Imagine the Cowboys would have won against the Giants. We'd be in the playoffs. With some luck, we might even have gotten a win against the Falcons in the wild-card round, or perhaps not. In any case, the season would have been considered a moderate success.
We could have looked back on the season and surmised that the Cowboys were actually better than their W/L record indicated. After all, we were just a little unlucky during the course of the season, losing four times by four points or less and once in overtime. And surely, those five blown fourth quarter leads were just a fluke.
We could have argued that the Cowboys had a pretty good pass rush. After all, they finished seventh in the league with 42 sacks. Or we could have argued that the secondary wasn't really that bad, after all, the Packers, Patriots and Saints all ranked below us in passing yards allowed. Even the O-line wasn't that bad, after all, they ranked 18th in sacks allowed, right?
Heck, a couple of upgrades here or there and we'd have been ready for a Super Bowl run in 2012. You think I'm kidding? Here's Jerry Jones after the game:
"Just hours ago I thought this core group had an opportunity to go very far into the playoffs," Jones said. "So I'm very disappointed. I'm frankly surprised that we didn't do better and that we didn't win this ballgame.
[... Not until] right up until the end of the fourth quarter did it really dawn on me that we probably weren't going to be in the playoffs. And that's a shame, because we've got a team in here that I think is good enough to play and play well, but we didn't show it tonight."
Thank God we lost to the Giants.
Everything that's wrong with the Cowboys was highlighted in yesterday's loss:
A team that cannot rise to the occasion when it most needs to and lost four of its final five games down the stretch. An offensive line that allowed a season-high six sacks and was as porous as it's been all season. A running game that's scored only five TDs all season. A special teams unit that ranks close to the bottom of the league in almost all categories. A secondary that ranks 25th in defensive passer rating. A pass rush that can't get pressure on the QB when it counts.
The Cowboys missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, the first time since the 2004 and 2005 seasons. That's how bad things currently are. The Cowboys are 8-8, and that is not an accident. The Cowboys are an average team, and have been for quite a while. Everybody knows it, except the Cowboys themselves and their most hardcore fans.
And where Wade Phillips was used as the convenient cop-out for last year's 6-10 record, the excuses will not be as easy to come by this year. And that is a good thing.
The Cowboys must now focus on fixing this team. And let's be crystal clear, this team needs a lot fixing - on offense, defense, special teams and on coaching. Perhaps the way the season played out this year will provide for a greater sense of urgency than the Cowboys displayed in 2009, when an improbable late-season defensive surge lifted the Cowboys into the playoffs and delayed some inevitable rebuilding.
Thank God we lost to the Giants. That loss and missing the playoffs may just have been the rude awakening the organization needed.
And please, stop all the talk about how talented this roster is, or how a roster with this much talent should have produced better results. Stop it right now. The talent on this team got us to 8-8. It's going to take a talent transfusion to get this team anywhere.
The Cowboys must look at the entire offseason talent acquisition process - free agency, the draft, UDFA's, trades - and figure out a way to get this team back on track.
After the loss, Garrett said the Cowboys have to get better across the across the board, starting with him and including the coaching staff. He didn't want to talk about specific players, but the DMN notes that 21 Cowboys (or 40% of the roster) have contracts that expire at the end of the season. That's a good place to start as the Cowboys think about what needs to be done to become a competitive NFL franchise again.