This is part three of the tenth chapter in our History of the Dallas Cowboys series. Previous segments in this chapter:
The entire franchise, from owner to coaches, players and fans were shell-shocked following the team’s unexpected early playoff exit in 2007. But by August of 2008, enthusiasm and hope had returned in full force. The Cowboys would add two first-round picks to an already stocked lineup and a franchise-caliber quarterback entering his prime, now with a full season under his belt. The wind seemed to be blowing in the team’s favor.
In contrast, though, I forecast the team would decline significantly and would struggle to even make the playoffs. Part of that was based on things presented in training camp on the show Hard Knocks. Wade Phillips didn’t appear to be the kind of coach to lead a team to a championship. The loose discipline and lack of connection to the players was disturbing. So I was happily surprised when the team raced out to a 3-0 record, scoring 96 points and looking pretty much the like the offensive machine from early 2007. I willingly ate crow on the non-BTB message boards I frequented at the time.
Dallas, however, would lose four of their next six games, including two games where they again rolled over and exhibited no competitive spirit. This stretch included:
- Dallas becoming the first team in NFL history to lose an overtime game by having a punt blocked and recovered for a touchdown. The blocking on the play was so bad that Arizona actually blocked Mat McBriar’s foot before it hit the ball, breaking McBriar’s foot and ending his season in the process. The special team’s blunder negated a specacular Tony Romo comeback that saw him lead the team to 10 points on the team’s final two drives over the last three minutes of regulation. A 70-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Marion Barber was the highlight.
- The Cowboys surrendering 34 consecutive points to a 1-4 St. Louis Rams team that would finish 2-14. It was another humiliating performance by a team alleged to be a Super Bowl contender. It was also the first time the offseason decision to sign 40-year old Brad Johnson as the team’s backup quarterback was revealed to have been a monumental error in judgement. Johnson filled in for Romo and compiled a 45 passer rating.
- An ugly 13-9 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that again saw the once potent offense sputtering behind Johnson.
- Yet another non-competitive performance against the New York Giants. Dallas trailed 28-7 a minute into the third quarter, effectively ending the game. The lack of a competitive spirit when things got difficult had become an indisputable characteristic of the team. Desperately acquired quarterback Brooks Bollinger fared no better than Johnson.
The decline in fortune brought about the worst in Jerry Jones. Eager to spark the offense and forever enamored of big-name talent, Jones made the kind of move a fantasy football player might make but not an actual NFL GM. Trader Jerry sent the team’s 2009 first- and third-round picks to the Detroit Lions for wide receiver Roy Williams. That alone would have been a highly questionable move. Jerry, however, then doubled-down, signing Williams to a $54 million contract extension. There’s no worse move a GM can make in a salary cap league than trading significant draft value for the right to sign a player to the equivalent of a big free-agent contract.
Fans, however, mostly applauded the move. The theory was Williams would team with Terrell Owens and Jason Witten to provide Tony Romo with three high quality targets. The theory ignored the fact Williams simply hadn’t been that good at Detroit. He had one outstanding season and three meh seasons:
Most disturbing was Williams’ low catch rate. It would not improve during his stint in Dallas. Williams’ 40-game Cowboys’ career would prove very disappointing, with only 13 touchdowns and barely 1,300 yards.
Now at 5-4 the team faced the very real prospect they would miss the playoffs. Romo’s return, however, spearheaded a three-game winning streak, giving the Cowboys an 8-4 record as the team traveled to Pittsburgh for a road tilt against the league’s eventual Super Bowl champion.
Dallas played an outstanding game for 50 minutes. A huge goalline stand midway through the fourth quarter maintained a 13-3 lead and it looked liked Dallas would sneak away with a hard-fought, defensive struggle. But then a bizarre series of plays where the Cowboys made numerous mistakes sabotaged the team’s fortunes:
· With nine minutes remaining, Santonio Holmes returned a Sam Paulescu (subbing for the injured Mat McBriar) punt 35 yards to set up a FG to make the score 13–6.
· A good kick off return set Dallas up near midfield. After a quick three-and-out Paulescu then shanked a 23-yard punt, giving the Steelers field position at their own 35 as opposed to trapping them deep in their own end.
· A 65-yard drive, featuring a clutch fourth-and-1 sneak by Ben Roethlisberger, tied the score with 2:10 remaining.
· On the second play from scrimmage, Romo threw behind Witten and the ball was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Witten and Romo seemed out of synch on the play. After holding the Steelers to three points over the first 53 minutes, the Cowboys had surrendered 17 points in just over five minutes.
· With a chance to tie the score with a final drive Romo throws four consecutive incompletions. Romo’s final six dropbacks: 0-5, 0 yards, 1 INT, 1 sack.
The Cowboys now sported an 8-5 record and had little margin for error. A week 14 win over the Giants set the team up for the franchise’s (likely) final game at Texas Stadium. With Jerry’s billion dollar palace set to open the following season the week 16 game against the Baltimore Ravens provided yet another instance where this version of the Cowboys simply weren’t good enough.
· Romo hadn’t played well but led a 70-yard touchdown drive to bring the Cowboys within two (19–17) with 3:50 remaining. A stop would put the Cowboys into position to win.
· Instead, the Cowboys defense then surrendered a 77-yard touchdown run to Willis Mcgahee, who wasn’t exactly known for being a big-play RB. The 77-yard rush was the longest by any opponent ever at Texas Stadium.
· There was still 3:32 remaining, and down nine, Romo led a 71-yard TD drive, scoring with 1:36 remaining. Again, a stop would put the Cowboys into position for the win.
· On the very next play, Le’Ron McClain, a fullback, ran 82 yards for a game-ending TD.
Remarkably, the last two runs by an opponent at Texas Stadium were the two longest runs by an opponent at Texas Stadium. A fullback, Le’Ron McClain, will forever hold the Texas Stadium record for longest rush by an opponent. You can’t make this stuff up. The agonizing defeat meant the Cowboys would have to travel to, and beat, the Philadelphia Eagles. Philadelphia would need a highly unlikely set of outcomes across the NFL for the game to mean anything to them.
And yet when the two teams took the field for the late Sunday afternoon game the stars had aligned in the Eagles’ favor and the game became a win-and-advance/lose-and-your-season’s over contest for both teams.
It wasn’t close. Dallas was eviscerated, losing 44-6. Five turnovers doomed the Cowboys, who actually gained about the same number of yards as the Eagles. It was the team’s second worst defeat in franchise history. The team many had forecast to play in the Super Bowl in August limped off the field a beaten, demoralized unit in December.