Spagnola: NFL Harsh Reality, Only Thing That Matters Is What Happens Now

IRVING, Texas – For some reason, never really noticed the sign, and it's huge, too, just to the left of the curtain the players walk through to enter the interior of the locker room out here at The Ranch.

White, with huge capital blue letters, and it reads:




Isn't that the truth?

Now, as in 3:40 p.m. Sunday, AT&T Stadium, Cowboys-Lions in the NFC Wild Card Round of the playoffs.


That's right, playoffs. Something that had been an annual occurrence for the Dallas Cowboys from 1966 through 1983, the lone exception being that 8-6 season of 1974, meaning participating in postseason play in 17 of those 18 years. The Cowboys would miss the playoffs in 1984, return for a one-and-done appearance in 1985 and then experience a five-year drought, the longest since the expansion franchise's first six seasons in the league (1960-65).

The so-called annual occurrence resumed in 1991, the Cowboys qualifying for the NFL playoffs in eight of the next nine seasons, the 6-10 of 1997 the only exception.

But since the turn of the century, the Cowboys' participation in these playoffs has been spotty – 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2009, the preceding four-year drought the third longest in franchise history.

Ah, but here they are, following the 6-10 year of 2010 and the three consecutive 8-8 seasons, back in the playoffs. And it's been rather amusing for me to hear this seeping trepidation over if this team understands how important these games are.

Read the sign.

Because at this point, great the Cowboys finished the season 12-4, their first winning season in five years and tying for the second-most regular-season victories in franchise history.

Great this team won the NFC East for the first time in five years, representing the franchise's 22nd division title.

Great these Cowboys are heading into the playoffs on the wave of a four-game winning streak and having won six of their past seven games, earning themselves the third seed and a first-round home game.

But all that does is get you in the dance. Go ask the erstwhile undefeated Florida State Seminoles. Go ask the erstwhile No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.

The only thing that matters is what we do now.

Funny thing, veteran Anthony Spencer, one of just six current players who were here in 2009 when the Cowboys last appeared in the playoffs, was sitting just outside the locker room doing an interview the other day, the huge sign basically staring him in the face.

You're aware of the sign?

"See it every day," Spencer said.

Make sense to you?

"I say that almost every other day to my wife," Spencer said matter-of-factly, smiling. "Everyone knows what we came here to do. We know what's at stake."

Of course, they do. A winning record, division title, heck, those are only the initial goals. There isn't a team in the NFL coming into the season thinking, 'boy, we'd just like to win nine games,' or 'we'd just like to win the division title.'

Now, for some it might not be realistic, but every single one of them, all 32, come in thinking Super Bowl, so there really is no need to worry about these Cowboys being satisfied with themselves just because they finally jumped over the 8-8 hump and inability to win the division title in the last game of each of the past three seasons.

The celebration was short-lived, and why head coach Jason Garrett carried over this very same perspective into the locker room after the Cowboys clinched the NFC East with the victory over Indianapolis, all being handed out division title caps, yet Garrett telling them to enjoy it for now "and then give the cap to someone else."


These Cowboys have bigger fish to fry.

"That's how it is, man, almost like a new season for everyone," says nickel receiver Cole Beasley, completing his third year with the team.

And when asked if there had been a bunch of celebrating in the locker room at The Ranch, he said, "Not in our locker room. We celebrated about 10 minutes, and you go on to the next game. That's all that matters."

And his hat?

"Gave it to my mom," he said.

So yes, there is no misunderstanding what's at stake beginning Sunday at AT&T Stadium, and for that matter, what's been at stake ever since the Cowboys landed about 9:30 p.m. this past Sunday coming back from the final victory of the regular season against the Washington Redskins. Should they lose to the sixth-seeded Lions (11-5), a team that hasn't won a playoff game since beating the Cowboys in the second round back after the 1991 season, lack of perspective won't be a viable excuse.

"It's one and done," says rejuvenated linebacker Rolando McClain, fixing to appear in his first NFL playoff game, just as 40 other guys on this 53-man roster.

Or this from Josh Brent, who has missed the past two games with a strained calf muscle, when asked if he will be ready to go this Sunday, especially with fellow defensive tackles Henry Melton just getting placed on injured reserve and starter Nick Hayden nursing a sore shoulder, "It doesn't matter, it's the playoffs, one and you could be done," he said.

And maybe no one in this organization understands how precious these postseason games are more than quarterback Tony Romo and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, even though he has three Super Bowl Rings and has been to the playoffs as Cowboys owner, president and general manager a dozen times.

"Our 2009 team, our 2007 team – we missed big-time opportunities there with Tony Romo, we know that, and that's as it is," Jones said this week. "Consequently, everybody in the organization, including Tony, paid a price for that. You've got to get them. When it comes up and you've got a chance to get them, you've just got to take advantage of them."

Then there is Romo, quarterback of those two teams, understanding the serious disappointment of those two seasons, and knowing that since his playoff record as a starting NFL quarterback stands at 1-3, no matter two of those losses were a one-pointer at Seattle in '06 and the four-pointer to the Giants in '07, when anyone mentions his 12-year legacy in the NFL the refrain always seem to be, "Yeah, but … he's only won one playoff game."

And as Romo knows, it is what it is.

"I've said that it's all about winning," Romo said. "You're judged as a quarterback and coaches on that. That's what the game is all about. I think it's a great thing. That's why you have to play great when it counts."

Well, it certainly counts this Sunday. Win, and you go on. Lose, and you go home, and by Monday lockers will be cleared out into plastic trash bags, as if 12-4 didn't matter, as if the NFC East championship didn't matter, as if finally making a playoff appearance didn't matter.

Fans will be mad. Players and coaches will be mad. No one in the front office will be smiling. And sights already will be on next year. Those are the harsh realities of the NFL playoffs, unlike the other three major professional leagues in this country, where the NBA, NHL and MLB all enjoy best-of series, three, five or seven games.

In the NFL, it's for all the marbles each time out, and actually exactly what the Cowboys have been facing the entire month of December after that Thanksgiving Day loss to Philadelphia. One loss and they likely would have been done.

Yep, no immediate consolations in the NFL. It's all about now.

"The task at hand now is to go play our best football against Detroit," Garrett says. "Whatever happened up to now is really irrelevant."

Truer words have never been spoken.


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