Jerry Jones didn’t even bother with one of his traditional word salads after the Dallas Cowboys’ most recent postseason collapse. Gone were his customary convoluted responses to reporters’ questions—the kind that leave sportswriters trying to decipher whether the Cowboys owner has plans to fire the team’s head coach or order a large pepperoni. This time, after Sunday’s 48–32 loss to the Green Bay Packers in a home playoff game, Jones’s relentless optimism gave way to a rare display of despair. 

“This one’s burned into our soul out here tonight,” he said. “I say this to our fans, how much you deserve us to not have this ending. . . . This seems like the most painful [loss] because we all had such great expectation and we had hope for this team.”

If you’re a Cowboys fan of a certain age, this is your normal—a meager five playoff victories, all in the Wild Card round, in 28 seasons since winning Super Bowl XXX on January 28, 1996. All that past glory—five Super Bowl trophies, twenty consecutive winning seasons, the Ring of Honor—are grainy images and tattered ticket stubs from a distant past.

In this way, the Dallas Cowboys of 2024 are the most remarkable sports franchise in North America. The team can fall on its face in the playoffs and still remain the world’s most valuable sports franchise ($9 billion, according to the latest Forbes estimate). The Cowboys are number one in profitability, the only statistic that matters more than wins and losses these days, and in a sport that dominates television ratings like no other programming ever has. 

Cowboys stars need only first names: Roger and Drew in the seventies and eighties, Troy and Emmitt in the nineties, Dak and Micah today. Jones has transformed his initial $140 million investment, when he bought the team in 1989, into a sprawling empire of real estate and silver helmets. Still, what he craves most as he approaches his eighty-second birthday, he will never have. He’s a marketing and branding genius, but what he really wants is to be considered a football man, admired for his ability to construct rosters, identify talented players, and hire coaches. 

Instead, the Cowboys have flopped so spectacularly in the playoffs so often that their fans have come to expect it. Even so, this weekend’s debacle felt more disappointing than past postseason flameouts, because the Dallas defeat was such a complete beatdown that left Jones confronting so many critical decisions.

He probably will fire head coach Mike McCarthy despite three straight playoff appearances and two division championships in four seasons on the job. McCarthy was hired because his predecessor, Jason Garrett, won two playoff games in nine-plus seasons. McCarthy has one postseason victory with the Cowboys. “We picked the wrong day to have a bad day,’’ McCarthy said after the loss. “I don’t think anybody saw this coming. . . . We’re hurting, we’re disappointed, every man.”

Only the Kansas City Chiefs have won more regular-season games (37) than the Cowboys (36) over the last three seasons, but the Chiefs have won a Super Bowl in that span and are one victory from a third straight trip to the AFC Championship Game.

The Cowboys trotted onto the field at AT&T Stadium on Sunday with a sixteen-game home-winning streak. They were the only one out of 32 NFL franchises to finish the regular season ranked in the top five in both offense and defense. Quarterback Dak Prescott led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes. Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb’s 135 receptions also led the league. Star pass rusher Micah Parsons was seventh in sacks (fourteen) despite constantly having two and three blockers thrown his way. 

And then on the sport’s biggest stage, the one that defines legacies, Dallas’s three biggest stars were practically no-shows, and the Cowboys found themselves trailing by 32 points in the fourth quarter. They gave up more points than the franchise had ever allowed in a playoff game, and wound up being the only home team to lose in the NFL postseason’s opening weekend. Fans on social media gleefully pointed out that the Packers now have more all-time playoff victories at AT&T Stadium than the Cowboys.

In a first half in which the Packers scored the first 27 points and took a 27–7 lead into halftime, Prescott had 87 passing yards and two interceptions, one of those returned for a touchdown. He’s 2–5 in the playoffs and has performed poorly in the Cowboys’ last three playoff losses. The last time he threw two first-half interceptions came in last year’s playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Lamb had two catches and two drops in a half-hearted first half in which Green Bay nicely disguised its defensive schemes. Television cameras caught both Prescott and McCarthy attempting to talk the wide receiver out of his funk.

Parsons? He had zero sacks and zero tackles for losses as Green Bay blanketed him with multiple blockers. Until the Cowboys add another pass-rushing threat, this will be Parsons’s new normal.

“It’s a shock,’’ Prescott said after the game. “Damn sure didn’t think this is where we’d be. . . . It’ll take a little bit more time to digest it completely.” 

“I sucked tonight,” he told reporters. Asked why he’d been unable to carry his regular season success into the playoffs, he paused for several seconds. “I mean, it’s tough to give you that answer when we went out there—when I went out there—and we just did that,’’ he replied. “Unfortunately, that’s what the offseason is for. It’s a long one.’’

Is McCarthy responsible for the collective failure? Sure, he is. Even McCarthy admitted the Cowboys came out flat, which is inexcusable for a win-or-go-home playoff matchup. Head coaches are responsible for scheming up a game plan that will allow their players to perform at their best, and that aspect of the job will be front and center if (more like when) Jones winds up hiring a new coach this offseason. (That would be the Cowboys’ eighth head coach since Jones fired Jimmy Johnson after the 1993 championship season.)

Coaches are easy to replace, but finding a quarterback to perform at the level Prescott has reached in the regular season is easily the hardest thing for an NFL franchise to achieve. Jones knows this and will be hoping and praying that some combination of a new coach, a different voice, and a different mindset will assist Prescott in translating his regular-season prowess into playoff success. The Cowboys have no other choice but to run it back with Dak.

There are no easy answers for a team that looks like world-beaters for much of the regular season and then falls flat in the playoffs. And don’t even bother suggesting that Jones cede the roster-building duties to a full-time general manager. It’ll never happen. The Dallas Cowboys are the Jerry Jones Show, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine him ever relinquishing one iota of control over the franchise.

Jones may never have been the meddler some have portrayed him to be. The Cowboys have an excellent personnel man in Will McClay, who oversees the draft and has a large voice in every roster move. He convinced Jones to draft Prescott in the fourth round and has a string of excellent first-round selections in Lamb, Parsons, offensive lineman Tyler Smith, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, and others.

But over the years, through his actions and decisions, Jones has proven that when it comes to America’s Team, he wants the credit—all of it. Even if that means taking credit for thirty years of disappointing the largest fan base in professional football.