This is part three of the tenth chapter in our History of the Dallas Cowboys series. Previous segments in this chapter:
Following the Cowboys’ first playoff victory in 13 years there was optimism surrounding the 2010 team. After three playoff appearances in four years, the team seemed to have reached a status where playoffs were a very reasonable preseason expectation.
So it was disappointing when the team dropped their opening week game to the Redskins. More precisely, there were two plays that left Cowboys’ fans scratching their heads, one at the end of each half:
- Snapping the ball from their own 36-yard line with four seconds remaining in the first half, the Cowboys eschewed the routine kneel-down 99% of teams would run in the situation. Instead, they toss a short pass to running back Tashard Choice who promptly fumbled. The Redskins’ DeAngelo Hall pounced, recovering the loose ball and racing 32 yards for a shocking touchdown and a 10-0 Redskins’ lead at the half. It was a textbook example of a high-risk/no-reward decision; there was literally nothing to be gained by running a play and doing so risked exactly what happen.
- The Cowboys regained the ball with 1:50 remaining in the game and trailing 13-7. Starting at their own 19, Tony Romo marched the team to a first down at the Redskins’ thirteen with 12 seconds remaining and a single time-out. Two incompletions set up a final play with three seconds left. Dallas called timeout and then, remarkably, looked utterly confused as they tried to line up with the play clock winding down. Still, Romo get the team set and got the play off in time. He was quickly under pressure when left tackle Doug Free was beaten cleanly by a wide rush. Romo then did what he’s done so many times, improvising, buying time by moving within the pocket...then running right and hitting a wide open Roy Williams for a game-winning, last-play touchdown. Except backup right tackle Alex Barron had blatantly bear-hugged and then choked Redskins’ end Brian Orakpo for a holding call. The game was over and the Cowboys’ season started with a loss.
The Cowboys lost again the next week to the Chicago Bears. Romo threw for 374 yards but needed 51 attempts and threw two interceptions to one touchdown. Three Cowboys’ turnovers doomed the team. This was, in many ways, the beginning of the era when Romo was routinely asked to carry an otherwise woeful team on his back.
Consider against Chicago that Dallas ran the ball 20 times for only 36 yards. The Cowboys’ rushing game would finish 17th in the league in yards and the defense would finish 31st in points allowed. So it’s not that surprising that after a week three victory the team then lost its next two games to sit at 1-4 on the season. They entered a week six Monday night affair against the Giants a desperate team hoping to salvage a season that had quickly gone off the rails.
The Cowboys responded well, racing to a 10-0 lead. On the Cowboys’ next drive, up 10-7 someone named Michael Boley was left untouched as he burst through the Cowboys’ woeful offensive line and pile-drove Tony Romo into the turf. The hit left Romo motionless on his back with a broken collarbone that ended both Romo’s season and the Cowboys’ 2010 hopes.
An electric 93-yard punt return from rookie Dez Bryant gave the Cowboys’ a brief 20-7 lead. The Giants would rip off 31 consecutive points in an eventual 41-35 victory. A season that had begun with Super Bowl aspirations was over in only seven games. The following week the Romo-less Cowboys trailed 28-3 midway through the third quarter of an eventual 35-17 loss that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
Up next was a trip to frigid Lambeau Field for a matchup against the Packers. It was a slaughter. The Packers outgained the Cowboys 415 to 202. Dallas surrendered four sacks; turned the ball over four times and held the ball for only 22 minutes. It was boys against men.
A nightmarish season had reached a humiliating low point that left the entire organization in shambles. I remember watching that game dejectedly and thinking there was nothing about the organization - from owner to “GM” to head coach to coaching staff to roster - that provided hope for the future. Only quarterback Tony Romo offered anything to feel good about.
The most disturbing thing was it was obvious to anyone who’d ever played organized sports that the team had quit and the head coach didn’t have a clue how to address the situation. In a move that seemed inevitable Jerry Jones fired Wade Phillips the following day, announcing Jason Garrett would assume interim head coaching duties for the remainder of the season.
The Phillips era is a remarkable mix of quality teams and short-lived successes mixed with shocking, demoralizing losses and failures to meet expectations. On the positive side of the ledger:
- Over three-and-a-half seasons had compiled a 61% winning percentage (a higher winning percentage than Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson or Tom Landry).
- In three full seasons had reached the playoffs twice and played up until the final game of the other season.
- Gave the franchise its first post-season victory since 1996
But mixed with the successes were a shocking number of embarrassing defeats:
- First came the 2007 home playoff loss to the Giants. The Cowboys, a touchdown favorite, became the first #1 seed in the NFC to lose it’s Division playoff round game since the current format was introduced in 1991.
- Second came the Cowboys’ final game at Texas Stadium. A victory would have virtually guaranteed a playoff spot. In addition, fans were eager to celebrate a win at the stadium that had been home for 37 years and had hosted too many big Cowboys’ moments to count. Instead, the game is remembered for being another bitter defeat and the defense allowing the final two opponent’s rushes to be the two longest in the stadium’s history.
- Next came the 44-6 defeat to a hated division rival allowing the Eagles to advance to the playoffs while the Cowboys’ watched from home.
- That was followed up the following season when fans eager to celebrate the team’s first performance at the billion dollar palace known as Jerry World again watched a Phillips-coached team fail to meet the challenge.
- Then, after finally putting together a dominant late season run and giving fans hopes of a deep playoff run, Dallas was thoroughly outclassed in the team’s second worst playoff loss ever. The 34-3 defeat at the hands of the Vikings was shocking.
- And finally, the 2010 debacle where the Cowboys were outscored 232 to 154 in the eight games coached by Phillips. In the final five games of Phillips’ tenure, the Cowboys went 0-5, surrendering an average of 36 points per game.
These were the scores of the final games Phillips coached in the 2008-2010 seasons:
That’s a combined 123-16 for those counting.
There was simply no doubt that Phillips wasn’t an adequate head coach. This was made more evident by the fact the exact same set of players that had no hope during Phillips’ final games immediately went on the road and defeated the Giants for the team’s first win in seven games. In fact, Garrett led the team to a respectable 5-3 record over the second half of the season, despite Tony Romo not playing any of the games.
This earned Garrett a promotion and the “interim” was removed from his title. However, this didn’t change the fact that the discipline and sound strategic thinking Bill Parcells had brought to the organization was gone and with Jerry in charge dysfunction reigned again.
This would normally be a good place to stop but I can’t help but document the remarkably large number of games during this era that ended in bizarre, sometimes unbelievable circumstances:
- 2006 - Week 9 versus Washington: In a tie game Washington’s Nick Novak misses a 49-yard field goal attempt with 31 seconds remaining. Romo then completes three straight passes to move the Cowboys 44 yards and set the team up for a last play, chip-shot, game-winning field goal. The 35-yard Mike Vanderjagt kick is blocked, picked up by Sean Taylor and returned to the Cowboys’ 45. That should have been the end of the game but the Cowboys were also called for a highly questionable facemask penalty on the play, thus giving the Redskins 15 additional yards and just as importantly an extra play due to a defensive penalty. Novak then nailed to 47-yarder for the win. And that’s how the Cowboys’ managed to line up for a game winning field goal with six seconds left only to lose when the other team kicked a field goal on the game’s last play. Again, you can’t make this stuff up.
- 2006 - Wild card game versus Seattle: as outlined previously, the Cowboys line up for a chip-shot field goal only for Romo to drop the snap and barely miss running for a touchdown.
- 2007 - Week 5 versus Buffalo: Romo throws five interceptions and fumbles once in a game the Cowboys’ trailed by scores of 17-7 and 24-3 and were down by eight with three minutes remaining. Romo led a touchdown drive but only 20 seconds remained when they missed the two-point conversion. A successful on-sides kick gave Dallas the ball at the Bills’ 47 with 20 seconds left and no timeouts remaining. Terrell Owens then dropped a 20-yard pass to seemingly end the game. But Romo threw two quick, short completions to set Nick Folk up for a 53-yard, game-winning attempt. Folk nailed the kick but of course time had been called before the kick. No matter, they lined up again and Folk again drilled the game winner. It was a miraculous comeback of a game the Cowboys had no right to win.
- 2007 Week 14 versus Detroit: the game outlined previously where Romo marched the team not once, or twice, but three times in the final minutes to overcome a late 13-point deficit. Romo hit Jason Witten from 16 yards out with 18 seconds remaining to seal the win.
- 2008 Week 6 versus Arizona: a furious 10-point comeback in the final two minutes is wasted in overtime when Dallas becomes the first team in NFL history to lose an OT game by having a punt blocked for a touchdown.
- 2008 Week 14 versus Pittsburgh: after outclassing the Steelers in Pittsburgh for 53 minutes the Cowboys melt down in the final seven minutes, allowing a long punt return, a long touchdown drive, shanking a punt, throwing an interception for a touchdown and generating 31 yards of offense on the team’s final four possessions (fifteen plays).
- 2009 Week 11 versus Washington: after being shut out for 58 minutes Dallas score their lone points of the game with 2:41 remaining to earn a blue-collar 7-6 victory.
- 2010 Week 5 versus Teneessee: a 24-17 loss in which the Titans’ margin of victory came on a long kick-off return. The kick return was set up when the Cowboys had to kick off from their own 20 due to an unsportsmanlike penalty called on the Cowboys for a player “going to the ground” during a celebration. The player going to the ground was Marc Columbo and he “went to the ground” when he fell down trying to do a chest bump. Dallas fans found numerous instances of players purposefully going to the ground during celebrations and not being penalized. Yet again, you can’t make this stuff up.
- 2010 Week 1 versus Washington: the Cowboys end the first half by foolishly running a play from their own 32-yard line that turns into an opponent’s touchdown. Then score a last-play touchdown to apparently win the game but are called for offensive holding, negating the play and ending the game.
- 2010 Week 12 versus New Orleans: With no Romo and trailing 20-6 the Cowboys make a comeback and eventually take a 27-23 lead. With three minutes remaining Jon Kitna then hit Roy Williams in stride and Williams raced to the Saints 10-yard line only to fumble. The Saints took the lead when Drew Brees marched them easily for a go-ahead touchdown. David Buehler then missed a 59-yard attempt as time expired.
This was certainly the most difficult chapter to complete of this little “History of....” project. Mostly because these teams truly had promise and basically came up short of what could have been accomplished every single season. Add the fact we now know the next five years didn’t bring any sort of redemption and it’s hard not to conclude this entire generation of Cowboys somehow never fulfilled their destiny. Tony Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware will all be in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor someday and each has permanently etched their names in the annals of Cowboys’ greats. In addition are the many, many other high-caliber players that contributed to this timeframe: Jay Ratliff, Terrell Owens, Flozell Adams, Marion Barber, Miles Austin, Anthony Spencer. It’s dispiriting that none of these players so much as sniffed a Super Bowl as a Cowboy.
This exercise gives me a little bit more sympathy and understanding for the young generation of Cowboys’ fans who’ve never seen an NFC Championship game featuring the Cowboys. I can better understand why they might have some angst and disillusion regarding the team. Nevertheless, when telling a history facts only allow so much interpretation and in this case the facts are very sobering.