As painful as it may be for most Cowboy fans to relive the nightmare that was the 2008 season, one can't help but imagine what may have been, had it not been for a few squandered opportunities along the way. So as we sit here at the end of January with little going on a Valley Ranch, allow me to drag you all through the broken glass once again.
Football is a game of inches. That phrase is about as cliché as it gets, but the Dallas Cowboys' 2008 season proved to be the real-life embodiment of those words. Of course we all remember being ambushed by the St. Louis Rams. We all remember the pick-six in Pittsburgh. We all remember LeRon McClain tracing the vapor trail to the end zone that Willis McGahee had left behind only minutes earlier. But there were narrowly missed opportunities this season that did not appear on any highlight reel. Here are a few easily forgotten moments that could have changed the fate of the ‘08 Cowboys.
WEEK 4 - Failed Onside
Though Dallas had been thoroughly outplayed by Washington, the Cowboys still had a chance to steal one from their division rival late in the game. After trailing 26-17, Dallas slashed a late Washington lead to two , by way of an eight play, 87 yard drive capped by a Miles Austin eleven yard touchdown reception. With the score now 26-24 with 1:42 remaining in the game, the Cowboys needed to recover an onside kick to keep hope alive. Nick Folk booted a text-book popup, which Sam Hurd timed perfectly. Hurd met the ball at the apex of his leap, only to have it go directly through his hands and out of bounds. The Redskins squatted on the ball, and dealt the Cowboys their first loss of the young season.
WEEK 6 - 3rd and Friggin 17
After being stunned by an opening kickoff returned for a touchdown by the Cardinals J.J. Arrington, the Cowboys were able to find their composure and led 14-7 midway through the third quarter. With 7:27 to go, Dallas had forced Arizona into a third & 17 from their own 33 yard line. A stop here, and the Cowboys would have an opportunity to really begin to take control of the game.
On the ensuing play, Arizona set up a tailback screen to the left. Jason Hatcher was chipped then turned loose by the guard, and had a virtually uncontested path to the quarterback. With Hatcher bearing down on him, Kurt Warner was forced to get rid of the football before the blocking for the screen had materialized. The hurried throw was tipped into the air by a leaping Hatcher. Rather than be intercepted or fall harmlessly to the ground, the ball still found it's way into the arms of Tim Hightower, who made a move and skated around the left side to pick up the first. It was almost as if Hatcher's tip created just enough of a delay to set the hurried play back into it's proper synchronization. The Cardinals would score later in the drive on a two-yard completion from Warner to Larry Fitzgerald. Arizona would go on to force a costly overtime period, in which the Cowboys lost Mat McBriar, Tony Romo, and the game.
WEEK 14 - Romo's Lefty Heave
In week 14 Cowboys were nursing a 10-3 third quarter lead in what had to that point been a slugfest. With 4:54 to go in the period, the Cowboys were in business at the Pittsburgh 10 yard line after Tashard Choice skated 50 yards on a Tony Romo dump off. Sidenote: Choice has got to take that ball to the house. On first down, Romo was flushed out of the pocket and forced to improvise. Roy Williams had snuck away from William Gay along the back of the end zone and worked his way into the vision of his quarterback who was rolling left. Romo, with a little more time than he thought he had, channeled his inner Favre, and lobbed an errant left handed pass that sailed out the back of the end zone. If Romo is able to turn his shoulders and put a right handed throw anywhere near Williams it is an easy touchdown giving the Cowboys a commanding 17-3 lead late in the game. Instead, the Steeler defense smothered the drive and forced a 33-yard Nick Folk field goal, keeping the Steelers in striking distance. We all know how this story ended.
WEEK 16 - FUMBLE!
Trailing Baltimore 9-7 in the third quarter of final game in Texas Stadium, Dallas had allowed the Ravens deep into Cowboy territory. On first and 10 from the Cowboy 26, Joe Flacco handed off up the middle to LeRon McClain. DeMarcus Ware forced a fumble that laid on the Texas Stadium turf for what felt like 10 full seconds. Ken Hamlin had the first crack at it, but got stuck between diving on it and scooping it, ultimately doing neither. The Ravens recovered and the Dallas defense held again before being fooled by a fake field goal. Flacco capped the drive with a 13-yard completion to Derrick Mason, giving Baltimore a 16-7 lead, from which they would never look back.
Even after three and a half quarters of sloppy football, the Cowboys were still in it late. With 3:54 to go in the game, Dallas cut the lead to 19-17 on a Romo to Terrell Owens corner fade. Baltimore's Yamon Figurs fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Dallas failed to recover again. The next play...ZOOM!! Willis McGahee sprints 77 yards to pay dirt. Another Dallas touchdown, and zoom again, this time 82 yards by McClain as the Baltimore Ravens turn out the lights at Texas Stadium.
What positive notion can we draw from this? While 9-7 is clearly a step back from 13-3, it does not necessarily mean that the 2007 Cowboys were clearly better than this year's squad. This years team played a much tougher schedule and learned about the pressure that comes with Super Bowl expectations. As good teams grow and become great teams, they do the little things necessary to steal a win here and there. They don't just get the bounces, they go take them. The Cowboys are a good team, but not yet great. This is a very young squad that is still searching for leaders and learning to win. If the 2009 Cowboys can find a way to make the little big plays, they will be well on their way to becoming great.