I'd like to say two things to you: thank you and I'm sorry. Thank you for being more than any reasonable fan, teammate, coach, or owner could have expected when you fell in our lap back in 2003. And I'm sorry for the way a large segment of the Cowboys fan base has treated you in the past and continues to treat you today.
A lot of Cowboys fans remember the team's futile attempts to fill the vacancy at quarterback when Aikman retired. Quincy Carter, Anthony Wright, Ryan Leaf, Clint Stoerner, Chad Hutchinson, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson, and Drew Bledsoe. Two has-beens and a whole bunch of never-was. For a fanbase spoiled by almost uninterrupted excellence at the position (Meredith, Staubach, White, and Aikman covered 35 of the team's first 41 seasons), five seasons of no answer at QB – and no sign of hope on the horizon – was like an eternity. Bledsoe, bless his heart, just couldn't move, anymore, and he needed to with the sorry excuse of an offensive line he had protecting him. You stepped in and did things Drew could no longer do. You made that same line look better, because you could escape the pressure and extend plays. You brought excitement and hope to a mediocre team.
You made the Cowboys relevant again. Without you, this team would have been lucky to win three to five games per season for the last ten years. With you, we always had a shot. That being said, one man cannot win championships in the NFL. You played on some pretty mediocre teams. Your play elevated this team from a joke to competitive. No one player can raise a team from a joke to Super Bowl champion by himself. We'd get pieces to patch up holes here and there, but as soon as we did, we'd spring leaks somewhere else. For the first five years with you under center, the team went for flashy players while ignoring linemen on both sides of the ball. Jerry was trying to build your team from the outside, in, instead of building from the inside, out. You had to run for your life a lot of the time you dropped back to pass. The good news was that you could do that. The bad news is, no one can do that forever.
The constant pressure, hits, and sacks took their toll. A broken finger and a rib injury in 2008. A broken collarbone in 2010. In 2011, you broke a rib that punctured your lung and you finished – and won – the game and then continued to play, not missing a game. In 2011, Jerry finally started to address the glaring deficiencies on your offensive line, drafting Tyron Smith with the ninth pick in the draft. It was a step in the right direction, but one man doesn't make a line any more than one man makes an entire team. You continued to take poundings and then, in 2013, the team took Travis Frederick in the first round. Things were getting better, but you suffered a ruptured disk in your back. In 2014, the team spent another first round pick on the line, taking Zack Martin with the sixteenth pick. With another couple of additions, this line had become the envy of the league. DeMarco Murray, after a lackluster first three years, exploded behind this line that year. With the most complete team of your tenure, you were second-team All-Pro, despite suffering two transverse process fractures. Last year was a disaster, as we know. The two collarbone fractures and the lack of a respectable backup doomed the season. You elected to have another surgery to lessen the probability of further injury to that collarbone.
The Cowboys drafted a stud running back with the fourth overall pick, hoping to recapture the magic of the 2014 season. People still had doubts about your defense, but the formula on offense was to keep our defense off of the field and put up 30+ points per game, just like a couple of years ago. As you said in your press conference, this was the best team you had in your ten years. They had finally built the offense that could carry this team deep into the playoffs, if not all the way. And then you scrambled and slid on your third play of the preseason, which in itself wasn't so bad, but that speeding, 260-pound Cliff Avril who folded you like an accordion caused a compression fracture in one of your vertebrae. One wonders if the injuries and hits you sustained in those early years didn't have a cumulative effect. On the other hand, one can wonder if you aren't just about the most unlucky guy on the field, suffering three freak injuries in two years. On each one, a number of factors had to line up exactly right for those injuries to occur. Either way, no one can question that you have given your heart and body to this team, whether you were on the field or working to get back on the field.
Through it all, you had your supporters, no doubt. But, I am sorry that you also had to endure endless criticism and blame from some fans. And I'm sorry that some of us were more than eager to throw you on the trash heap at the first sign that Prescott wasn't Matt Cassel. “He never won a Super Bowl!” “We'll never win with Tony!” “His time is over, it's Dak's time now!” Everything you'd done for this lowly franchise the last ten years, all the physical pain, the heartbreak, the daily grind to get better, all of it tossed aside as if it was nothing. “I don't care about stats! How many Super Bowls did he win?” As if you compiling those stats on an otherwise inferior team wasn't at least note-worthy, if not absolutely amazing. These people expected you to deliver championships by yourself in a sport that dresses 46 people for a game, of which 30-plus will contribute to the outcome.
Ironically, a majority of your critics also demonize Jerry Jones for his inability to build a team, routinely imploring the internet and football gods to make Jerry finally see the light and hire a GM. They like to have their cake and eat it, too, I guess. At any rate, I'm sorry. You deserve better than how they've repaid you for what you've done for this team.
You elevated this team from doormat to relevant. You couldn't elevate it from doormat to champion. I'd argue that Dak Prescott couldn't, either. He has the good fortune of inheriting the best team you ever had. He gets to move into the penthouse, not work his way up from the sub-basement. You put in the blood (literally), sweat, and tears to help get the team to this level. Just when you were ready to take that final step, fate intervened and the keys were handed to someone else. As you alluded to in your press conference, since moving in, Dak has taken care of the place.
In one of the most gracious, honest, soul-baring speeches I've heard from an athlete, you once again took one for the team. I have no doubt that you believe with every fiber of your being that you could take this team to the promised land. I believe it, too. But, you put the team ahead of yourself, as you've always done. I have to think that this hurt worse than any of the physical injuries, and yet you stood tall in the pocket and delivered, even as you felt that hit coming and you took it.
This team was and is better because of you and I want you to know that a lot of us acknowledge and appreciate that.
Thank you, 9.
I'm sorry, 9.
But, more than anything, thank you.