And so ends another season on this treadmill of mediocrity at Valley Ranch…
It is different, in many respects, because this time the culprits are some who were not even part of the story just a year or two ago, with names like Monte Kiffin and Bill Callahan at the top of the list of people sitting on seats that may in fact be warming to hot. There are new coaches and players in the chairs of blame and some will be replaced and some will not.
But, in the end, as over 91,000 fans paid top dollar to witness the spectacle last night, it all wraps up the same exact way that 2012 and 2011 did before it, with a break-even record of 8-8 that will thoroughly frustrate even the most optimistic of fans that remain on board the Dallas Cowboys ship.
This franchise is doing something that in many ways is impossible in today's National Football League. In a league where parity and tightly-knit competition insures that teams will fluctuate every single year, the Cowboys are stuck in a rut that they cannot escape from, sitting in their spot in the standings as teams rise and fall all around them.
Amazingly, they are neither good enough to rise up and take that half-step up the leader board which would put them in the playoffs and make them re-evaluate just how far away they seem to be, but they are also not bad enough to fall down the standings into the true dregs of professional football and see themselves as failures that need to be dismissed en masse. It is particularly frustrating for anyone to make an argument in either extreme. This franchise is not utterly pitiful, as we can see examples of that all around them; but they are also not approaching acceptable by any metric (both by the franchise's gold standards, nor the normal expectations of a franchise in today's NFL).
And that is why on a morning like this one, given that I have been at this keyboard typing a "Morning After" summary for every Cowboys game going back years and years, I am almost speechless knowing that it must all be repeated again. Another few weeks of aftermath is coming where the public wants a significant change in the organization, ranging from the unrealistic hope that the owner/general manager/dictator steps aside, to something a bit more possible like yet another head coach finally being led to the public gallows. Then, whatever change happens (if any at all), we work our ways into the normal routine of the Senior Bowl, the NFL Playoffs (where surely we can rationalize some franchise who is going on a run being like the Cowboys in some way which will offer hope to how close this organization actually is if one play goes a little different and maybe Kyle Orton throws a slightly better pass to Miles Austin on the final drive).
That is followed by Super Bowl week, the NFL Combine, Free agency or as we call it in Dallas, "Contract restructuring season", then the NFL Draft, and the practices and camps start all over again. By that time, in May or June, the bitter taste of this 8-8 season that collapsed into another 1-3 December will be a bit fuzzy in the memory banks and we can discuss how great Tony Romo's back looks, how up to snuff some of these new draft picks appear, and a shiny new depth chart that is unaffected by injuries (hey, Tyrone Crawford is back!) as we head for Oxnard.
It is the merry-go-round of pro sports that we have all signed up for, and one that shows no signs of stopping around here as long as 91,000 of the Cowboys biggest loyalists fill that stadium at any price tag to watch the same episode as many times as they will be allowed to do so. If all they have to do is open the doors to sell out the largest stadium in pro football and if your loyalty is tied to the 30-year mortgage that you opened to be a part of Cowboys Stadium, then by my count, we have about 25 more years before we can expect that stadium not to be full on night's like that to show fan disapproval.
I didn't mean to depress you. Although, if I did (and your favorite team did not), then you clearly haven't been paying close attention to this team and therefore likely aren't even reading this in the first place.
But, this organization did it to you again, and in a normal setting, there is a steady balance between the organization's management and the feelings of the public to guarantee that the customers continue to come to the stadium and to leave their money there. But, once the franchise was able to get everyone to sign PSL agreements that ran through the 2038 season, they organized one of the most amazing deals with their adoring public that any corporation could ever dream of (aside from taxpayer-funded stadiums, of course) - they lost the incentive to please anyone but themselves.
So, before I spend time on the specifics of last night, I want to make sure it is in writing that there is not another situation in professional sports where the fan base is as powerless as this one and where a once-proud franchise needed significant and meaningful change at the top worse than this one. The long-term mediocrity that this organization has exhibited for almost 2 full decades now is laughable by almost any metric, and yet they cannot print tickets fast enough. The genius ability of Jerry Jones as a business man surely makes his pitiful performance as a football franchise architect possible. And what is worse, as the sole ruler on when his reign should end, you are his subjects who must hope that somehow as he ages, he improves despite not having a real incentive to strive to improve.
Sorry. But, Jerry Jones is the only person who can actually fix this and he also might be the only person who doesn't know it is broken. If given the choice, financial success is more important than football success to Jerry, than the Cowboys are exhibiting the results that he so desires. And that is why he may not consider this an unsuccessful season. The Cowboys' revenues will dwarf the rest of the league and in this sport, with a harsh salary cap, he is not allowed to spend those profits to fix this team's losing. He is allowed to enjoy the spoils of it without incentive to change.
Here, from Brandon George's piece in the Dallas Morning News is all you have to see:
Only once did Jones get a bit testy with the line of questioning late Sunday night. That was when he was asked if he gets embarrassed by the Cowboys’ results of late and how that’s shaped the national perspective of the once-proud franchise.
“I don’t know,” Jones fired back. “Would you get embarrassed if you were standing in this stadium? Seriously. The answer is no, not at all.”Oh boy.
Now, there is no way to sveltely segue into the events of Game #16 from the 2013 season after that rant, but I must attempt to do so.
The Cowboys did many things on Sunday night that are worthy of your admiration, partly because the Eagles are unstoppable to most NFL defenses. Meanwhile, the Cowboys couldn't stop anyone all season, including quite a list of backup Quarterbacks, and somehow still were able to stop the Eagles in 2 different games.
In 2 game, the Cowboys allowed the Eagles just 27 total points. In the 14 other games for Chip Kelly and his offense, they averaged 29.6 points PER game. Also, only 4 times all season were the Eagles held below 400 yards. Twice, however, to Monte Kiffin and this defense made up of castaways and castaway understudies.
The Eagles only had 278 yards in that matchup in Philadelphia, and then followed it up with just 366 last night in Dallas. Given that they averaged 431 yards in the other 14 games, this is both unlikely and difficult to explain. In addition - or perhaps related - the pass rush schemes and strategies of the Cowboys front was able to trouble the Eagles any time they had to pass.
I am not trying to give the impression that the defense stopped the Eagles, but 24 points was a dream and the ability to use the Eagles punter 5 times, and another drive ended with a takeaway, and yet another ended with a turnover on downs means that the Cowboys were able to get 7 stops of this unstoppable force.
That had to be enough.
Meanwhile, when Dallas brought in Kyle Orton on a 3 year deal worth over $10 million, it was always with this game in mind. If you lose your QB for 2 months, you are screwed. But, if you lose him for 2-3 games, do you have a QB who can step in and put you in a position to win a crucial game?
In the case of Orton and Sunday night, it is clear that they believed he was that guy, and on the whole, he performed in a way that indicates that they weren't wrong. This was a game that looked winnable right until the final throw that was picked off when Orton threw behind Austin on yet another play that ended in the resting arms of an enemy defensive back.
The offense struggled all night because the running game was not as productive as it hinted it might have been early. And once the running game started getting backed up, then the 3rd and longs invited blitz after blitz, and Orton is certainly not going to hang in the pocket and roll the dice. Instead, he is getting the ball out quickly - usually to Witten or Murray in the flat, which means well short of the sticks and bring on the punting team more often that not.
But, there is every reason to believe that this was a 50/50 game that was highly winnable in the end. Like the Kansas City, Denver, Detroit, Minnesota, Giants, Green Bay, and even last week's Washington game, it would come down to making a play for or against after the 2-minute warning of the 4th Quarter. In those games, they did make enough plays in 3 of the 8 games, where a 4-4 record in those 8 games likely puts them in the playoffs.
That is the margin for error. Like the ball lost in the lights in 2011 to Miles or the fingertips of Dez landing out of bounds in 2012, the distance between the Cowboys and the NFC East divisional title is no wider than the width of a piece of paper.
And yet it exists.
Which is why we sit here on another Monday morning and wonder what it will take for the Cowboys to break out of this rut.
Surely, there are many that work tirelessly around the clock to get this right. Many players who have dedicated every moment of their football career to get the Cowboys over this hump. Many in the organization who believe that the gap can be bridged and soon.
But, for most, the distance between the time this franchise was a NFL power and now is growing and the memories are fading. The excitement level that was once reserved for their favorite football franchise has been redirected to other outlets and diversions. The hope is there, but not what it once was.
Meanwhile, Jerry Jones can only assume that the seats will be filled again in 2014, regardless of what he does this offseason.
Because they always are filled.