The Almost Boys

IRVING, Texas -Forty years ago the Dallas Cowboys shed their nagging image as Next Year's Champions by winning Super Bowl VI after five years of teasing the local faithful by merely coming close.

Now they have a new skin to shed:

The Almost Cowboys.

The Cowboys almost beat the two teams playing in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVI, the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, losing fourth-quarter leads in the final minute against each, and also defeating one of the other teams in the NFL's Final Four, the San Francisco 49ers.

The Cowboys almost produced a winning record, finishing 8-8, .500 for only the third time in the club's 52-year history, joining the 8-8 team from 1999 and the 7-7 squad from 1965.

The Cowboys almost won the NFC East title for the second time in three years, but instead tied for second with the Philadelphia Eagles, one game off the Giants' 9-7 pace.

And the Cowboys almost qualified for the playoffs for the second time in three years, but because they essentially came up one game short, they now have missed the playoffs three times in the past four years.

Almost ... almost ... almost.

Ugh, root of the frustration spilling over at this time of year, when once again a Super Bowl is being played without the Dallas Cowboys, this drought now extending to 16 empty years, the longest in club history without a Super Bowl appearance – three years longer than the previous franchise-high 13-year stretch of near misses, from 1979 through 1991.

Hey, feel your pain. There is an aging generation out there with absolutely no connection to the Cowboys' glorious past, having played in eight Super Bowls and winning five becoming an aging memory, nearly ancient and medieval history since 1995, Super Bowl XXX, was their last appearance. Babies born that day, Jan. 28, 1996, are halfway through their high school careers.

But don't think you're alone out there gnashing your teeth. There certainly is a high level of frustration between the walls at The Ranch, including the big office up front where Cowboys owner Jerry Jones seemed a tad envious of the Giants, how a 6-6 team saddled with a four-game losing streak zoomed right past the Cowboys to Super Bowl XLVI.

"It was a complete team effort on their part, and we didn't play well enough to compete at this level," Jones said of the Giants getting on the roll he envisioned his team would enjoy late in the season. "And I don't know that we would have been competing at the level the Giants are had we gotten in the playoffs. I'm giving them their credit and they deserve it.

"I thought (Tony) Romo was competing at a level that would have given us an opportunity but the rest of us need to play better and get better before we can really be jelling the way the Giants are."

That's what makes this all hurt, right? So, so close, but at 8-8, that generally means you just plum were not good enough over the long haul. It's like, think about the five games the Cowboys lost when they had leads, and three substantial ones, in fourth quarters. Up on the Jets by 10 to start the fourth quarter. Up on the Lions by 13 after three. And, of course, up on the Giants by 12 with just 5:41 to play.

Couldn't close any of those three. Had they, had they beaten at least the Giants at Cowboys Stadium, who knows? A perfect example of how this 2011 season, one the lockout and labor dispute sort of threw everything out of whack, turned into one of such random events.

Just think of how close the Cowboys were to likely eliminating the Giants on Dec. 11 at Cowboys Stadium. But now, eight weeks later we find ourselves debating the legacy of Eli Manning. We are discovering what a tight-knit "family" the Giants say they are. We praise them for their great personnel, especially at wide receiver and on defense.

Hmmm, the Cowboys were a Tony Romo bomb lost in the lights by Miles Austin that day of rendering any of those discussions moot, of possibly costing Tom Coughlin his job. That fragile this NFL.

"I don't want to be negative, but I thought we would compete a lot better when we went to New York in the final game," says Jones during his interview for the Dallas Cowboys 2011 Year In Review television special that airs on the Dallas Cowboys

Television Network stations this weekend and then again at 10 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 12, on CBS-11 in Dallas-Fort Worth. "We all realized we missed a great opportunity to take the Giants when we had them out here at Cowboys Stadium and didn't get it done.

"But I thought when we got up there on Jan. 1, with what was at stake, I thought we'd come out and make a better accounting of ourselves. And again, I want to give those Giants real credit, they stepped up and we let them get ahead of us, of course, and then came back at them, and came back in the second half, but they answered the bell. So when you get it down to where you're at their home field in New York for the last game of the year, then you got a chance to be pretty disappointed.

"That's where we managed to get it, whether we should have been there or not, it was there. We'll keep that one in mind. Those hurt. We'll keep that in mind as we go through the offseason and get ready for another season where we maybe can correct some of the reasons we're not in the playoffs."

And those reasons are as apparent to the folks out here as they are to you, believe me, especially after everyone has watched these playoffs unfold for the past month:

    • More pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
    • Improved back end of the defense.
    • Protect your own guy better, since it's never good when your sack total (42) nearly equals the times your quarterbacks have been sacked (39). And to think how many sacks Romo's feet prevented; or knowing your quarterback had to play several weeks with a fractured rib and bruised lung, not to mention a badly swollen throwing hand in need of an injection to play in the final regular-season game.
  • Improved special teams personnel, since the rookie placekicker was the only guy making significant, game-changing plays this season, and it could be argued that special teams mistakes – blocked punt returned for a touchdown in loss to the Jets and blocked, last-second game-tying field-goal attempt against the Giants the first time around – cost you two games.

Too much to ask to get all that done in one offseason? We'll see, but at least it's apparent, and a very good thing, since the Cowboys aren't thinking they are just a hair away from being where the Giants are this weekend.

And that's quite possibly Super Bowl champs for the second time in five seasons, even though they had missed the playoffs the previous two years and almost missed them again this year.

My gosh, how very nearly but not exactly can be worlds apart. Makes you think, doesn't it?

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