FRISCO, Texas – Finally, at last, a ray of sunshine broke through the storm clouds hovering inside The Star on Thursday.
Word broke just after head coach Mike McCarthy's 32-minute mostly somber press conference of Dan Quinn deciding to return for a third season as the Cowboys defensive coordinator after dalliances with multiple teams to become their head coach.
Something to smile about for the first time since the Cowboys were eliminated from the NFC playoffs, having lost to the San Francisco 49ers Sunday evening, 19-12. That and than the classy McCarthy, while walking away from the podium, recognizing WFAA-TV photojournalist Jose Gant, heading into retirement after 40 years at Channel 8 in Dallas, causing a standing ovation from media members, smiles all around.
The Cowboys might have been in the win-or-go-home playoff situation but Jose, everyone's favorite photog, had decided retirement would not take place until the Cowboys season had been completed, no matter when, putting him in a win-or-retirement situation.
Look, the resilient Cowboys carved out a 12-5 season, despite losing quarterback Dak Prescott to injury for five games, Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith to injury for the first 13 games of the season, two of their top three cornerbacks for a combined 17 games and their starting right tackle on his way to a potential Pro Bowl season, Terence Steele, for the final six games.
Yet they earned the top wild-card playoff seed in the NFC, one of just seven NFL teams with at least 12 wins, and the second-most total wins in the NFL in back-to-back seasons (24) to only Kansas City's 26. And for goodness sakes, they won their first road playoff game in 30 years while beating Tampa Bay in the first round and QB1 Tom Brady for the first time in eight career meetings.
The Cowboys finished the 2022 regular season scoring the fourth-most points and allowed just the fifth least. They produced seven Pro Bowlers, a 1,000-yard rusher (Tony Pollard), a 1,000-yard receiver (CeeDee Lamb) and Ezekiel Elliott's 12 touchdowns were the fourth most by a running back, his 72 points ranking ninth in non-kicker scoring.
"Lionbacker" Micah Parsons is among the top-three vote-getters for AP Defensive Player of the Year, kicker Brett Maher set a franchise record for kickers with 137 points and they developed such young players as Tyler Smith, DaRon Bland, Jake Ferguson, KaVontae Turpin, Peyton Hendershot, Damone Clark and Israel Mukuamu into major contributors going forward.
Yet … yet … they were beaten by the 49ers, short-circuiting their goal of reaching the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LVII for the first times since the 1995 season. And there was no joy in Mudville. Fans were P-Oed. Members of the media were demanding someone had to pay with a pound of flesh, if not with their jobs, from Jerry Jones to Dak Prescott. No one was happy.
But let me tell you, no one was more distraught than these guys in this building, Jerry telling you after the game he was "sick … sick … sick." Jayron Kearse was brought to tears. Trevon Diggs was the last one to leave the locker room. Might have been the quietest charter flight back home I've witnessed.
And look, losing these types of win-or-go-home games is a punch in the nose, and you know the feeling if you've ever been punched in the schnozzola. Over the past 39 seasons covering this team, this is the 15th time witnessing this playoff heartbreak, starting with the 1985 first-round playoff loss to the Rams, winding through that 1994 season NFC Championship playoff loss to the Niners, that 13-3 season in 2007 coming to a close in a divisional round loss to the Giants, not to mention the dropped snap in Seattle, the Dez Catch-No Catch in Green Bay, the Packers' walk-off field goal in 2016 and the clock expiring in 2021.
Plus, there have been over those 39 years the six times the regular season has come down to win-and-you're-in final games, starting back in 1984, even the 7-9 season of 1990, 9-7 season of 2008 and the three in a row 8-8 seasons from 2011-13. Always thought it'd be better to go 6-10 or now 6-11 than to come, oh, so close.
The pain still was on McCarthy's face Thursday afternoon. Too soon for anyone to even lighten the mood.
Plus, sounds as if his hand was forced to make some coaching staff moves, deciding against renewing the expiring contracts of six of his coaches. And sure as heck didn't totally sound as if those were performance-based decisions.
During those 32 minutes, McCarthy, while ticking off reasons for the moves, twice used the words "economics," a polite term for money. While there is no salary cap for coaching staffs, the Cowboys did have 29 assistants. Did you realize when the Cowboys played in the 1966 NFL Championship Game, their first playoff game in franchise history, Tom Landry had five assistants? Why, when they won the franchise's first Super Bowl the 1971 season, Landry's staff had expanded to eight.
So maybe it was time to downsize. Maybe it was time to get younger, since three of the assistants let go are grizzled veteran NFL coaches: George Edwards (25 years), running backs coach Skip Peete (24) and offensive line coach Joe Philbin (19), while Leon Lett was an assistant to the defensive line coach and Rob Davis was assistant to the head coach with really no position duties.
You know, as they say, sometimes it's just business. How many times has a player been told that?
And maybe, just maybe, after two consecutive 12-5 seasons but reaching no further than the playoff's second round and worrying about the message getting stale, it was time for a few new voices in the room. You know, like when you're raising kids and you tell them something over and over and it just doesn't sink in, but when someone else outside the immediate family tells them the exact same thing, the light goes off?
For me, remember the end of the 1997 season when the Cowboys lost the final five straight to go 6-10 in what turned out to be Barry Switzer's last of four years as head coach. Offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, the same guy who coordinated them to the 1995 season Super Bowl win, the 1994 season into NFC title game and the 1996 season into the second round of the playoffs, told me before the hammer came down, "We're all outta here. The voice needs to change."
And six of the assistants were gone when Chan Gailey became the head coach, including longtime holdovers Zampese, Joe Brodsky, Hubbard Alexander, Robert Ford and Tommy Hart.
So while this Cowboys organization takes a deep breath over the weekend, the first totally no-game week since the bye the first week in November, this to me is not the start of the offseason, just the non-game season. The NFL is never really "off." And going forward, here is what we know for sure:
Mike McCarthy is the head coach.
Dan Quinn is the defensive coordinator.
Dak Prescott is the quarterback heading into the third year of his not-so new four-year contract in need of alteration.
Micah Parsons heads into his third season as the defensive stalwart.
Trevon Diggs is entering the final year of his initial four-year deal.
CeeDee Lamb, heading into his fourth season, means time to pick up his fifth-year option.
They have 20 unrestricted free agents, including the likes of Tony Pollard, Leighton Vander Esch, Donovan Wilson, Dalton Schultz, Brett Maher and Anthony Brown, with Steele restricted.
They know in 2023 they will play 10 games against 2022 playoff teams, two those competing in this year's NFC Championship Game and another against an AFC Divisional Round playoff team (Buffalo).
And they will have the 26th pick in the NFL Draft.
So the work begins, er, continues.
But the scar of losing back-to-back playoff games to the San Francisco 49ers never out of mind.