ARLINGTON, Texas – The cynics will say that the season ended during the seven-game losing streak earlier this season, and the realists will point toward Thanksgiving as the day the Cowboys' playoff chances faded.
Even the most hopeful optimist can't deny it now, though. The Cowboys' 19-16 loss to the Jets on Saturday night dropped them to 4-10, which -- even in the dreadful NFC East – is enough to mathematically eliminate them from the postseason.
"That is very disappointing, and it is certainly nothing that I could have envisioned, seeing us here," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "My plan was for us to have it all together, have it all together at this time – have some of the early guys that we didn't have on the team back, and we would be peaking right now."
That was the hope that permeated this franchise for more than two months. Even as the Cowboys struggled to win games, the impending return of Tony Romo combined with the lack of contenders within the division, kept hope alive.
Romo's second collarbone injury in the Thanksgiving loss to Carolina dashed those hopes again. A primetime win against Washington sparked some belief – though that was ultimately put to rest on Saturday, when Jets kicker Randy Bullock drilled a 40-yard field goal to deliver Dallas its 10th loss in its last 12 attempts.
"That's the nature of the National Football League," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "We all start with aspirations – 32 cities, players, coaches and everybody connected with the team. For some teams it works out. They get a chance to play in the playoffs and get a chance to compete in the Super Bowl, and for us this year, that's not going to happen."
It also puts the Cowboys in unfamiliar territory as they head toward the closing notes of this topsy-turvy season. This will be the first time since 2010 that they've been knocked from playoff contention before the final week of the regular season.
Knowing Jason Garrett, that won't diminish his desire to focus on the next challenge, the next opponent. But even Jones, who is more willing to examine the big picture, took a focused view of the two weeks that await before the end of the season.
"Every time I walk into this stadium for instance, I know that nothing assures me that I am going to get to walk in it again – so that's what you play for," Jones said.
The same can be said for the Cowboys' player, who still have a job they're expected to perform. As much as draft talk and playoff elimination might dominate the conversation from here on out, that'll hardly interest the current roster – who have their own professionalism and job security to mind.
"We're all accountable for how we play," said Jason Witten. "Go find a way to get a win. We're going to continue to play hard and go find a way to get a win. That's the approach. There's no other way to look at it."
There will be a time for that, though – which Jones admitted. In the yawning tunnels underneath AT&T Stadium, he was asked about the benefits that go with an unsuccessful season. The Cowboys are all but assured of a lucrative draft pick in 2016, and Romo should be perfectly healthy when spring rolls around.
That all sounds promising for the future, but Jones wasn't ready to go there just yet – not 20 minutes after the book closed on his 2015 season.
"We'll have a nice little period of time here where we get to watch TV, and so you'll start reflecting on it about then," he said. "But it's too soon tonight. It's soon."
The Cowboys have a Week 16 trip to play the Buffalo Bills in one week. After that, they may have the chance to play spoiler with a season finale against a Washington team that's still in contention for a division title.
Perhaps then, Jones will cast an eye toward what could be to come, rather than what could have been.
"That next weekend is when that old cold, hard light of day hits you – that you're not getting to play anymore," he said. "Then you'll start adding up all your assets for the coming years."