|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
ARLINGTON, Texas - The irony Sunday night at AT&T Stadium was as cruel as King Sisyphus of Greek mythology being sentenced to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a mountain.
The Dallas Cowboys had the ball at their 32 just 1:49 away from a victory few outside their Valley Ranch training complex believed they could achieve.
All the Cowboys needed was a field goal from Dan Bailey, who hadn't missed a kick since September and already had made three field goals against Philadelphia, giving him 21 in a row.
|Philadelphia cornerback Brandon Boykin intercepts a Kyle Orton pass late in the fourth quarter to thwart the Cowboys' comeback bid.|
Kyle Orton, after passing for 358 yards and a couple of touchdowns, was set to add his name to the franchise's annals next to Clint Longley and current coach Jason Garrett as backup quarterbacks who delivered improbable regular-season wins.
Then, disaster occurred.
Orton, playing because starter Tony Romo had season-ending surgery Friday to repair a herniated disk in his back, threw a first-down interception on a slant intended for Miles Austin.
Philadelphia 24, Dallas 22.
Game over. Season over.
In his suite at the 50-yard line, Jerry Jones stood up and turned away from the field, overwhelmed by some combination of rage, sorrow and frustration. Vice president Stephen Jones, the owner's son, turned away too.
One of Jerry's teenage grandsons yanked his sweater over his head as though it would shield him from the anguish.
Orton's interception guaranteed Philadelphia the NFC East title, while the Cowboys missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season -- their longest drought since Jerry bought the team in 1989.
"Unfortunately, we haven't taken the next step. That's something we have to look at and see how we can break through," Garrett said. "We didn't get it done, and we all have to live with that -- coaches, players, everybody. We'll learn from this experience and go forward."
Normally, these end-of-the-game gaffes in the season's biggest moments have been reserved for Romo.
Now, we're left to ponder whether Jerry really did make a deal with the devil for those three Super Bowls in the '90s. What other explanation can there be for the excruciating losses the Cowboys seemingly have at the end of every season?
Just two weeks ago against Green Bay, Romo threw nearly an identical interception late in the fourth quarter as the Packers rallied from a 23-point halftime deficit.
The Cowboys have now played for the NFC East title on the final weekend of the season three consecutive times and four times in five years. They're 0-4. Don't forget, Romo threw an interception late in the fourth quarter against Washington last season as the Cowboys were driving for the go-ahead points.
Will they ever get over the hump?
"You just keep banging away," Garrett said. "There are a lot of great stories in all walks of life of people who were close, who were close, who were close. You keep fighting and battling. You gotta be persistent and keep believing that somehow and someway we'll break through."
No guarantees exist.
The Cowboys join the 1983-85 Green Bay Packers and the 1996-98 Houston/Tennessee Oilers as the only teams in NFL history with three consecutive .500 seasons. Green Bay went 4-12 in 1986; Tennessee went 13-3 in 1999 and lost to the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys join the 2002 Jacksonville Jaguars, the 2000 San Diego Chargers and the 1984 Kansas City Chiefs as the only teams to lose four games by two points or fewer.
They entered December tied with Philadelphia for first place but lost three of four games, and they gave away games this season like Christmas gifts. Home against Denver and Green Bay. On the road against Kansas City and Detroit.
You could make the case the Cowboys should've won each of them. They didn't, which is why they failed to win the NFC East in a year it was football's worst division.
Every game and every season comes down to a handful of plays here or there. Until the Cowboys start making them, mediocrity will continue to reign.
After all, we're talking about an organization that's .500 since 1997 with one playoff win. Still, Jerry believes Garrett can lead the Cowboys out of this abyss.
"We've put a lot of effort into training Jason Garrett," Jerry said. "I want to take advantage of that.
"If we don't have him, we don't get payback for all the miscues and losses and criticism of sideline management. You don't get a chance to benefit from the one way you learn -- and that is the mistakes you make -- so I want to have him around."
If Jerry wants to keep Garrett, fine. If he wants to fire him, that's cool too. But the dumbest thing Jerry could do is to base his decision on the Philadelphia game.
This decision must be devoid of the pride the owner eventually felt because the Cowboys nearly won a game most folks figured they'd lose by a couple of touchdowns.