My friend Jesse Holley, the former Cowboys receiver and Michael Irvin reality show winner (he's Mr. 4th and Long), has been having a little fun with me lately on the Cowboys Radio Network pregame show. Jesse has asked for several weeks if the Cowboys were about to play a must-win game, and I'm just making his job tougher by not playing along.
My usual answer is that a game isn't must-win until mathematical elimination is threatened. We all know that's not really accurate – so, sorry, Jesse, although I know you enjoy the game – but experience tells us funny things happen in sports when we least expect them.
Once upon a different lifetime, in a baseball environment, I received some postgame liquid-reinforced wisdom from former big-leaguer Bucky Dent, then a coach for the Texas Rangers. Sighing over a refreshment in the bar of the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Dent said, "Just when you think you're in, you're out, and just when you think you're out, you're in."
Never thought of it that way, but Bucky's right. The beauty of sports is that things so often turn in directions we don't expect. That's why my usual answer to Jesse is that the game isn't MUST win, but I don't recommend they lose.
One of my New Year's wishes is that we all take better care of our words, because they matter. It's easy to say "My bad" when we misspeak, but how often could we avoid that if we took a little more care about the words we spoke in the first place? You can't unring a bell.
What's the big deal about saying a game is must-win if it might not be? My question is, "must win or … what?" Must win or you're mathematically eliminated from the playoffs? OK, that's a consequence. But there are other implications to consider.
I'm going to write this column every week, win or lose, until they tell me not to. I'm going to prepare for and show up to do a radio broadcast 16 times in the regular season. If you tell me it's must win and they don't, make sure you say what you mean. Missing the playoffs is not good news for a team that had high expectations.
Whatever happens the next two games, changes are coming. It's not all about the absence of a suspended running back. People are going to lose jobs. Families will be affected. That at least deserves saying what we mean.
This corner's perspective is one of a fan first. Your humble correspondent's upbringing is that we enjoy the games. We love our team, or teams. We'd love for them to win all the time, but that's not reasonable. We'd love a championship every year, but that literally never happens. We are not entitled to those things, either.
So if you tell me my team must win or they're not playing any more games that year, then unless it's the last game of the season, I don't believe in must-win games. Make or break games happen. Must win? Must or what?
The Cowboys' game with Seattle on Christmas Eve afternoon might be must win for a playoff spot. Or not. The other teams that have to lose for the Cowboys to have a chance all play before Dallas. The Cowboys could be all but mathematically eliminated before they kick off. And then what? Should they not try? Not play at all because what's the point?
Maybe you feel that way, and if so, ho ho ho to you. But those players are there to play. Real fans want to see their team play and play hard every game. If you bought a ticket or a jersey, or agreed to invest three hours of your precious time, that's what you're owed.
Not a victory. You are not owed a victory because the price of the investment doesn't include that. Never has. The other team gets paid, too. But you are owed maximum effort.
For playoff chances, the must win games are all of them. That's one of the beauties of this sport. The Cowboys' games with the Rams and the Packers and the Falcons were must-win games, and they didn't. That's why the likelihood is they won't play in January this year. But no one asked the question in October. Timing is everything and words matter.
Because words matter, you might also want to not suggest to players and coaches that games played after playoff elimination are meaningless games. In this sport, that's an ugly word. They're not doing this 162 times a year. You get 16 chances to play a year. More if you're lucky and really good.
If Tyron Smith can't play this week, it will leave a hole in him nothing can fill. Tell him it's meaningless. Jason Witten is wondering how many of these he's going to have ahead of him. Two? Eighteen? Tell him it's meaningless. Tell young and fringe players trying to make an impression to have a job next year and keep a dream alive that it's meaningless. Meaningless? Bah! Humbug!
Speaking of which, and risking cliché, there are a few things I wish Santa could bring some of these guys. Wish Chris Jones could get a Pro Bowl nod. (Also wish the NFL could find some common sense and measure some of their stats differently, so some things like Jones's best contributions could be seen more easily, but that's another column.) Would like to see James Hanna wake up and unwrap three or four chances a game to use his receiving skills, as he has once each the last two weeks. Here's hoping Santa finds a long stretch of good health for Smith and Sean Lee. And appreciation from all of us for everything these players, coaches and staff put into their work, for all their sacrifices, for our entertainment.
And if there's a Cowboys win in the bag, Santa … well, you know, some folks consider it a must.
And because words matter, here are a few of this week's most important ones: Merry Christmas, everyone. May all who celebrate remember the true reason for the season, and may Santa bring us all a little of that good will toward men.