"I've been rich, and I've been poor. Rich is better."
– Singer Sophie Tucker
The Cowboys have not had a bad year.
If the Cowboys with who-knows-who playing on New Year's Eve win against Philadelphia with who-knows-who playing, they'll finish the season 9-7. If they lose, they'll finish 8-8. That's not a bad year.
The Browns have had a bad year. The Giants have had a bad year. The Broncos have had a bad year. The Cowboys have been there: 3-13 in 1988; 1-15 in '89. Those three straight 5-11 beauties with hope nowhere on the horizon. Those were bad years. This Cowboys' year hasn't been bad.
But it has been disappointing. It has, an argument can be made, been one of the most disappointing seasons in a long, long time. It's a different kind of disappointment than last year, or 2007's first-round playoff exit with the best record in the NFC. Those are crushing blows, but you wake up the next day filled with the belief that you're only going to build on the success and you can't wait to get started.
A season like this, with a good team expecting to do great things, hurts your soul. The teams that were bad, really bad – with the exception of Denver who thought they were really good – they knew they were bad. You celebrate a win and you adjust your aspirations.
A season like this Cowboys' season, this leaves you with doubt. This leaves management forced to question its coaches, its talent evaluators, its own moves. This takes a longer time to get over, and there is no time to get over it. Next year starts now.
Strangely enough, this week, for a team like the 2017 Cowboys, is one of the very worst. For a month, they have begun a period of irrelevance. The nation this week is thinking about Falcons or Seahawks? Who gets the AFC wild cards? Who's best positioned to come from the sixth seed to get to the Super Bowl in Minnesota? Can the Eagles get it back? Are the Rams for real? The Jaguars?
That's the talk this week and next, and it simply refines as teams are eliminated. You know who no one is talking about? The Bengals. The Bears. The Cowboys.
When the late, great baseball marketing entrepreneur Bill Veeck owned the St. Louis Browns in the 1950s, he'd do anything for attention. One day he hired a little person (they called them midgets then), Eddie Gaedel, to appear as a pinch hitter. Veeck knew he'd be criticized harshly in the newspapers. All he knew was they'd be talking about him. In his autobiography Veeck, as in Wreck, Veeck memorably said, "It's great for the soul to be praised for a day. It's better for the box office to be criticized for a whole week."
The Jones family understands Veeck. Tex Schramm did. The dirtiest word in Schramm's vocabulary was "irrelevant." Rip me. Rip my team. Whatever you do, don't ignore us.
The history and nature of the Dallas Cowboys is that they are not really irrelevant. The Cowboys are never irrelevant, and as long as they have players like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott and "Tank" Lawrence and Sean Lee and the Star and the tradition, the networks will want them, the opposing fans will hate them like they hate no one else and they will matter. The organization works at mattering as hard and as well as they do anything else.
But for a month, the Cowboys are a blip on the football radar. The only discussion they're in is where they came up short. That is one of the absolute worst places to be in the NFL: football limbo.
Here's why this particular version of limbo is so troubling: It doesn't feel like they missed their goals because they weren't good enough. Sometimes the other team is better. That felt true of the last Philadelphia game. Sometimes you're just better. That felt true against San Francisco. But as a rule, and especially in retrospect, it felt like – saying felt like, now – either the wrong players were being put in position, or the position they were being put in wasn't the best.
Some of the things that happened were out of anyone's control. For instance, the training camp hamstring injuries to the four rookie drafted defensive backs. Now you have subtracted Barry Church, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox. You add Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods to replace them, but you effectively don't have them as acceptable players until midseason. Can't overcome that in a minute.
Other things, you wonder. We wonder. They wonder. They appear to have misjudged the left guard position for a quarter of the season. They appear to have not been able to, as a staff, rise to the occasion of preparing for some injury situations (left tackle, linebacker).
Not universally. Chaz Green played really well filling in for Tyron Smith last year. How could they know he wouldn't this year? Or did the guard experiment and the uneven camp because of injuries affect Green? We don't see practice, so only they know what they did the week leading up to the Atlanta game to prepare for not having Smith. The result did not look like a model of preparation.
The quarterback clearly had a worse season, although we can debate whether that means he regressed as a player because all the circumstances were not the same. But how did they help him?
And the whole second-half offense business, given a season to examine it, is simply alarming. The Cowboys were 5-3 halfway through the season after beating Kansas City. In the next seven games, their halftime margins were minus-3, plus-2, minus-3, plus-10, even, plus-10 and plus-2. In those games, they proceeded to score 10 total third quarter points – 10 total in all the third quarters put together. Were outscored in the third quarter, 53-10, and in the fourth quarter, 53-50.
Their record in those games has been 3-4. The games are about people, not numbers. But that doesn't feel like we're talking about an inferior team, generally speaking.
And oddly enough, the problems are not second half of the season problems. If you give me any two games to play again, I'd pick the Rams and Packers in Weeks 4 and 5. Eight points up on the Rams at halftime, outscored in the second half, 19-6. Up on the Packers, 21-12, outscored in the second half, 23-10. Give me those back. I think they set the tone.
The Christmas Eve game was a microcosm of disappointment. You can make the case they could've lost in Oakland in the Index Card Game. And last week was the flip. Not saying the fourth quarter goal-line series was defining, but how many years later are we still talking about "Load Left"?
Highly disappointing season for the Cowboys because clearly more was possible. One of the most disappointing in years. Not a bad year.
It just feels like it.