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This Time is Different

July 29 2015

I’ve been kicking around the idea of writing an essay on why this year will be different for the Cowboys, unlike so many others. I truly believe that they could win a Super Bowl. Of course, you can never know that as a certainty, as any number of wrinkles can get in the way: an injury to a star player, a single bad playoff game, or a team that is simply better. Still, on today, the start of training camp, I think it is worth reflecting on the last 25 years of Cowboys football, what it means to really love a team, and why regardless of what happens this year, the Cowboys should be competitive for a long time.

Where do I start? Some of you are much older fans than I, but my first real memory of the Cowboys was when they were playing the Bills in one of their Super Bowl match ups. We sat in the living room of our old house as a family and ate buffalo wings. Only being a child at the time, it seemed like this was exactly how life was supposed to work: the Cowboys were always the best team and of course it made perfect sense to eat buffalo wings. For a sports fan this was an idyllic childhood.

The first event which taught me that fandom was sometimes painful was the 1994 NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and the Cowboys. Remember, had they won this one, it was quite possible that they would have won four Super Bowls in a row. Perhaps not, maybe if they had won three in a row, the team doesn’t come back as motivated for the next. Anyway, my dad had to make a trip to his office so we listened to the start of the game on the radio in the car and then another part on an old durable-as-hell radio that might be sitting in that same spot today. Of course in that game the Cowboys dug themselves a 21-0 hole in the first quarter. They fought back, and if not for a missed PI call on Deion covering Irvin, the Cowboys may very well have pulled off the comeback. But it wasn’t to be. I remember watching the end of the game at home on the TV and specifically remember my mom complaining about how rude Steve Young was because he knocked over a reporter while making a victory lap around muddy Candlestick. This loss wasn’t particularly heartbreaking, it was just confusing. The Cowboys could lose?

The next year they won a Super Bowl and things were back to normal. It was only the year after that when it became obvious that the good times couldn’t last forever. Irvin got suspended for cocaine and didn’t make it back until late in the season. The Cowboys had to travel to Carolina to play an upstart Panthers team with a young Kerry Collins and a tight end that seemed like a god that day, Wesley Walls. As the time ran down on that defeat, I remember sitting there crying. It seems silly now, but my little mind just couldn’t get over it. This was a loss that really hurt, more so than others. The saddest thing might be that few at the time realized that it also signaled the end of a dynasty and that we wouldn’t see a great Cowboys team for another 20 years.

The next two coaching eras are known more for their futility than anything else. There was Randy Moss destroying the Cowboys on multiple occasions and showing why Jerry should have drafted him. Ironic for a team which has since made dance partners with characters like TO, Pacman Jones, and the less troubled but still controversial Dez and Randy Gregory, but Moss was Jerry learning a hard lesson.

These years also included an upset by Jake Plummer and the Cardinals in Texas Stadium (the Cardinals were never seen as anything more than a joke up until this point). There was the slow attrition of players who had been on those great teams; Irvin was done in 99, Aikman two years later. We had George Teague destroying TO after TO mocked the Star repeatedly (it’s easy in 2015 to forget just how much TO was hated around here at one point; he more than anyone else should be proof that winning forgives all sins). There were three 5-11 seasons, and the Year of Four Quarterbacks starring Quincy Carter, Clint Stoerner, Antony Wright, and Ryan Leaf. Things got so bad that I remember talking excitedly on the phone with a friend about a Chad Hutchinson overthrow. Sure, he overthrew his receiver by two yards, but boy did he have an arm!

Then, Along Came Parcells. 2003, while only modestly successful, was a light in the darkness. It was a memory that winning was possible. The first sign that things were different came on a Monday night game in New York when Quincy Carter threw for over 300 yards and the team willed itself to a come-from-behind victory on a Billy Cundiff field goal against a Giants team only a year and a half removed from a Super Bowl appearance. That was electrifying. There was the game that Emmitt returned to Texas Stadium as a Cardinal and Roy Williams destroyed his shoulder. There was an early match up with the Eagles where the great Randal Williams returned an attempted onside kick for a touchdown three seconds into the game. The Cowboys managed to hold on despite a late Eagles rally. I was there. I remember how into the game that whole crowd was, especially on the final drive by Philly. I remember some Eagles fan talking shit in the parking lot and getting punched in the face. Pro tip: don’t ever go to someone else’s stadium, get liquored up, and talk trash. It can’t end well.

That team ended up getting exposed as the season wore on: Miami scored at will on Thanksgiving and the Eagles were back on top of the division after a 36-10 drumming in at their place. Still, it is easy to forget how much talent was on that team. There was a healthy Darren Woodson, Dat Nyugen, Greg Ellis and others in their prime, as well as Roy Williams at his best and Terence Newman playing like a veteran even as a rookie. On offense Quincy Carter was getting compared to Donovan McNabb (it seems silly now, less so in his third season). Terry Glenn and Joey Galloway could still play at a high level, Witten was a rookie, and old greats like Flozell and Larry Adams were still around. Sean Peyton was the QB coach (for a laugh, check out this article just prior to the Cowboys breaking out last year), and Mike Zimmer was the DC. Ask Bengals and Vikings fans just how much they love him. Most importantly, 2003 was a return to some kind of competitiveness. Parcells said it best: “you can’t call us losers anymore” after a gritty win against the Panthers late in the year.

Partially thanks to Quincy loving white powder even more than Irvin had, 2004 was lost before it even started. Still, our first glimpse of Romo happened in a preseason game against the Raiders in which this brash, maybe naive, maybe obnoxious backup came in and drove his team all the way down the field before running a QB sneak in for a touchdown. I’m a little proud that I saw that live. Romo wouldn’t see true action that year, but we did see old man Testaverde give it his all and we got to hear commentators talk about how strong his legs were just about every game. We also got to see a rookie Julius Jones look like the next great Cowboys running back. He flashed that a few times in the coming years, but he never looked as elusive and electrifying as he did as a rookie. Perhaps unfairly, I’ll always believe that Parcells coached his natural talent out of him. Oh, and speaking of talent, we got to see a couple games of Drew Henson, Jerry’s heir apparent for the QB job. The delusional homerism of I and thousands of other naive souls will miss you, Drew.

The next year brought an new Drew, Drew Bledsoe. I don’t know that Cowboys fans ever really loved Drew. He was like that person you get into a relationship with because you just want a relationship. Nothing against that person (or Drew), but neither of you really like each other as much as someone else has or will. Bledsoe was always a Patriot first and foremost and he’s loved in New England in ways that he never was here. Still, Drew gave everything he had, and that’s all you can ask for. Along with Drew, 2005 brought a trend of maddeningly consistent inconsistency. There were some great moments, like a real demolition of the Eagles at home, as well as that impossible victory in Philly where Roy Williams intercepted a McNabb pass to no one in particular and took it to the “promised land” as he’d later say. On the other hand, there was a missed Jose Cortez field goal in Seattle and a missed Billy Cundiff field goal against the Broncos on Thanksgiving, both games that would wind up as losses. We really shouldn’t even talk about being up 13-0 and utterly dominating the Redskins in Dallas only to see Santana Moss catch two long bombs in the closing minutes. 2005 sucked because it could have been so much more, but as I said, it’s real lasting impact, aside from the drafting of Demarcus Ware, was the start of the Cowboys being a team that would win games they had no business winning and losing games everyone thought they were going to win.

With 2006 came the birth of Romosexuality. Tomes have already been written on Romo, but we have a much different outlook on him 9 years later than we did at the time. In 2006 it seemed as if he emerged out of nowhere to replace Bledsoe and become the next Staubach or Aikman. Even in his first extended action against the Giants, a game in which his first pass was an interception for a touchdown, you could tell he had something special. That was made concrete the next week on Sunday Night Football where Michaels and Madden specifically raved about his savvy. There was that great moment of him standing on the sideline with tears in his eyes as Parcells came by and touched him like a proud father. Fans stood outside the stadium that night chanting “Romo! Romo! Romo!”. As a proud Boys fan, that brought chills. There was his breakout on Thanksgiving with five touchdowns against the Bucs, where we also saw his predilection for famous women (Carrie Underwood at the time, Jessica would come later). There was that magic in the Meadowlands where Romo rolled to his left and found Witten forty yards down the field just over the shoulder of Antonio Pierce to put the them into field goal range for the win. Of course, that season ended on that muffed field goal in Seattle, and we’ll see that footage for the next 30 years. That play isn’t as haunting as the fact that Parcells has said that he thought they had something special that year. Had Greg Ellis not tore up his knee in garbage time in Arizona in December, maybe he’s right. Maybe the Cowboys win the Super Bowl that year and Romo’s legacy takes a drastic turn. It could have happened. Nobody else was especially scary that year. It’s too damn bad. No matter. We had found our Romo.

Thus began the Romo era. Unfortunately, for as brilliant as the Romo era has been at times, it has always let us down. Too often that is placed at his feet, but it is more of a reflection of the franchise as a whole. 2007 was greatness. It felt like the return of the old Cowboys after a decade of futility. But we all know how that ended. Despite moments like Nick “Folk Hero”’s winning field goal in Buffalo (where I found myself holding hands with a stranger before the kick, like a player on the sideline), and Joe Buck’s “and the legend of [Tony Romo] continues to grow”, we had other moments like a late season Eagles loss (with Jessica Simpson in attendance and the hoopla that ensued). We had Cabo and Bobby Carpenter. We had that miserable Giants game in the playoffs where the Cowboys just made stupid plays, like that scamper down the sideline by Amani Toomer for a touchdown. Finally, there was that last drive with a phantom intentional grounding call, the Patrick Crayton slow down on a sure touchdown (maybe a preview of Miles Austin’s similar slowdown against the Giants several years later), and the interception that ended it all. Close, but no cigar. The story of the Romo Cowboys.

Before we continue further, something needs to be said. People always criticize Romo on the fact that his teams have constantly come up short. They act like he’ll just never get it together or you can never win with him. What they miss is the only reason that the Cowboys are close at all is due to him. Even within a single game, there are four to five plays he makes that that most QBs cannot. Within a given season there are one or two plays that Romo, and only Romo, can. Take Romo off this team and replace him with an average quarterback or even a very good one, like Drew Bledsoe, and you lose another three to four games a year. If you are one of those fans who believe that Romo is the problem, I’m sorry to tell you, but you are wrong. We have year after year of clutch moments by him to prove it.

2008 was where the disillusionment started. Coming off that 2007 season, you had to figure that the Cowboys were going to the Super Bowl. Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins were added in the draft and Pacman Jones was added at a bargain price. This team had to be great. Through the first three games, this certainly seemed to be the case. Then, mostly due to a Romo injury, exacerbated by the decision to have Brad Johnson and Brooks Bollinger as backups, the season slipped away. A 44-6 stinker that presaged every 8-8 “playoff” game in the years to come sealed the deal on a disappointment of a season. 2008 started to write the story that Romo couldn’t win it all and the Cowboys would always be a giant tease.

2009 surprised everyone, though that was really just the 2008 team without injury problems. The first playoff win in a decade was a nice get. But that success wasn’t sustained the next year and Wade was gone. Thus began the Jason Garrett era which everyone knows had been in the wings since his hiring (before Wade) in 2007. Garrett was exciting. He looked like a head coach. He came from the old 90s dynasty. He was fresh blood. But that initial excitement could only go so far as we entered those three years of 8-8.

We started clamoring for Garrett’s head. What wasn’t obvious, unless you were really paying attention, is that Garrett was building something. Him, Jerry, Stephen, and Will McClay started shifting the roster from a bunch of overpaid veterans from the Parcell’s era to a young team built off of draft steals and forged first in the trenches. Jason was around for that dominant offensive line in the 90s and knew that it was key to continued success (and to the ability of Romo to stand up straight in his old age). His at times robotic persona and “three phases” of the game mantra, which seemed at first boring and then infuriating when the team wasn’t winning, slowly became instilled into the players. A team that had for years folded in big situations because it was so up and down slowly became steady and constant. When things would get good they wouldn’t eat the cheese (an old Parcellsism), but when things got bad, they wouldn’t panic.

I don’t want to talk too much about 2011-2013 because there’s not a lot to stay. Those Cowboys were still learning. 2013 was amazing simply for the fact that the defense was historically bad but somehow the team still managed to end up at .500. Everyone saw the Lions and Packers collapses. I’ll admit it, for the first time in my life, I stopped paying attention to the Cowboys. I turned off the Saints game at half because I realized I had better things to do with my life.

How could we have known 2014 was going to be different? Nobody but the biggest homer did. But this is where the shift in culture started to pay off. The first game seemed like a return to form. I turned off the TV in the first quarter out of disgust and tweeted that I had “standards”. Why waste your time on bad football? But I couldn’t help myself. Throughout the season I’d tune in until the old Cowboys apparently showed up and then I’d turn off the TV only to be goaded by a friend into turning it back on. Time after time, instead of folding like the Cowboys had in the past, the Cowboys showed something I’d never seen before. They showed poise and confidence. They showed heart and fire. Down 21-0 against the Rams they roared back. After blowing a lead against the Texans they showed some moxie and won in OT off a brilliant Romo to Dez connection (and that wasn’t even the best pass of the day). They went into Seattle and surprised everyone after going down 10-0. T. Will’s toe drag on the final drive still gives me chills. Down 11, the Cowboys came back in New York with a beautiful touchdown run by Beasley. Despite all these struggles, we had no idea that the real test was about to begin.

The team was already on a downward slide after losses to Washington and Arizona when Philly came into town on Thanksgiving and absolutely destroyed them. Still to come was December (the historically bad month) with games against very good teams: Chicago, Philly, Indianapolis. What happened next was incredible. The demolition of the Bears in Chicago on Thursday Night Football. The ability to come back and beat the Eagles after giving up a 21-0 lead and losing all momentum in Philadelphia. Making the Colts (an AFC Championship Game team) look silly and clinching, and then, in a reversal of 2007, Garrett went all in and played his starters in the last week of the season for a dominating performance against the Redskins. If we didn’t know this was a different team before, we knew it then.

In to town came Detroit. Would the Cowboys keep it up? I certainly didn’t look like it early. When they went down 14-0, I turned off the TV. Sorry, old habits die hard and it was hard to imagine the Cowboys coming back from this. But somehow they did. The magical long touchdown by T. Will before the half (something he’s becoming known for). Still, the Lions went up 20-7 in the third. Were the Cowboys really going to rally? Had they lost that way it would have been disappointing, but not surprising, and ultimately it still would have been a positive season. It was at this point that it was as if the team collectively shouted “No! No!” like Kurt Russell in Tombstone and decided that they were not going to lose. You saw the desire in the late great Demarco Murray’s face as he scored on 4th and 1 to make it a six point game. You saw it in continued stands by the defense. And finally, you saw it in that last fateful drive.

I didn’t know how that drive would end at the time, but that playoff game against the Giants during the 2007 season came to mind. Here was Romo at home with time running down and the ball in his hands driving for the winning score. Had he come up short I’m not sure that he’d ever overcome his now cementing legacy no matter how good his regular season had been. After the ball made it to midfield, Garrett put the game on the line on 4th down. Of course, they went to old faithful, Witten, who made the same move he’s made his whole career on a brilliant little juke over the middle. Finally, Romo threw that touchdown just before his pocket collapsed after what seemed like an interminable length of time. The crowed absolutely erupted, perhaps as loud as it has ever been at the new stadium. When Romo slapped the ground out of pure joy, you knew exactly how much it meant to him. His joy reflected our joy as fans. Here he was, here was Witten, here was Garrett, here was this team who, put in the same situation as the 2007 team, did something very different. The Dallas Cowboys and Tony Romo had exorcised their demons.

Of course, that game wasn’t sealed until D. Law pulls a Leon Lett and then totally redeems himself on the final drive. Fun fact: I was at that icy Thanksgiving game in 1993 when the Big Cat made one of his now legendary blunders. Unfortunately, all I remember was getting home and my laces being frozen due to jumping in cold puddles of water. Anyways, better we recall that then the Packers game the next week. That game could have turned on a few plays and it’s very possible that Seattle and New England could have been beaten, as hard as it may have been. When it gets down to it, I can’t get too upset about the Dez catch, as the only reason that was possible at all was because of a very favorable call for the Cowboys just the week before. Regardless, they went down swinging. As much as I wish they would have just pounded the ball on 4th and short, I love the guts it took to throw a deep pass down the sideline to the team’s greatest weapon, who very nearly made one of the great miracle catches of all time. There is no shame in that loss. In fact, if it does anything, it has placed a chip on the team’s shoulder, which is invaluable.

This brings us to the start of training camp. Will this team progress even further or will we just see a repeat of 2008? Outside of injury, I don’t see how this team could regress. Except for running back, the entire offense returns pretty much intact. Hell, it may have even improved with the signing of Collins in one of the great draft hauls of all time (3 first-round talents with the 27th pick). All teams rave about their players during the off season, but Dez’s time off may have helped T. Will turn into a more complete receiver. Irvin and Harper are back, baby. Perhaps Cole Beasley becomes an even more important part of this offense. The biggest question is obviously RB, but McFadden may have a career year and Randle’s speed might be the perfect compliment to this line that produces gaping holes.

Then there is the defense, which truthfully excites me more than any other part of this team. In Byron Jones, the Cowboys have added one of the elite athletic talents of this draft, not to mention a very intelligent player. I believe that at worst he will become a Terence Newman, in other words, a savvy veteran who plays for a long time. His ceiling is even higher. Randy Gregory almost certainly won’t dominate this year, but he has the ability in coming years, and as D. Law showed last year, rookies can start to pick things up towards the end of the season. Speaking of which, D. Law will be in his second year, which has the possibility for a real leap forward. The same goes for Hitchens who was a gem of a draft pick at linebacker last year.

There are also the veteran additions. Greg Hardy could be an elite pass rushing presence. Sean Lee, essentially an All-Pro player except for injury also returns. Everyone is low on Claiborne, but if we only performs as a second round pick instead of the top five pick he was, he’s a huge addition. With Marinelli driving, this could be a very, very good defense, something they were not last year in spite of that 12-4 record, great December, and playoff win.

That’s why I’m incredibly excited about this year. It’s not just the talent on the roster, it is also the mindset of the franchise as a whole, and that’s why I’m excited about the team in the coming years. It took Jerry a long, long time to learn some hard lessons, and god knows at times we all wanted a different GM no matter how good of an owner he has been. However, it seems with Garrett, his son, and Will McClay, Jerry finally has people around him that he really trusts. He has a nucleus of partners and a foundation to build on, which he hasn’t had since Jimmy left. Even when Jerry is gone, Stephen seems like he’s learned a lot of those same lessons from his father. We don’t really think of it this way, but sports franchises are pretty much the last remaining little kingdoms. You might have a great king or queen for a time, only to have their child be a complete moron and destroy everything. The best sports franchises have consistent ownership. The Steelers are a great example of this. It isn’t unthinkable that Stephen could own the team for forty years. If he’s a good owner, then the team should be consistent, and when you are talking about success, that’s what you need: consistency. The Patriots, Packers, and Steelers don’t win every year but they are almost always in the chase because they have a stable foundation. When you are always in the case, sometimes things go your way and you win a Super Bowl. It’s simple odds.

If the Cowboys don’t win it all this year, I truly believe that they’ll win one or two in the next decade. I don’t mean to eat the cheese, but I think that Garrett and company have built a foundation for success. I hope it is sooner rather than later, though. More than anything else Witten and Romo need one. They are two of the most deserving guys in the league. I would love to see Tony have one of those runs like Dirk’s 2011 playoff performance. If you don’t remember (and it can be hard to because opinion has shifted so dramatically), Dirk was labeled as soft and a choker, even though his stats said anything but. He shocked everyone and secured his legacy with that win. Dirk probably won’t win another championship, but it doesn’t matter. He will always be a legend for that short stretch of a sublime summer.

Tony is one of the greatest undrafted free agents ever. He has put this team on his back year after year and made it much better than it would be without him. Despite this, and no matter how good last year was, for him to take that next step and be great, he’s gotta win it all. On that last touchdown against Detroit you saw just how badly he wanted it. You saw how much it meant to him. Tony is not a choker, he’s not a loser, and more than anything else, I’d like for him to be able to prove it to everyone else, especially those idiots who have said for years that he isn’t good enough.

You see, sometimes you start to personally take on the story of your team or of a player. These loves which are completely irrational at their heart slowly start to seep into your life. You feel pain and joy based on how your team is doing. Hopefully sports aren’t the only driver off that in your life, but in the right amounts they can lend some kind of weight or perspective. A franchise or season becomes a kind of soundtrack of your life. This isn’t a new idea. Go watch Invincible or Silver Linings Playbook or Fever Pitch or a number of other movies which connect life, love, and sports. As silly as it is, a team can literally change the mindset of a single person or an entire region. It can give a little hope and pride that wasn’t there before.

My profession is computer programming, so I talk to a bunch of very intelligent people who hate sports because they were at best ignored by by athletic douchebags for most of their life. When they ask how I can love sports, this is why: sports are some of the purest comedies, dramas, and tragedies around. When you see an old veteran get beat around year after year but still keep going to work, when you see a team that’s always a loser, you want nothing more than to see them overcome. You root for them. Those are the stories, the people that we love most. It isn’t those who had it all and succeeded because of that whom we adore. We might respect them but we can never really love them. It’s those individuals, those groups whom despite failure after failure surprise the hell out of everyone and succeed. Those are the stories we care about. Those stories give us a little hope that it can happen in our own lives.

So, recognizing just how irrational sports fandom is, I hope Tony, I hope Witten, I hope Jerry and I hope Jason pull this off. I hope this team can show us that even though it might take 20 years or more, if you keep going at it, sooner or later you can succeed. That’s the thing about sports fandom: you really have no control over it. Truthfully, you have much less control over life in general than you think you do. Sometimes all you need is a reminder that things can go your way. That you can be surprised by joy. With that said, go get em Boys.