It is less than a week until the Dallas Cowboys open training camp in Oxnard, which for fans who live up to the "fanatic" root of the word is the real start of the football season. With the Cowboys bus enroute (complete with the mascot "Rowdy" on board) and players and coaches grabbing a last few days off, the news about the team is rather scant. But there are still interesting things that pop up. Sports Illustrated has a fun pair of articles out about the most emotional or impactful loss for each team in the league during the Super Bowl era, with separate articles for the AFC and the NFC.
The fun is not in seeing which loss they judge to be the most gut-wrenching in the team's history. For the Cowboys, it is a truly legendary game, the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers that will always be remembered for "the Catch". That hurts, but there is not much shame in having a loss to the 'Niners listed. Going through the list, they and the New England Patriots seem to be the most frequent heartbreakers in the league. But there is a bit of pride in being the team that delivered that blow to another team as well, and the Cowboys show up as the nemesis for two other franchises.
One is a game that might not stand out as much in our memory. It goes all the way back to 1981, and was one of the high-water marks for a player that probably deserves to be remembered more fondly than he is, quarterback Danny White. He went into a playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons, and put a dagger in their heart in one of the most frustrating ways possible in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons: Jan. 4, 1981, NFC divisional round—Cowboys 30, Falcons 27
The Falcons still have not recovered from their 28-24 loss to San Francisco in the NFC championship three seasons ago. They let a 10-point halftime lead (and 17-0 second-quarter edge) slip away and had a 4th-and-4 from the San Francisco 10 fall incomplete in the closing moments.
But whereas the 49ers started their comeback early, the Falcons had Dallas on the brink deep into the fourth quarter during the 1980 divisional round—Atlanta led 24-10 to start the frame and later 27-17, after giving up a one-yard touchdown run from Robert Newhouse, but answering with a 34-yard field goal from Tim Mazzetti. QB Danny White and WR Drew Pearson brought the 'Boys back, with Pearson's second touchdown catch coming in the final minute to send the Falcons to a crushing loss.
Few things hurt more than having your opponent in a deep hole and having them come back on you late. The Cowboys know how that feels, having lost a game like that to the Detroit Lions in 2011. The Lions scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, none more painful to the Dallas faithful than former Cowboy Bobby Carpenter's stumbling, bumbling pick six.
So it is kind of appropriate that the other soul-crusher SI credits the Cowboys with was against those same Lions. And you will certainly remember this one, because it happened just this past January.
Detroit Lions: Jan. 4, 2014, NFC wild card—Cowboys 24, Lions 20
Perhaps no loss in NFL history has swung the fortunes of a franchise as much as Detroit's Week 17 setback vs. Chicago on Dec. 24, 2000. That last-second defeat eliminated the Lions from the playoffs and they would then average 3.9 wins over the next 10 seasons.
Still, it's tough to vouch for that setback over last season's controversial playoff loss. The Lions held a 20-17 lead about midway through the fourth quarter when TE Brandon Pettigrew appeared to draw a crucial pass-interference penalty on 3rd-and-1. However, the officials changed their minds and picked up the flag. Sam Martin then shanked a 10-yard punt, leading to a game-winning touchdown drive from Tony Romo and the Cowboys.
Having one of the most recent top smackdowns on the list is great (the Seattle Seahawks loss to the Patriots in the past Super Bowl also makes the list, understandably). It says something good about the current Dallas team, and is another element feeding our optimism for 2015.
There is one other thing of note in the list. In looking at the NFC East teams, none of them suffered the most devastating loss against a division rival. This speaks to the fierceness of all the rivalries in the division. No loss inside the division can ever be truly unexpected, because the teams always seem to be up for those games and often play far over their heads.
Will the Cowboys be able to deliver another epic defeat this season (or post-season)? It actually is doubtful, because the league is coming to the sometimes grudging realization that the Cowboys are once again one of the teams to beat in the NFC. But even if a win is expected, it is always one we will relish here.
And camp is almost here.