Some Historical Perspective, or Lack Thereof

Lots of people are still trying to make sense of the 21-17 loss to the Giants yesterday, and I am not going to make much of an effort to do it myself. This post instead is an effort to try to put this loss into historical context, and that will be tough because never in the history of his franchise have the fans endured so much disappointment as the past decade.

Compared to ‘Team That Couldn’t Win the Big One’

Thanks to some heartbreaking losses in the NFL Championship Games in 1966 and 1967, along with divisional round playoff losses in 1968 and 1969, the Cowboys earned some nicknames, including “Team That Can’t Win the Big One” and “Next Year’s Champions.” In his book Next Year’s Champions: The Story of the Dallas Cowboys (1969), Steve Perkins wrote:

No other pro football team has ever been quite like them, at one and the same time so rich, so dazzling, so young—and so tragic. They were the first expansion team to challenge for the championship, and when they lost two years in a row they lost dramatically and heroically—first the drama and frustration on the 2-yard line, then twelve months later heroism at the 1 on a skating rink in Green Bay. But how glorious to lose, and how poignant to keep the conviction in the hearts of Cowboy fans that their team was the best, as only time would tell.

As you know, a year after he wrote this, Dallas finally surpassed the hurdle of the championship game (NFC, that is), only to fall to the Colts in Super Bowl V. A year later, the misery ended, as Dallas won Super Bowl VI.

That era (1960-1971): twelve seasons, 88-72-6 record (53% winning percentage), six playoff wins, 4 Championship Game appearances, 2 NFC Championships, 1 Super Bowl Championship. And this period of time includes the inaugural 0-11-1 season of 1960.

Now? Since 1996, the Cowboys have managed to break even with a 96-96 record. Thus, even though the 1960s Cowboys played a 14-game schedule, those teams had only eight fewer wins that the most recent team has had during the same length of time playing a 16-game schedule. Playoff wins? We know the answer: one, in 1996. Six straight losses since then, and none of the other stats matter.

I’d say this era is a bit worse than the growing pains of the 1960s.

The heartbreaking plays then:

* With his team trailing by a touchdown at the end of the 1966 NFL Championship Game, Don Meredith’s fourth down attempt from the Green Bay two was picked off by Tom Brown in the end zone.
* Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak gave the Packers their final NFL (pre-NFC) title of the 1960s and sent them to Super Bowl II.
* Dallas muffed its way to losing Super Bowl V, with quarterback Craig Morton throwing two costly interceptions in the final ten minutes of the game that the Cowboys lost 16-13.

The most recent heartbreakers:

* Tony Romo drops the snap on an attempt for what could have been the game-winning field goal in a wildcard game loss to Seattle.
* With 21 seconds remaining and the team trailing by four to the Giants, receiver Patrick Crayton hesitates on a fade route thrown in his direction. Had he not slowed up, the play likely would have resulted in a touchdown.

No, this wasn’t all Crayton’s fault. But if you watch the replay of him slowing up, it becomes very clear that that brief moment of indecision cost Dallas the game-winning touchdown. And due to Crayton’s mouth, it’s easier to put some heat on him than it is on Jacques Reeves, who deserves quite a bit of blame for his failure to cover Steve Smith and Kevin Boss during the final minute of the first half.

Compared to ‘Post Doomsday’

The next depressing era of Dallas football lasted from the final season of Roger Staubach to the second season of Troy Aikman (1979-1990). That time period featured a 1-15 team and a 3-13 team, and the Cowboys still accumulated a 97-87 record over 12 years. The low points:

* Two weeks after his last miracle win (35-34 over Washington), Roger Staubach came up short in a divisional round loss to the Rams. (As an eight-year-old, I cried)
* Dallas lost three consecutive NFC Championship Games, each time to upstart teams, two of which were division rivals.
* In 1984, Dallas missed the playoffs for the first time since 1974. (First time that had happened since I started watching the team).
* The team tanked their playoff game at Los Angeles in 1985. The franchise tanked when Danny White broke his wrist at the Meadowlands in 1986. After a collapse that year, Dallas suffered five consecutive losing seasons.

Maybe others will disagree (The Boys’ Blog says that the 1979 loss was worse), but the loss to the Giants was worst I’ve ever experienced. The 1979 loss may compare, but that was a team that had been to the two previous Super Bowls and probably needed to reload. The 1981 NFC title game was closer in terms of pain, I think, because that was the best version of the Cowboys during the Danny White years, and the end was so shocking. Nevertheless, we had been to the Super Bowl five times in the previous 12 years (and twice in the previous five), so fans were a bit spoiled at that point. At the least, the team had not been as deprived as it is now.

Comparing Playoff Goats… and a Few Heroes

There have been more than a few goats in the history of the franchise, and we can now add a few more after yesterday’s debacle.

Don Meredith vs. Craig Morton vs. Danny White vs. Tony Romo

Romo may very well work his way back up the ladder among the Dallas quarterbacks, but right now he has as many playoff wins as Quincy Carter. He has a few things in common, though, with these others:

* Meredith: Both Romo and Meredith threw last-second interceptions in desperation efforts. For Meredith, it was the 1966 NFL title game. For Romo, it was a pass from the 23-yard line to a receiver who had missed nearly the entire season due to injury.
* Morton: Both Romo and Morton led high-powered offenses during their first full seasons as starters (1969 for Morton). And both lost in the first round of the playoffs (though, to be fair, Cleveland had beaten Dallas 42-10 during the 1969 regular season before beating the Cowboys in the playoffs).
* White: Both Romo and White (1981 more so than 1980 or 1982) received a considerable amount of blame for the team’s losses, though neither performed badly in those losses.

Biggest Goat: Morton, who never performed well in the playoffs for Dallas. Romo still has plenty of time.

Hollywood Henderson vs. Patrick Crayton

Henderson mouthed off about Terry Bradshaw much of the time leading up to Super Bowl XIII (something about spelling C-A-T). Crayton decided to mouth off about the Giants prior to their playoff game. Both ate their words.

The difference? Henderson caused a fumble by sacking Bradshaw. Mike Hegman recovered the fumble and returned it for a go-ahead touchdown. Crayton dropped passes and then took an ill-fated stutter-step on what would have been a game-winning touchdown catch.

Biggest Goat: Crayton, who cost his team much more than Henderson.

Jackie Smith vs. Patrick Crayton

I wouldn’t go this far.

Biggest Goat: Smith, who sets the standard for Cowboys goats.

Aaron Kyle vs. Jacques Reeves

Aaron Kyle took some heat after Super Bowl XIII for his missed tackle on John Stallworth, which resulted in Stallworth’s 75-yard touchdown reception that tied the game. The former first rounder (1976) played one more season in Dallas before being shipped to Denver.

Reeves was unable to cover rookie Steve Smith or rookie tight end Kevin Boss on a critical drive with less than a minute to go in the first half. He also committed a very costly 15-yard facemask penalty trying to tackle Smith, which certainly helped New York.

Biggest Goat: Kyle. Reeves is not a starter and does not have expectations of a first-round pick.

Mark Washington vs. Reeves

Mark Washington was the poor soul who was burned by Lynn Swann so badly in Super Bowl X. That was much more about Swann’s unbelievable day than it was about Washington’s coverage. Washington also had a bad day against the Redskins in 1972, when he replaced an injured Charlie Waters (see below). Washington gave up a 45-yard touchdown pass to Charley Taylor, which gave the Redskins an insurmountable 17-3 lead.

Biggest Goat: Reeves. Washington’s play was bad fortune as much as it was a bad performance. Reeves was just bad, and it cost Dallas dearly.

Duane Thomas vs. Marion Barber

Duane Thomas, who shut his mouth in protest during his last season in Dallas, led Dallas to Super Bowl V by gaining 143 yards against San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. However, he came up short in the Super Bowl, committing a critical fumble near the Baltimore goalline when a touchdown would have given Dallas a 20-6 lead.

Marion Barber, who shuts his mouth but lets everything go on the field, led Dallas with more than 100 yards in the first half of the Giants. However, he struggled in the second half and missed a blitz pick-up on a play that could have been a touchdown for Dallas (Miles Austin had broken free on a streak pattern, but Romo did not have time to get it to him.

Biggest Goat: Thomas, but he made up for it in 1971. Barber was a hero yesterday and should get more chances.

Charlie Waters vs. Roy Williams

In the 1972 NFC Championship Game, Waters (then a cornerback) was burned by Charley Taylor for a 51-yard gain, followed by a 15-yard touchdown, giving Washington a lead that it would not relinquish. However, Waters later developed into one of the best postseason players in Dallas history. In a loss to the Rams in the divisional round in 1976, Waters blocked two punts and had an interception, each of which nearly allowed Dallas to pull out the win.

Williams? This game certainly wasn’t his fault, but he finished with a single tackle. On a third-and-one for the Giants from the New York 30 in the first quarter, the Giants split running back Ahmad Bradshaw out to the right, where he was covered by Williams. Eli Manning threw a short hitch to Bradshaw, who promptly broke Williams’ pathetic tackling effort (look up the phrase “titty tackle” if you aren’t familiar with the technique) and gained six yards for a first down.

Biggest Goat: Waters, but only in the 1972 title game. Williams fortunately wasn’t burned for any big plays. (Note: I really wish he would play on special teams coverage units, since that would appear to play to his strengths. Wishful thinking).

Chan Gailey vs. Bill Parcells vs. Wade Phillips

Gailey’s 1998 team lost to the Cardinals, who had not won a playoff game in more than 50 years and whom the Cowboys beat twice in the regular season. Parcells’ 2003 team made a surprising entry in the 2003 playoffs, only to fall apart against Carolina. Three years later, his improved squad could not survive “The Flub.” Phillips had a better regular season then either of them but saw the same result.

Biggest Goat: Gailey. He still had older versions of Aikman, Emmitt, and Irvin and a superior squad to the Cardinals. Parcells squads should have been better, but they were not supposed to win either game. If Phillips suffers another one-and-done, no matter the circumstances, he’ll knock Gailey off of this spot.

  • I appreciate the comparative analysis and much of it is very hard to argue with and I won’t try.

    There may have been bigger “heartbreaks” along the way, but this was a biggie with regard to meltdown and underachieving.

    Randy Galloway allegedly said it’ the “worst collapse in Cowboys history,” but I have to agree in thinking that Cardinals loss in ’98 was even more inexcusable.

    One could argue that this team was better (12 pro-bowlers), but it would be hard to argue the fact that the Cardinals were worse than Sunday’s Giants.

    It makes me wonder, however, if this year’s team was over-hyped and/or over-rated.

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