By Ralph Vacchiano
They were so bolstered by their success in December and January one year ago, so emboldened by the idea that they had finally gotten past their choke-filled recent history. When the Dallas Cowboys finally won a playoff game last January for the first time in 13 years, Jerry Jones was so sure his suffering was over that he stood in the middle of his team’s locker room and shouted “The demons are gone!”
Well, maybe they were. But they’re back. And the Cowboys’ train towards playing Super Bowl XLV in their own stadium may have gotten an early, self-inflicted derailment.
It was so stunning, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine this happening to anyone but the Cowboys — the team that once blew a playoff game when Tony Romo bobbled the snap on a game-winning 19-yard field goal. This may have been the season opener, not a playoff game, but the pain was just as bad.
It all started to unravel for the Cowboys on Sunday night when they were trailing the Washington Redskins 3–0, sitting at their own 36-yard line with time for one more play before the half. With 64 yards between them and the end zone and no time to get into field goal range, even the most casual football fan knows the only choice is to take a knee.
But Wade Phillips, the Cowboys’ always embattled coach, and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett would have none of that. They called for a “Hail Mary” pass, which was risky enough, but for some reason Romo decided to throw a short pass to running back Tashard Choice.
Then DeAngelo Hall, the Redskins’ quarterback, stripped him, recovered the fumble and returned it 37 yards for a game-changing touchdown that put Washington up 10–0 at halftime of a game they would go on to win 13–7.
Yes, the Cowboys nearly won it anyway — the game-winning, 13-yard touchdown pass was nullified on the final play of the game by a holding penalty on tackle Alex Barron. But that was poetic justice considering their remarkably stupid call at the end of the first half.
“That’s my fault before the half,” Phillips sais. “We should’ve taken a knee.”
That’s noble that he’d take the blame for a colossally bad decision, and I’m sure the feeling inside Valley Ranch is that one lost game and one bad call doesn’t mean their season is over. The problem is that these are the Cowboys and it’s always something, isn’t it? Year in and year out they seem to have as much talent as any team in football.
But something always seems to go wrong.
For years, in fact, that was the law. That’s why “America’s Team” had gone without a playoff victory since 1996. It wasn’t that Jones wasn’t willing to spend on top players or a top coach. It was … well, “demons” was about as good an explanation as anything else.
Then last year they pounded the Philadelphia Eagles 34–14 in the first round. Sure, they were crushed by the Minnesota Vikings one week later. But the big picture was still bright. Before last year, they were 5–8 in December under Romo. And things looked dire when they started last December 0–2.
But then they shocked the Saints in New Orleans and posted back-to-back shutouts over Washington and Philly before knocking off the Eagles in the playoffs, too. That’s a 4–0 stretch in the most important part of the season. They made smart calls, played well and did everything right. The demons, indeed, looked gone.
Then, as Jones saw on Sunday, those demons made an unexpected and unwanted return to the Cowboys’ locker room — though Jones, diplomatically, wasn’t fingering anyone with the blame.
“Everybody had a hand in some mistakes that kept us from winning this game,” Jones said. “I hate this for our fans. We know that the road to success in this thing has ups and downs, but I am surprised.”
Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe this is just a blip on the Cowboys’ Super Bowl radar. Maybe they now have the toughness to overcome it. Maybe they have the character in the locker room that it won’t disintegrate into a circus like it has done in previous years. Maybe one loss, one demon really can’t define a team.
But history — at least the last decade or so — isn’t exactly on the Cowboys’ side. Those demons got pretty comfortable inside their heads in recent years. For one night, it appeared those demons were back.