Spagnola: That's A Wrap; So What's Next For Cowboys?


IRVING, Texas – No one is happy.

Not you for sure.

Not Jerry or Stephen.

Not Jason Garrett, nor the assistant of your choice.

And certainly not the players.

Kind of reminds me of this poem's final verse:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;* The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;*
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

Yeah, the Cowboys, too.

For the fourth consecutive season the Cowboys must sit home to watch them others play this weekend: Philadelphia and New Orleans, Green Bay and San Francisco, then Kansas City and Indianapolis, Cincinnati and San Diego. Then next week Seattle and Carolina, Denver and New England join the NFL postseason party. But no Cowboys, experiencing their longest absence from the playoffs since the five-season span from 1986 to 1990, but not quite as devastating as those six years to start this century when the Cowboys qualified for the playoffs only once from 2000-2005.

See, and I certainly understand the angst. Because since the Cowboys missed the playoffs for the first six years of their expansion existence (1960-65), never has there been such dry spells, creating what has become another inalienable right for the Cowboys fan: Making the playoffs. Why, they did so every year from 1966 through 1973, before an 8-6 record in 1974 interrupted the streak of eight consecutive playoff appearances and was the only playoff hiccup from 1966 through 1983 – an 18-season span. And even at that, the Cowboys would sport a winning record at season's end for a record 20 consecutive years until Danny White fractured his wrist in Game 9 of the 1986 season, turning a 6-2 mark at the halfway point into 7-9.

Talk about being spoiled, right?

And this entitlement only grew worse after the aforementioned five-year playoff absence, since the Cowboys would qualify for the playoffs in eight of the next nine season from 1991 through 1999.

Now this at the turn of the century: Only four playoff appearances in these past 14 seasons. And 8-8 for the third consecutive year has become the unwelcomed new norm after swallowing the latest season-ending bitter pill, a 24-22 loss to Philadelphia this past Sunday night at AT&T Stadium with the home folks whipped into a hopeful frenzy, only to be teased at the end.

Oy vey.

"Now, we didn't win that ballgame and I'm not as disappointed in the game and that specific outcome as I am what happened because of the outcome, which means that we had to go home and we couldn't play in the playoffs," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would say two days later. "But if we can compete at the level that we competed this year against teams like Denver – I think we lost five games by eight or nine points – if we can compete at that level, then we'll have a chance to win more games than we won this year."

But because they didn't – falling a win in the final game of the season the third season in a row short – our immediate, emotional reaction is to fire, fire, fire. Good thing Clint Murchison didn't subscribe to such rationale, otherwise Tom Landry would never have become Tom Landry, or at least not with the Cowboys after starting off his Hall of Fame coaching career with six consecutive non-winning seasons. Nope, Murchison grit his teeth because he believed he had done the right thing from the start by hiring Landry as his first head coach and issued Tom a 10-year extension even before the 7-7 season of '65, the franchise's first non-losing season.

So now Jerry remains steadfast in his support of Garrett, who really has done very little ghastly wrong during his three and a half seasons as head coach after taking over a 1-7 team most choose to forget. It's just he has not done enough right, meaning fashioning three consecutive 8-8, non-playoff seasons. And to me, if you look at the entire body of Garrett's work, what he has put in place here at The Ranch, other than qualifying for the playoffs, if you are judging the big-picture job of the 2013 season, what really is the difference between 8-8 and 9-7 from a practical sense?

Does winning one more game make you an immensely better head coach? Is qualifying for the playoffs the only barometer? Had the Rams beaten the Saints in the final game of the 1990 season the Cowboys would have qualified for the playoffs as a wildcard team at 7-9, would that have cemented Jimmy Johnson's place in team history at that time just because he made the playoffs? See what I mean.

While everyone wants better for sure, to me it's somewhat amazing the Cowboys were even three points short in the final game of the season of winning the NFC East.

They actually played 20 different defensive linemen during the season. Twenty, now.

They finished the season without five starters on the field, most notably starting quarterback Tony Romo and starting middle linebacker Sean Lee, no small absences.

Then, let's see. With injuries strewn all over the defense for most of the season, starting with no Anthony Spencer or Jay Ratliff or Tyrone Crawford right from the get-go, and then at times playing without the likes of Lee, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Bruce Carter, Justin Durant, Morris Claiborne and Ernie Sims, along with the street people they were playing with up front, is it any wonder the Cowboys finished with the absolute worst defense in the NFL, ranking 32nd? Yet somehow they managed to win eight games.

And it wasn't just the worst defense in the NFL this season, the 2013 defense from a yardage standpoint was epically bad, the 6,645 yards yielded the third most in league history and suffice to say the most in franchise history … by 958 yards more than what we thought was last year's epically bad group (5,687.) Yet the Cowboys somehow managed to overcome that to win eight games.

Then there were first downs – 388 given up, again the most in franchise history, and by no small margin, 61 more than the 1989 bunch, which by the way finished 1-15.

Wondering about passing yards, especially since four quarterbacks threw for more than 400 yards against the Cowboys, and a fifth, Drew Brees, would have (392) if the Saints weren't up by 32 points at the end? Yep another franchise defensive worst, 4,589 yards, crushing the previous ignominious mark of 3,928 of 1983. Yet again, the Cowboys somehow managed to win eight games.

Oh yeah, uh, points, 439, an average of 27.4 a game. And that was a total of three points more than the previous opponent high of 436 in 2010, again, a 6-10 season. Yet the Cowboys managed to overcome that onslaught to win eight games.

Knowing that, this then makes sense, too: The 51 touchdowns opponents scored were just one short of matching the most scored against the Cowboys in their 54 seasons, that taking place in the 14-game year of 1962 (5-8-1).

So what, shame on this team for only averaging 27 points a game, finishing fifth to only Denver, Chicago, New England and Philadelphia, four of those teams making the playoffs?

Even though this offense, when it comes to yardage, finished just 16th this season, the 432 points scored was the most since the 2007 campaign (455) when the Cowboys went 13-3, and then the second most since the 1995 season (435) when the Cowboys were 12-4 and won their third Super Bowl in four seasons.

So an abject failure? A fireable offense?

This was not the 24-40 of Mike Shanahan in Washington over the past four seasons. This was not the 29-71 of Jim Schwartz in Detroit the past five seasons. Or the 21-32-1 of Leslie Frazier in Minnesota over nearly three and a half seasons. All among those fired after this season. [embedded_ad]

Since taking over this 1-7 team the middle of the 2010 schedule, the Cowboys have grown younger and better during Garrett's 24-24 reign has the fulltime head coach. They have revamped their offensive line to where it has improved to the point of being one of the strengths of the team this season. The wide receiver position, despite Miles Austin seemingly falling off the production ledge, shows promise, Dez going to his first Pro Bowl and rookie Terrance Williams, who came into the season as the third receiver, ending up with 44 catches for 736 yards and five touchdowns, best numbers in a season by a Cowboys third receiver ever, and better than most second-receiver seasons. Plus, don't forget clutch catches by Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris, when healthy and given opportunities.

DeMarco Murray, thanks to that improved offensive line, shows you can win with him at running back, becoming the first to rush for 1,000 yards in a season (1,124) since Julius Jones in 2006 and totaling the most rushing yards in a single season since Emmitt Smith's 1,203-yard season in 2000. And there could be a bright future for Lance Dunbar as a change-of-pace back if he returns successfully from his season-ending posterior lateral corner surgery.

Out of necessity, the Cowboys might have discovered two capable young linebackers in rookie DeVonte Holloman and Kyle Wilber, who started the season as a defensive end. And don't necessarily go to sleep on young safeties Barry Church, Jeff Heath and J.J. Wilcox.

So while many want to insist the window is closing on this Cowboys core group, it just might be opening in other areas, providing Romo returns successfully, as expected, from disk surgery and tight end Jason Witten continues to sip from the fountain of youth, his eight touchdowns this season one short of his career high at age 31.

No doubt the Cowboys have to draft well again and most likely make some tough salary cap decisions on a couple of veterans. But it's not like it's disaster around here, especially when you consider they lost five games by a grand total of eight points with that mess of a defense and all those injuries.

Is that the head coach or are they just not good enough … yet?

Just be careful of making big decisions in emotional states.

Never know what Casey might do on his next at-bat.

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