BALTIMORE -- No, of course there are no moral victories in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys understand how tough it is to beat the Ravens in Baltimore, and they justifiably felt much better about the way they played in Sunday's 31-29 loss than they felt two weeks ago after the Bears thumped them. But they're professional football players, and they believed they could and should have won the game. They rushed for 227 yards, possessed the ball for 40 minutes, recovered an onside kick at the end and set their kicker up with a 51-yard field goal attempt that would have won it. The feeling in their locker room was one of disappointment.
"I'm sick about losing this game," owner Jerry Jones said. "We made our share of mistakes, but I thought we had a shot to win at the end. With our time of possession, it's hard to understand how we didn't win. Everybody is as frustrated as I am."
But there's a bigger picture here, and it's one that keeps getting missed as Cowboys fans wail and gnash their teeth about every single loss (and even some of the wins). These Cowboys are a work in progress -- a team and a staff and a roster that is piecing itself together and building something it hopes can be sustainable well into the future. You may not want to hear it, and you may not be able to believe it about the Cowboys, but they are in a rebuilding phase right now and much more likely to be a playoff contender in 2013 than this year. So as disappointed as Cowboys fans are about the loss, the penalties, the late-game clock management and everything and everybody else you want to blame, that bigger picture really needs to be the one on which the conversation about the 2012 Cowboys centers.
"We have to win the game, and we didn't do that," coach Jason Garrett said. "But I loved how our team battled. I was proud of our football team today, and we believe that we can grow from this football game."
A growth opportunity. A learning experience. These are valuable things for the Cowboys at this point in their history, and as Cowboys fans you may just have to accept that. Sure, this is the NFL, and the NFC East required only nine victories to win it last year, so nothing's impossible. The Cowboys' schedule gets easier, and if the run game and the offensive line can play the way they played Sunday, they could be much better in the second half of this season. But this season isn't the central focus of the people running the Cowboys right now. What they're looking for is growth and improvement, and they saw plenty of it Sunday.
"A lot of this game, you look at and you say, 'Those are the Cowboys we're talking about,'" tight end Jason Witten said. "Those are the kinds of players and leaders you want to grow with and build on."
He's talking about guys like Sean Lee, who remains a terror on defense, and DeMarco Murray, who ran for 91 yards in the first half before a foot injury forced him out of the game. But lots of Cowboys played very well Sunday, including Dez Bryant, who caught 13 passes for 95 yards, and Felix Jones, who rushed for 92 yards in relief of Murray, and Phil Costa and the rest of an offensive line that's been pulverized all year but on this day looked tough and mean and physical for the first time.
All of it comes with warts, though, and they're mainly the result of the team and many of its players being unfinished products. Bryant's big game is likely to be remembered for his drop of the two-point conversion attempt that would have tied it in the final minute. Murray got hurt again, which is a problem with Murray. And the line had its issues, contributing extensively to the fact that the Cowboys were penalized 13 times for 82 yards. The Cowboys made mistakes in this game, and at this point they are not a good enough team to make as many mistakes as they did and win in a place like this, even in a game they dominate physically. They had their shot, they came up short and they have a bunch of film to watch as they keep working to get better.
"I'm all right with anything as long as it's moving forward," Jerry Jones said. "I'm not for taking any steps back. We knew this was going to be a challenge, but looking at the overall game, as a team, I felt we played well enough to win the ballgame. I'm a lot more encouraged than I was after Chicago."
So before you start asking whether Garrett's job is in jeopardy (it's not) or crying about poor late-game clock management or looking at the standings and worrying that the sky is falling, it's important to step back and see Sunday for what it was -- a critical and encouraging step in the development of a team that's thinking well beyond the borders of just one season. Someday, the Cowboys believe, they'll win games like this routinely. And if they do, part of the reason will be Sunday's experience, which showed them how they could.