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Spagnola: Heartbreaking Moments Change Course of Cowboys History

FRISCO, Texas –The Dallas Cowboys have just completed their 58th NFL season, having entered the league as an expansion franchise in 1960.

         As we know, they have played in eight Super Bowls, winning five, creating this perception out there of a fairly charmed existence, all beginning with the franchise's first winning season in 1966, the start of that NFL-record string of 20 consecutive winning seasons. They also became the first team in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in four years during their re-emergence in the 1990s.

         They are remembered for such plays as The Hail Mary and Tony Dorsett's 99-yard run. For Tom Landry and Tex Schramm and Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones. For Staubach and Aikman and Lilly and White, and of course for Emmitt becoming the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

         But funny, this occurred to me, oh, sometime after the Vikings' seemingly cleansed the memory of the Hail Mary from that 1975 season with their Minneapolis Miracle to break the New Orleans Saints hearts three weeks ago:

         These Cowboys, for all their greatness over all these years, sure can make a claim for simultaneously being known as The Heartbreak Kids. No, seriously. Do you realize the penance the Cowboys have paid over the years, the close call and seemingly cruel and unusual punishment at the end of games that has prevented them from becoming the greatest franchise in NFL history?

I'm serious.

Sure, we're all aware of how the Cowboys lost their first two NFL playoff games in 1966 and 1967 to the Green Bay Packers:

  • 34-27, when they could not score after driving to a first-and-goal at the Packers 2 with 1:52 to play in the NFL Championship at the Cotton Bowl, the winner earning the right to play in the very first Super Bowl. Under immense pressure on fourth-and-goal at the 2, Don Meredith desperately flings a pass into the end zone, intercepted by safety Dave Brown with 28 seconds left to seal the Packers second straight NFL title.
  • 21-17, the next year in what became known as the Ice Bowl, when Bart Starr, on a third-and-goal play from the Cowboys 1-yard line with just 13 seconds left, sneaks in for the winning touchdown in the NFL Championship Game for the right to go to the second Super Bowl.

Think how NFL history might have been rewritten had the Cowboys won those razor-close finishes. Maybe it would have been Tom Landry revered as Vince Lombardi became. Maybe Dallas would have become known as Titletown USA.

 We're also well aware of how the Cowboys have lost their last two playoff games, both again to the Green Bay Packers at the end of the 2014 and 2016 seasons in divisional round playoff games:

  • 26-21, Tony Romo's apparent 31-yard completion to Dez Bryant on a fourth-and-2 play from the Green Bay 32 was reversed from one of the greatest catches in Cowboys history to an incomplete pass by video replay with just 4:02 left to play, and going a long way toward preventing the Cowboys from advancing to the NFC title game in Seattle, where they had already beaten the Seahawks once that year.
  • 34-31, after driving to tie the game 31-31 with 35 seconds left, yet allowing Aaron Rodgers, with just 12 seconds left, to complete that 35-yard pass on third-and-20 from his own 32 to tight end Jared Cook, who slid out of bounds at the Cowboys' 33-yard line with three seconds left – enough time for Mason Crosby to hit the game-winning 51-yard field goal, sending instead the Packers to the NFC title game against Atlanta.

Yep, how close they were to having played in two of three NFC title games. Oh, the hurt.

         But you know what, this Cowboys pain isn't anything new if you go back over the years.

         Remember Super Bowl V, Baltimore's Jim O'Brien breaking the Cowboys' hearts by hitting that 32-yard field goal with five seconds remaining for the 16-13 victory.

         Or the crushing 21-17 loss to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl X that 1975 season, when trailing just 15-10, they allowed Terry Bradshaw on a third-and-4 from the Steelers' 36 to hit Lynn Swann for that 64-yard touchdown pass with just 2:54 left.

         Or losing the very next year in the divisional round of the playoffs 14-12 to the L.A. Rams after going 11-3 that season. Down 14-10, the Cowboys were facing a fourth-and-10 at the Rams' 17 when Roger Staubach appeared to complete a 10-yard pass to Billy Joe DuPree with 1:29 left in the game. But the ball was marked just short, leaving the normally stoic Landry criticizing the officials afterward, especially after getting home and watching the film.

         Who knows, the Cowboys were possibly an inch or two away from having played in four consecutive Super Bowls from 1975-78, since they returned in 1977 to beat Denver in Super bowl XII and again in 1978, losing to Pittsburgh, uh, 35-31, a game forever remembered for Cowboys veteran tight end Jackie Smith's drop in the end zone, and then Randy White's fumbled kickoff return on a short kick that set up the Steelers' final touchdown.

         Again, that close.

         Next year, even more hurt in what turned out to be Staubach's final game of his career. Once again it was those darn Rams in the divisional round playoff game. The Cowboys led 19-14, 2:16 left to play. But they couldn't hang on, Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo connecting with Billy Waddy on a first-and-10 pass from midfield for what turned out to be the game-winning 50-yard touchdown pass.

         That then brings us to the most famous heartbreak: The Catch, of course, that 28-27 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game of the 1981 season. With 58 seconds left and trailing the Cowboys 27-21, on third-and-3 from the Cowboys' six, under pressure and rolling right, Joe Montana throws that high pass into the end zone that somehow Dwight Clark skies over Everson Walls for the game-winning touchdown with 51 seconds left, preventing the Cowboys from going to yet another Super Bowl during that 12-season span.

         Oh my gosh, while they played in five Super Bowls during that time, the Cowboys also ended up in 10 NFC title games from 1970-1982, winning five and losing five (1972, 1973, 1980-82).

         So close the Cowboys were to being the Patriots of that era. So close.

         And you know what, that then makes the drought since last winning Super bowl XXX that 1995 season – also making their last NFC title game appearance – seem so humbling.

         But even at that, for the past dozen seasons the Cowboys have broken more hearts. They have had their chances.

         Remember 2006, Bill Parcells' final season as head coach. Seattle. NFC Wild Card Game. Tony Romo's first season to start. Cowboys trail 21-20, 3:10 remaining. Romo drives the Cowboys 70 yards to the Seattle 8. Only 1:53 left. Romo hits Witten at the 1, first down, right?

         Oh, wait, there is a booth video review of the spot. And somehow referee Walt Anderson, after looking at video that was not shooting straight down the 1-yard line, announces he's re-spotting the ball "at the 1½-yard line," fourth down and one with 1:19 left.


         And you know the rest of that story, Romo dropping the snap on what was going to be Martin Gramatica's game-winning 19-yard field-goal attempt, and then is pulled down running for his life at the 2 by Seattle's Justin Babineaux. Ball game. Season. End of Bill's coaching career,

         Can't make this stuff up.

         And if all that – all that – is not enough to cause you to cry in your milk all over again, you know those three consecutive 8-8 seasons, the ones the Cowboys had a chance to win the NFC East each time if only they could win the final game of each of those seasons?

         Do you remember 2012, the 28-18 loss to the Redskins?

         Gosh almighty, the Cowboys were training 21-18. There was 3:33 left, first-and-10 at the Cowboys 29. The "Comeback Kid" was in position to lead the Cowboys to victory or at least into overtime. But on the first play, the very first play, the Redskins blitz linebacker London Fletcher up the middle. He's untouched. Romo thought he saw the Redskins other linebacker Rob Jackson blitzing, too, so instinctively lobs a short dump pass right to DeMarco Murray. One problem. Jackson pulled off and jumped Murray, intercepting the pass at the 25, and setting up, uh, Alfred Morris' game-clinching, NFC East-clinching touchdown.

         Next year, well, same as the previous year. Almost.

         Cowboys-Eagles, Game 16, winner takes the East. One difference. Romo, during his valiant comeback, 24-23, victory the week before over Washington, blew out his disk. He needed back surgery. So backup Kyle Orton must start the winner-take-all game against the Eagles, that to be his first start in two years.

         Cowboys were 8-7. And if you can believe this, had lost four games by a total of five points that season. Three one-pointers and a two-pointer, and that with what ended up being the 32nd-ranked defense in the NFL. And I'll be, here they go again, one more time. Cowboys trail, 24-22, first-and-10 at their 32, 1:49 left. Orton already had completed 30 of 45 passes for 358 yards. Needed like 30 yards to at least have a chance at a field goal.

         First play, Orton sees Jason Witten doubled, comes off him and is going to hit Miles Austin on a slant out of the slot. Big problem. He's late and behind Austin, and again, a second-year in a row, this time Brandon Boykin picks off the pass. Ball game. Season.

         Compound those most-recent near misses and disappointments with what then took place the end of the 2014 and 2016 seasons, and now you have everyone piling on about how the Cowboys have no idea what they're doing, that there are 22-year-olds out there who have no idea why anyone makes such a big deal over the Cowboys.

         Now, I'm sure other teams have suffered through heartbreaking losses and near misses just like the Cowboys. But this many? This close to the end of games?

         Come on now, last-second picks? Sneaks? Field goals? Video replay reversals? Questionably-marked spots? Catches?

         One play here, one play there, changing the course of history. Lombardi-Landry. Steelers-Cowboys. Niners-Cowboys. Packers-Cowboys.

         Like, how many Super Bowls have come down to the wire?

         Go ask the Bills, Scott Norwood, wide right.

         Go ask the Seahawks, a pick at the 1, three years ago.

         Go ask the Patriots, David Tyree's helmet catch busting a 19-0 season.

         Go ask the Cardinals, Santonio Holmes' last-second, tiptoe toe-dance TD.

         On and on.

         So who knows what LII will bring come Sunday. Can't wait.

         But when it comes to the Cowboys, they can only imagine. They've about seen it all.

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