We’re mad. We’re frustrated. The slow start; the bad calls by the refs; the questionable play-calling by our coaches; puzzling decisions by our quarterback; a furious, admirable comeback thwarted by a late chunk play – all of it has Cowboys Nation feeling as if the whole season was a waste. Super Bowls are the standard of our proud franchise, after all, and anything less than that is failure. But, is it, really?
Way back in training camp, there was talk of this possibly being the year that the Lombardi Trophy returned to Dallas after a two-decade hiatus. With a stud running back taken with the fourth-overall pick in the draft, a healthy Sean Lee, and improvements in a couple other positions, Cowboys fans were eyeing a return to the 2014 form, only better. This was the best team the Cowboys had fielded in Tony Romo’s tenure. Then, he went down. Not that Kellen Moore would have given any of us any sense of really competing, but he wasn’t available, either. All we had left was the kid from Mississippi State we took in the fourth round. What were our realistic expectations at that point? If Romo could come back by the sixth game, we wondered, is there any chance this kid could at least keep us within reaching distance? Could we be 3-2? We could probably survive 2-3. After the 2015 debacle, 2-3 and get Romo back was like a dream.
We all know how it went from there. Yet, if somehow it could have been known, as Romo laid writhing in pain and holding his back in the preseason, that he wouldn’t play another meaningful snap for the Cowboys this season (or, likely ever) and Dak Prescott would be the starter for all 16 games, not one person in the world would have predicted the team would end the season the way they did. If, while you were watching Romo grimace on the turf, a voice would have whispered in your ear, “Romo is done, but this team is going to go 13-3 and lose in the final 3 seconds of the divisional round to Aaron Rodgers,” you wouldn’t have believed it. But, after sitting through every game of the 4-12 season of 2015, you would have taken it. Gladly.
This team overachieved. Yes, Prescott was a godsend and the situation he stepped into was a godsend to him. Yet, as he and this offense grew together, the Cowboys’ defense was the real unsung hero of this season. The conventional wisdom going into the season was that the offense was going to have to chew up time of possession and score in the 30s or 40s to win. That was okay. That’s what they were built to do. A funny thing happened on the way to the postseason, though. The defense only gave up 26.3 points per game, good for fifth in the NFL. They bent, but rarely broke. Rod Marinelli, once again, worked magic with a supposed “no-name” defense (though, everyone should know All-Pro Sean Lee’s name now that he made it through an NFL season and was every bit the beast we saw in flashes in previous years). Countless times this season, Cowboys fans implored their defense for “just one more stop” and, more often than not, they delivered when it mattered.
With the defense playing over its head and the offense maturing, the wins piled up and expectations grew. Despite rookies filling key roles and defensive players frequently referred to as, “Who is THAT guy?!”, the wins kept coming. Against all odds, the team secured the division and the number one seed in the conference. Considering where they were in the third preseason game, that’s amazing. Eventually, comparisons to the 1992 team started cropping up. There was “new triplets” talk. The “old triplets” were back in the news and giving advice and thoughts about this team that seemed to be standing on the same precipice they stood on so long ago.
Then, the ground beneath them gave out. The Marinelli magic ran out with three seconds left in a tied divisional round game. It is almost miraculous the magic lasted as long as it did. After digging an 18-point hole in their first playoff game and clawing back to finally tie, it all came crumbling down on a 36-yard pass with time winding down. For all of us riding along on this magical season, the realization had come that this team was not the 1992 Cowboys, after all.
But, what if they are the 1991 Cowboys? What if we got so caught up in triplets comparisons, we forgot to include the one addition to that old team to whom almost every former Cowboy from that dynastic team in the ‘90s attributes their eventual Super Bowl ascension? What if this team is waiting on its Charles Haley? What if he’s actually already on the roster? Jaylon Smith is going to make a difference in 2017, surely. Maybe he’s that piece. Actually, it’s probably too optimistic to hope that he alone will make a Charles Haley-like impact, but with the additions from free agency and the draft, he could be enough of a difference-maker to push this team over the edge.
Tonight stinks. This team was good. We thought they were ready to leap over the step that the ‘90s team had to take before claiming the first of their three Super Bowls. They weren’t. So very close, but they weren’t. That hurts. It’s disappointing. But, unlike the disappointments in 2007 and 2009, this team is built differently. This team is built right. The offensive line is a strength, but should be even better in 2017. The offense, as a whole, is potent and young, with the exception of Witten, and even he seems like he can perform at the level to which he’s accustomed for one more year…or two or three. With another smart draft (four words that this Cowboys fan didn’t think he’d ever write six years ago), this defense should be expected to bend less and, ultimately, not break at the most crucial moment of the season.
At the end of it all, this year was a hell of a ride. The end was devastating, but there is every reason to be optimistic about the next several years. That is something we haven’t been able to say for a very long time. We say Super Bowls are the standard, but let’s be honest. We haven’t won one in twenty years. If this year was this team’s 1991, the season was not a failure. Prescott, Elliott, Collins, and Brown will all have invaluable experience from this year and an entire offseason program to improve for next year. Jaylon Smith is expected to fully participate in offseason activities. If this defense gets their Haley bump, we could be looking at 1992.