Was this season’s Dallas Cowboys 8-8 record a character building experience, or just another failure?

By Matthew Postins

Dallas Cowboys logoJason Garrett admitted on Monday that he didn’t get much rest after the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Washington Redskins on Sunday night. He copped to about a half-hour of sleep.

Garrett’s eyes and mind wandered to his television set. On HBO there was a documentary about the basketball rivalry between Duke and North Carolina.

As Garrett watched he admitted it wasn’t hard to find parallels between his team’s recent bumps in the road and the journeys of two of college basketball’s most storied programs.

When it comes to success, most people forget about the journey once you reach the destination.

“What was interesting to me was the number of times these two really great programs stumbled on their way to success,” Garrett said. “They couldn’t get over the hump. They would keep getting closer and closer to their goal and keep getting knocked down. Then they finally got there.”

Garrett sees the same thing we all see. The Cowboys have been able to win the NFC East in Week 17 each of the last two years. In each case the Cowboys fell apart, perhaps less so against Washington on Sunday than against the New York Giants last January.

To a glass-is-half-empty Cowboys fan, it looks like failure. And on some level it is. But to Garrett, he sees beyond the failure and sees it as one of those stumbles that could define the Cowboys down the road, should they be able to turn these disappointments into playoff berths and, perhaps, Super Bowls.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for Cowboys fans that are chomping at the bit for more than what they’ve gotten since the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl season in 1995.

Garrett, who played on that last Super Bowl team, feels your pain. But on Monday, during his end-of-year press conference, he sounded like a coach who was set to stay the course.

“I think we’ve established an understanding of how we play football around here,” Garrett said.

Garrett plainly sees the glass-as-half-full. But as he and the Cowboys face a critical 2013, it’s worth looking back at 2012.

The season started with Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones looking for some “glory hole.” One assumes Jones knew what that meant. But Jones used the term to back up his belief that his team was a playoff team and that he felt the window for success was closing for veterans like quarterback Tony Romo, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and tight end Jason Witten.

On opening night it looked like the Cowboys got the memo. Dallas went into the Meadowlands to face the defending world champion New York Giants and beat them convincingly. But even the victory was maddening. The offensive line play was sub-par. A benign pass rush from 2011 sacked Eli Manning three times. The leading receiver on this night was the lightly-regarded Kevin Ogletree.

Thus a truly maddening Cowboys season began. Dallas followed the optimism created by its opening-night win with a blowout loss in Seattle. A win over the Buccaneers – which saw the Cowboys struggle to run the ball – was followed by the team’s 34-18 loss to Chicago in prime time as quarterback Tony Romo turned the ball over five times.

The Cowboys entered the bye week 2-2 and struggled with themes that were familiar in 2011. They struggled to run the ball. Romo made crippling mistakes. The defense struggled to create pressure.

Dallas went to Baltimore and played, perhaps, its most complete game of the season. They rushed for more than 200 yards. They held Ravens back Ray Rice under 100 yards, and the Ravens offense as a whole to just over 300. Dallas still lost, 31-29, when Dan Bailey’s 51-yard field goal went just left of the upright. Not really Bailey’s fault. The play before was a case study in bad play calling and clock mismanagement by the entire Cowboys offense.

Then the injuries became an issue. The Cowboys lost running back DeMarco Murray against Baltimore, center Phil Costa the next week against Carolina, and the running game went to pot. The following week the Cowboys committed six turnovers, fell behind 23-0 and still found a way to nearly beat the Giants at home, losing 29-24. The next week brought another loss, this time in Atlanta, and a 3-5 record at the break.

It didn’t look good. Whispers began about Garrett’s job security. Around that time the NFL voided New Orleans coach Sean Payton’s contract, making him a free agent in 2013. It took ESPN about 30 seconds to get that rumor mill pumping.

But Dallas, as it had in 2011, bounced back. Dallas won the next two games, beating Philadelphia and Cleveland, the latter win coming in overtime and, truthfully, a game the Cowboys should not have won. After a loss to Washington on Thanksgiving, Dallas won its next three games, defeating Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Before the Cincinnati game the Cowboys lost a practice squad player, Jerry Brown, in a car accident. Brown’s best friend and teammate, Josh Brent, was behind the wheel. Brent now faces vehicular manslaughter charges. Brown’s death seemed to galvanize the team before their win over Cincinnati, and there was some carryover as Dallas railed to beat the Steelers in their first home game since Brown’s death.

By then, miraculously, the Cowboys controlled their own destiny. Win their final two games and they would win the NFC East. So the Cowboys promptly lost to New Orleans in overtime. But Dallas received a gift later that day. The Giants lost, so all the Cowboys had to do was beat Washington on the road in Week 17 to win the NFC East.

If you haven’t heard, the Cowboys didn’t win, and ended up exactly where they ended 2011 – 8-8, sitting out the playoffs again.

There was some good to come out of this season. Wide receiver Dez Bryant emerged, as Cowboys fans had been hoping, to become the team’s most dynamic playmaker. Witten had a record-breaking season, catching 110 passes. Murray showed his value when he played. Romo had a nice streak in the second half of the season, but his penchant for multiple-interception games is wearing on fans. Linebacker Anthony Spencer had a career season in a contract year. Ware earned another Pro Bowl berth. The combination of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne solidified the leaky secondary. Kicker Dan Bailey emerged as a big-time kicker.

But inconsistency and injuries defined the season. The offensive line was well below average until the final few weeks of the season, and even then the unit was just average. The defensive line had issues. So did the run defense. Most of that inconsistency was due to injuries. The Cowboys finished the season with 11 players on injured reserve. Six were starters or heavy contributors. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff never made it to IR, but he missed half the year. So did Murray. Ware played the last several games with a bum right arm. There were times when defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would take guys signed off the street on a Monday and have them on the field playing on Sunday.

So is 8-8 ever different than 8-8? Garrett and Jones hope so. They hope this year’s 8-8 is just a stumble on the way to getting over the hump.

Well, here’s a little perspective. It took Dean Smith 20 years to win his first NCAA title at North Carolina. It took Mike Krzyzewski 11 years to win his first NCAA title at Duke.

Chances are Jones and Cowboys fans don’t have that kind of patience.