FRISCO, Texas – Reality sets in eventually, though it happens at different times.
Perhaps some of the Cowboys realized it as soon as Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal snuck inside the left goal post on Sunday. Others may have realized it when they met as a team for the final time on Monday morning. It's a good bet that the truth hasn't hit home for plenty of players bidding farewell to the season.
Whatever the coping process might be, it had to have been aided by the sights at The Star on Monday. Exit interviews, garbage bags and empty lockers – the signs of a finished season.
"It's sinking in," said Dak Prescott on Monday afternoon. "It sucks. It stinks."
Prescott undoubtedly spoke for the rest of his locker room, but it'd be hard to know for sure. Monday was the final time the Cowboys' locker room will be open to the media until the spring, but most of the roster had already cleared out. The rookie quarterback spoke at length, along with a handful of comments from a few other players.
"A feeling like this never goes away," Prescott said. "Knowing how special this team was, a group of guys, a group of men on this team -- it was truly special."
That was the overarching message of Monday's limited availability. The offseason will kick into gear in no time, with the Cowboys' coach staffing the Pro Bowl, while their personnel department heads off to the Senior Bowl.
But in one way or another, this Cowboys club that won 13 games and nabbed the No. 1 seed in the playoffs will never be together again. As dramatic as it might sound, Monday likely marked the last day that every member of this team will be together in the same room again.
"That's the nature of our business, unfortunately," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "One of the things you try to do is you try to have a core group of guys that you bring together who are the foundation of your team from year to year."
Fittingly, Prescott represents the best-case scenario of that goal. The Cowboys have been stockpiling talented young playmakers for several years in the likes of Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. Ezekiel Elliott obviously belongs on that list after a breakout rookie season at just 21 years of age.
But Prescott, just 23 himself, offers the Cowboys a long-term answer at the quarterback position – which is a question that has troubled this franchise for many years.
However good that might sound for the future, it has to feel a bit hollow right now. That goes for Prescott, as well, as he repeatedly noted that he'll no longer be playing with many members of a team that saw so much success.
"Just knowing this is your last time playing with some of these guys, and the uncertainty of that," he said. "Which guys are going to be here, which guys aren't, which guys – this is probably your last time dapping them off or shaking their hands as a teammate. That's the toughest part for me."
The sting will lessen as the offseason advances, as the Cowboys maneuver to put their 2017 team in place. Current players will take their time away, before returning for an entirely new challenge. Before any of that happens, though, it felt fitting that Prescott said 2016 provided him some of the highest highs and lowest lows of his life.
"The feeling of losing and knowing this team, as I said, won't be back together," he said. "But it's definitely up there just in the season we had, the run we made, the investment we put into each other, the investment in this game and our playbook and our coaches – it was special. It was fun to be a part of."