FRISCO, Texas – The video board at the far end of the locker room out here at The Star went blank blue midweek, save the tiny date still in the bottom left-hand corner: Jan. 16.
No daily schedule.
No time for the morning meetings.
No time for practice.
Nothing about wearing pads or shells.
The 2016 NFL season had come to a screeching halt on Sunday, the Green Bay Packers delivering a gut punch with a divisional round-winning 51-yard field goal as what turned out to be the final three seconds of this season ticked away at AT&T Stadium.
Packers 34, Cowboys 31.
And that was that, leaving a gigantic chasm at the completion of one of the more stunning seasons in the 57-year history of this franchise, dating all the way back to its 1960 National Football League inception, the finality to it all cruelly interpreting meaning in The Eagles' "Hotel California" song, that You can check out anytime, but you can never leave, since a roaring storm imprisoned for safety reasons a few thousand fans and a few players lingering inside the stadium.
Today, Friday, you'd have thought since the Cowboys defeated the Packers 30-16 earlier in the season for only the second time ever at Lambeau Field, practice would have been going on inside the Ford Center, the Cowboys getting in the final preparations for Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons at AT&T Stadium. This whole place would have been abuzz with activity, anticipating and celebrating the first conference title-game appearance since Jan. 14, 1996, against, yep, the Green Bay Packers out at Texas Stadium.
Nope, now just the noise of some on-going construction and a spattering of tours walking through the hallways. The locker room has come to a standstill, save the equipment guys cleaning up and out the individual lockers. There are only about 20 of the some 100 daily cars in the players' parking lot and by 3:30 p.m. just three.
That's how fast an NFL season can shut down after, in the Cowboys' case, speeding on like 100 mph since leaving for training camp on July 28 and then all of a sudden coming to a stark standstill 172 days later.
And this has made me think of the future, especially after head coach Jason Garrett told his players on Monday during the season's final team meeting to look around the room and realize this is the final time this team will be together, knowing full-well the Cowboys have 20 players heading toward free agency on March 9. He made an impression on the guys.
"Just knowing this is your last time playing with some of these guys, and the uncertainty of that, which guys are going to be here, which guys aren't, which guys are the last time dapping them off, shaking their hands as a teammate, that's the toughest part for me," no-longer rookie Dak Prescott poignantly said. "I mean. investing a lot in my teammates and the guys that they are.
And as Jerry Jones said this past Tuesday morning, reminiscing over the season, trying to process the loss, "That's the life we've chosen."
But like a bunch of tulips, football is perennial. Before you know it, preparation sprouts up for the next season, and as a matter of fact, sort of officially this coming week when the Cowboys scouting staff and various front office members will head to Mobile, Ala., for the week of Senior Bowl practices.
Time to move on.
And when the Cowboys do so, this hangs heavily overhead, despite going 13-3, matching the best 16-game regular-season record in club history. Despite winning the NFC East for the second time in three years. Despite playing in the divisional-round playoff game for the second time in three years. Despite having the second-best record in the NFL and best record in the NFC, all earning that No. 1 playoff seed.
Way too many questions and not nearly enough answers … yet.
Like, what to do with Tony Romo, the $24 million question of release him, trade him or keep him?
If not Romo, who then is the backup quarterback? Re-sign your current unrestricted free agents Kellen Moore or Mark Sanchez or play the thin market as the Cowboys know only too well?
[embeddedad0]Do you try to re-sign unrestricted free agent running back Darren McFadden, or since Alfred Morris was signed to a two-year deal, is he the guy to back up Ezekiel Elliott?
What about the No. 2 receiver, so maybe trying to re-sign unrestricted free agent Terrance Williams if not too expensive, or draft a potential candidate in the top three rounds ,or do you think practice squadder Andy Jones could slide into that role?
What about tight end, with Gavin Escobar an unrestricted free agent and Jason Witten heading into the final year of his contract and 15th NFL season? Are you comfortable with Geoff Swaim and James Hanna coming back from season-ending surgeries behind him or might basketball-playing Rico Gathers improve enough to be a third guy?
Probably can't afford to re-sign unrestricted free-agent starting left guard Ron Leary, knowing previous starter La'el Collins will return healthy from his ankle injury. But what about that insurance at guard in case of injury and might that be provided if Jonathan Cooper is re-signed or through the draft?
Who is the backup swing tackle if Doug Free remains the starting right tackle? While the immediate answer would be Chaz Green, he has yet to remain healthy in his two years here.
Think that's a lot? That's just the offensive questions. What about the defense?
Your starting two cornerbacks in the season opener, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, are free agents, so do you want to re-sign one or both to pair with Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown, or potentially draft a corner high in April?
Same at safety with unrestricted starter Barry Church and backup J.J. Wilcox. Re-sign your defensive co-captain and third guy or do you think Kavon Frazier will be ready for a larger role?
Did defensive tackle Terrell McClain, arguably your best interior defensive lineman until suffering that ankle injury late in the season, show enough to be re-signed or are you good going forward with the likes of Maliek Collins, Cedrick Thornton and possibly Tyrone Crawford and exclusive rights free agent David Irving if deciding to play those two guys inside?
And then the elephant in the defensive room, who are your defensive ends? Knowing DeMarcus Lawrence will be coming off his second herniated disk surgery in the past two off-seasons; Randy Gregory will be serving a year-long suspension; Irving and/or Crawford might be needed inside if not both; and Jack Crawford is unrestricted. All that leaving just sack leader (6) Benson Mayowa the only sure defensive while the Cowboys inspect the free-agent field.
Man, was this team really 13-3?
That's enough to just leave your head spinning, and a good reminder of one season does not beget the next. Just like three years of 8-8 did not suggest a 12-4, like 12-4 was not a precursor to 4-12 and for sure 4-12 not setting any sort of precedent for 13-3.
So now, just because you went 13-3, nothing is guaranteed for 2017. That 13-3 doesn't grandfather you back into the playoffs.
That's what makes the 34-31 loss to Green Bay sting even worse. So close, yet …
Well, at least the Cowboys know their quarterback going forward will be Prescott. Same at running back with Ezekiel Elliott. Same on the majority of the offensive line, with the three Pro Bowlers. Not bad for starters at wide receiver with Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley. Witten at tight end. Pro Bowler Sean Lee and up-and-coming Damien Wilson at linebacker. Who knows, maybe Jaylon Smith, too, if he's healthy enough to beat out Anthony Hitchens. Byron Jones at safety, and returning your special teams standouts Dan Bailey, Chris Jones and L.P. Ladouceur.
Not like the cupboard is bare. Just needs some restocking for sure, but on a tight budget.
Darn that Aaron Rodgers. All that work, and now it's already time to start starting over.
Some life these guys "have chosen."
Take a look at some of our favorite photos from the memorable 2016 season, courtesy of team photographers Jeremiah Jhass and James D. Smith.