The first real Cowboy game I attended came against the Arizona Cardinals during the 2000 season. I say “real” because years before, my father, brother, sister, two cousins, and I were among almost 52,000 fans in El Paso’s Sun Bowl who paid to see them scrimmage the Houston Oilers during the 1996 preseason. That’s how long ago that was; Houston had another team, and the Cowboys were the defending Super Bowl champions (the last time they held that title). By the time I saw them play in a real regular season game—on a hot Sunday afternoon in Tempe, Arizona, sitting on aluminum bleachers so hot it felt like they might burn a hole through your shorts—the Cowboys’ dynasty had long died.
It was the first year of the Dark Days of Dave Campo. Emmitt Smith was still around at 31 years old, but the other two Triplets had been replaced by Randall Cunningham at quarterback and James McKnight at wide receiver. They lost that day, just like they lost to the Cardinals 21 years later on Sunday. Plenty has changed about Arizona since then; they’ve gone from perennial basement dwellers in the NFC East to one of the league’s most exciting teams in the NFC West. But a lot of my feelings about this football team haven’t. Being a Cowboy fan, for me, has largely become a constant calibration of emotions. Trying not to sink too low when they’re bad, trying not to fly too high when they’re good.
The Cowboys have been good this year. This is the best they’ve been in a long time, and yet, when they lost the first game of the season, I had to remind myself that the season is incredibly long. When they beat a bad team—I don’t remember which—after the defense gave up lots of yards but forced a few turnovers, my first instinct was to write about how that side of the ball was perfectly made to break our hearts when it mattered the most. And now, after losing to Arizona in the second-to-last game of this long season, I’m calibrating again.
I want to say, overall, the Cowboys are no worse off today than they were at the end of last week, when we all rejoiced in thinking the old Dak Prescott and the offense had returned. I say overall because I still think there isn’t a team the Cowboys can’t beat. And yet, though that may still be true, this game made their road in the playoffs more difficult. The Cowboys not only lost, falling from second to fourth in playoff seedings, which theoretically means they’ll play tougher opponents. But also, for however long they play, they’ll do so without Michael Gallup, who tore his ACL. And, as it turns out, the Cowboys’ offensive problems haven’t been fully solved after all.
I want to say this is still the regular season, and they’re still in the playoffs. That, if you had to choose a position group on this team that could sustain an injury, it’s wide receiver. But I also know this is the first good team they’ve played in over a month—a team that had lost three consecutive games until Sunday—and, after going undefeated in December, the Cowboys lost in a manner that was frustrating to watch. This was the closest thing to a playoff matchup the Cowboys will have before they really count, and they lost by three points in a game when Greg Zuerlein missed another field goal wide left. When the defense got close to sacking Kyler Murray, he often figured out a way to escape. It was frustrating because it took more than a half for the offense to play well, and by the time they did, it was too late. Even worse, they had no timeouts to challenge a clear fumble that would have given them the ball to potentially tie or win. So, instead of getting the turnover the team needed, we all watched it simply go away when the Cardinals just ran another play.
These are the worst games to watch. To be clear, my calibration always happens after the game, sometimes even days after. During a game like yesterday, it’s sweaty palms and a subtle stomach ache from worrying that this is a loss that exposes everything that’s bad. It makes me wonder if, emotionally, it’s much easier if they had gotten blown out and the game was over before halftime. Games like yesterday make me dip back into my superstitious nature, wondering whether messing with the uniform—like wearing the red, white, and blue helmet stripe against the Broncos,the damn Broncos, and the all-white look yesterday—is only asking for trouble. Because games like the one against the Cardinals show you that winning is hard and there’s a variety of ways in which teams lose. When they can’t do the things that we often take for granted—making kicks from reasonable distances, managing timeouts—they beat themselves slowly. It makes bad refereeing feel that much worse. That’s what happened to the Cowboys on Sunday.
So maybe, having said that, the Cowboys are in a far worse place than where I’ve very optimistically placed them. Perhaps I’ve overcorrected my calibration since I’m thinking that, as of now, they’ll play the Cardinals again in two weeks, in the first round of the playoffs, and they’ll know what needs to get fixed. And that, eventually, Kyler Murray will lose at AT&T Stadium. I must admit, I really have no reason besides wanting to believe it. (Isn’t that what watching sports is?) After all, we’ve been wondering what’s wrong with Dak and Kellen Moore’s offense for an uncomfortably long part of the season.
They’re fine, in mostly the same place as they were after the Washington game. Because, as my friend Fidel Martinez—who writes the Latinx Files for the Los Angeles Times and who I talk about the Cowboys with during halftime of most games—points out, the Cowboys will either win the Super Bowl, or they won’t. The building blocks of this team are too old for moral playoff victories. This isn’t the first year after Dave Campo, when Bill Parcells coached a bad team to 10 wins and a quick playoff loss that still felt like an overachievement. This is a team built to win now and—maybe I’m being irrational and haven’t properly calibrated that—this team is good enough where anything less than a Super Bowl was always going to disappoint.
A loss to the Cardinals, during the regular season, doesn’t fundamentally change that. If they play again in the playoffs in two weeks and lose, that will matter. The season will end, and it will hurt, and we’ll have to slowly rebuild our hopes all over again.
We’re not there yet. And, hopefully, we don’t get there. So, for now, I’m choosing optimism. It’s too early in the new year and too close to the season’s end to choose anything else.