at my life at a lot of missing faces that don’t do anything, they’re gone; or the missing faces doing something,” he said, “but they’re not in the NFL — I’m glad to have that face in the NFL.

“I’m blessed. And I’m disappointed as can be. But I’m not taking any chances complaining that I had the chance to do it. I mean.”

In a zero-sum game in which 31 of 32 teams end each season with a loss and a degree of disappointment, Jones didn’t want to downplay the pain he or his players or coaches were feeling.

But he saw the ingredients for 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 suffered a broken leg and a sprained ankle in the second. quarterback, and even in special teams who contributed a takeaway and two field goals despite kicker Brett Maher’s last missed extra run 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 also seemed appropriate for his advanced age. “I’m disappointed. But [next year]I’d love to be back here with the same hand, same opportunity, with Dak as my quarterback, and go get him.

“They were the better team, but we had some good things. Therefore, tonight they won it. But in my mind, I’d rather come here with a Dak.

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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