LANDOVER, Md. –This is what purgatory must be like.
For yet another season, the Cowboys find themselves missing the playoffs after coming up short in a must-win regular season finale, this time with a 28-18 loss at the hands of the up-and-coming Washington Redskins. At 8-8, the 2012 Cowboys were neither bad nor good – not special enough to compete for a championship or terrible enough to warrant a complete teardown – the same as they were in 2011.
They are average – maybe the worst thing a professional sports team can be. And as a consistently inconsistent bunch, Sunday was an average game for them. They fought hard to the end, the theme of this season, which included five wins in the past seven weeks to get in a self-determinative position, but couldn't overcome the turnovers that were a hallmark of the 3-5 start, the dreadful first half that was also a motif of 2012.
"I thought our effort, determination and will in this game was awfully, awfully good, and indicative of what this team has been all year long," said head coach Jason Garrett, who now has a career record of 21-19 following his second full season on the job. "At the end of the day, we didn't get the job done."
Washington, 10-6 and winners of the NFC East, will play Seattle at home in a Wild Card Playoff next week. The Cowboys, meanwhile, will clean out their lockers on Monday. Their coaches will make season-ending evaluations, while the front office mulls the future of the staff and the roster.
Finishing third in the NFC East, two games behind Washington and one back of the New York Giants, the Cowboys are one of only two 8-8 teams in the league, along with Pittsburgh. They will pick 18th in the April draft, a selection that will have to address one of several needs the team has, namely along the offensive and defensive front – but perhaps even quarterback.
It's true that the Cowboys wouldn't have had the opportunity they did on Sunday without Tony Romo, but the 32-year-old is entering the last year of his contract, and posted the lowest passer rating of his career in 2012, albeit a respectable 90.5. He threw three interceptions on Sunday, Nos. 17, 18 and 19 on the season. Two came in scoring territory in the first quarter, and the last was a backbreaker with just three minutes to play, as Romo's simple swing pass to DeMarco Murray was plucked out of the air by linebacker Rob Jackson.
"I feel as though I let our team down," Romo said. "That's very frustrating and hard to even think about, just because you want to be in that position and we have been so much, and been successful.
"The kid made a good play. I thought it was a good job by him. I'm upset with throwing it to where he could even catch it. It's disappointing."
The Redskins defense had answers for Romo and the Cowboys offense all night. The unit has been so productive down the stretch, but managed only 296 yards from scrimmage Sunday, its third-lowest total this season. The battered and bruised Cowboys controlled quarterback Robert Griffin III far better than in the 38-31 loss to Washington at home on Thanksgiving, but surrendered 200 yards and three touchdowns to running back Alfred Morris, another rookie.
"It's a tough task," said defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. "They're one of the best offenses in football. (Head coach) Mike Shanahan does a hell of a job. They were on point. They were at their best. The runner was running hard, the quarterback was playing well, and they were a handful, no question. … We wanted to stop their play action, their shots, make them go the long, hard way, which they were doing, but the game was still in our favor."
Even after Romo's late interception, the Cowboys defense appeared to have held the Redskins to a field goal, which would have given them a chance to drive for the win with two-and-a-half minutes remaining. But on a third down incompletion, defensive lineman Jason Hatcher was flagged for a head slap against Griffin. Morris plunged in for the game-clinching touchdown with 1:15 to play.
After a roller coaster of a season, when the team fought through adversity on the field, with so many games missed by starters due to injury, not to mention life and death tragedy, the Cowboys find themselves right back where they were when 2012 began. They lost a de facto division title game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants on Jan. 1.
What followed in the spring was the biggest free agent class in the salary cap era, and a bold trade up the board on draft day to select the top defensive player in the class, by consensus. The year featured a record-setting season by tight end Jason Witten, along with the emergence of outside linebacker Anthony Spencer and wide receiver Dez Bryant, who injured his back in the fourth quarter Sunday, and couldn't finish the game.
Just like that, it's over. They were so close, but so far away.
"We're in a league that's playing it close, for the most part," owner and GM Jerry Jones said. "But as far as I'm concerned, we're as far away as you can measure, because we're at home and not in the tournament."