FRISCO, Texas – Whether you're a rookie in his playoff debut like Dak Prescott or a veteran in his sixth postseason trip like Jason Witten, last Sunday's loss to the Green Bay Packers had the same effect.
"It's a terrible feeling," Prescott said.
The Cowboys left The Star in Frisco on Monday following their final team meeting still processing the abrupt end to a remarkable season. Their head coach, Jason Garrett, reminded them the 2016 Dallas Cowboys will never be together again. Things always change, win or lose.
There's another consistent message Garrett tells his team that's fitting for their reluctant start to the offseason: 'The only thing that matters is what we do now.'
On the field, they can't do anything for quite some time. This weekend's games belong to the Packers, Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots.
Off the field, they can remember the feeling. Store it away. Keep it in mind for motivation.
"The biggest thing you have to do is you have to learn from your experiences," Garrett said, "and you have to allow the disappointments to fuel the fire for what you want to accomplish in 2017.
"I think every team in the National Football League comes into the season with the objective of winning the Super Bowl. If you don't have that objective you're probably in the wrong business. There's one team that's going to have that feeling; there's going to be 31 teams that don't have that feeling; there's going to be about just under 2,000 players who don't have that feeling. There's going to be about 70 players who do. There's going to be about 20 coaches who have the feeling and the rest of them won't. We're one of the teams at this point in the season that our goals and our dreams are not going to happen this year. But we're going to learn from the experience and we're going to be better for the experience."
[embeddedad0]Garrett doesn't like to compare players or teams, but perhaps a template for the Cowboys' current circumstances is the young 1991 team that lost in the divisional round to the Detroit Lions and came back to win the Super Bowl in 1992, Garrett's first season with the organization.
That's the goal, but the franchise is well aware advancement isn't given year to year. In their last three trips to the playoffs (2007, 2009, 2014) they didn't return to the postseason the following season.
Every team is different, though, and Witten – a member of all three previous playoff teams – is grateful for this group's resiliency and commitment to each other all year long.
"I'm just proud of these guys. They played hard," he said. "A lot of them are young. To come in and play that way, it's not easy to do.
"But this team, just all year under the circumstances we had to come together there's a lot of things to build on moving forward."
The roster will change. Twenty-one players are scheduled to be free agents in March, 20 of them unrestricted. Decisions must be made in the coming weeks and months.
The 2017 Dallas Cowboys won't be the 2016 Dallas Cowboys, but last Sunday's loss could be constructive if they get where they want to go next season.
"Not the same team, not the same exact men and players won't be back together," Prescott said. "But for the people that will, for this organization, for the youth in this team, it's a building block. We're going to get better from it. It's going to make us better."
Take a look at some of our favorite photos from the memorable 2016 season, courtesy of team photographers Jeremiah Jhass and James D. Smith.