Figuring that it might help calm my nerves, I watched the Cowboys’ most important game in years on Nickelodeon. I’d already tried plenty of other stuff to get rid of my nervous energy, so why not? I’d worked out—which I rarely do on Sundays—paced around the house, even sat on the couch, closed my eyes, and took slow, deep breaths. None of it helped. So maybe watching a game that included colorful graphics like slime and ribbons, plus cartoon characters, with announcers who made the game sound fun instead of serious would do the trick.
This didn’t help, either. It made the serious (as serious as a playoff football game can get) feel stupid. Before halftime, I switched over to the CBS broadcast to hear the familiar voices of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo as I watched the Cowboys, once again, lose a playoff game in an absurd way.
Conceptually, it’s easy to understand they’ve lost. If they don’t win in the playoffs, they go (or stay) home. There’s no simpler explanation than that. But emotionally, after more than five months of watching them play (if you count the preseason), those losses take longer to process. After more than five months of hoping, praying, sometimes convincing yourself this season would be different and even bartering with God at your most skeptical, you fall into a routine. You build your day around when the Cowboys play. If they win, it makes that time well worth it. If they lose, you move on as fast as you can since there is always another game next week. The season’s so long that you eventually forget important games. Yet the playoffs are so short that even when they don’t crash out in the wild card round, it’s difficult to forget the times they lost in what’s become a typical Cowboy way.
This was one of those gut-punch losses. Along with The Tony Romo Fumble, along with The Bye Week Vacation to Cancun, along with The Dez Catch in Lambeau, this one—The Dak Sneak—hurts as much. And presumably, just like those other losses, I’ll always remember where I was when this one happened: sitting at home, watching the slow-moving disaster that makes us all feel so helpless when the only thing we can do is yell, “HURRY UP! HURRY UP! HURRY UP!” at a television that never answers us.
The thought has crossed my mind that I may never see the Cowboys win another Super Bowl. It sometimes feels like there’s something wrong with this team. Something spiritual or existential or metaphysical. Something that makes you think they might be cursed. As if, in some Faustian bargain for the last three Super Bowls, we all failed to read the small print, and now payback’s due. As part of the deal, even worse than the team being bad, there would be years when the Cowboys would make you feel that everything was great until none of it was. Years like this one.
We had hope, in the same way we imagined miracles on what became the Cowboys’ final drive of the season, as they moved the ball down the field rather easily with no timeouts. They made the difficult plays until a basic error cost them the game and left us all crushed. Left us staring at sad Cowboy fans on TV. Some of them crying alone, some of them holding each other, some of them praying, some of them just sitting alone. We didn’t laugh; we sympathized. Because they were us. For more than a quarter century, this is how it has usually ended. On paper, this was one of the best rosters the Cowboys have had in years, yet they lost just the same. It was a game where blame could get distributed all over a franchise whose only constant is how they’ll undoubtedly find a way to disappoint.
“Are you angry at them?” my wife asked on the morning after the loss. A few hours prior, while it was still dark out, I’d begun to understand that the season was over. That there would be football next week, but the Cowboys wouldn’t be playing.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “This happens all the time.”
I tell her that I’ve often thought about writing a book about the Dallas Cowboys’ history and how the team can explain a good part of the last 125 years of this country. From professional football’s evolution, which began with few seeing it as more than some sort of circus act, to the oil that changed Texas and this country. Its money made the team’s two main owners—Clint Murchinson Jr. and Jerry Jones—wealthy. There was the stoicism of Tom Landry, with his supposed values of a conservative Christian. The unbridled capitalism that begat the excesses of the 1990s, which were easier to ignore because of championships. The extravagance of AT&T Stadium that, with its shiny objects, tries mightily to distract you from how mediocre this whole thing has become. Football, the most uniquely American sport, became this country’s civil religion, and the Cowboys cast as America’s Team has never been so fitting.
Because it’s no longer a compliment. This team represents the best and worst parts of this brutal game that’s become a metaphor for this country. The hubris of building a billion-dollar stadium without considering the most basic element: the sun. The vanity of simply ignoring the things that have always been wrong, like they’d eventually fix themselves. The arrogance of thinking time would always be on your side. And if it wasn’t, the blame would be on someone else. Perhaps even the self-delusion of thinking we’re not that far from being great again.
Sorry if I got too dark. It’s that time of year when I’ve let the Cowboys disappoint me again. In a month or two, I’ll start rebuilding hope. That’s how it goes. If it didn’t, I would have stopped watching a long time ago.