The NFL’s version of the Final Four will take place this weekend for an 18th consecutive season without the Dallas Cowboys.After playing in the conference-title-game weekend for four consecutive years from 1992-1995 — winning three Super Bowls in the process — the Cowboys haven’t come close to a return.But none of this is news, considering the Cowboys have only two playoff wins since their last Super Bowl title in 1995 and just one since 1996.And never mind what owner Jerry Jones has said in his repeated attempts to justify the Cowboys’ current state of mediocrity. Having a chance to make the playoffs by losing a winner-take-all game for the NFC East title and the postseason on the last day of the regular season in each of the past three years is not coming close.The facts are that the Cowboys are closer to the worst of the NFL than they are to the best.Yes, in a few given Sundays over the past few years the Cowboys have played toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best teams. But the goal is not to be competitive; the goal is to win.The Cowboys have a 3-23 mark against teams with a .500 or better record the past three years, when they were on the brink of the playoffs (and supposedly a possible Super Bowl run) on the final day of the regular season. They were 1-8 in such games in 2013.To be a good team, you have to beat good teams. That they have failed is the reason the Cowboys have been 8-8 and on the outside looking in each of the past three years.So what will it take for the Cowboys to be good again?That’s a loaded question as long as Jones remains hell-bent on continuing to do things his way.But you can rule out Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman returning to the franchise and taking over in the front office as a solution — similar to the Denver Broncos, who hired team legend John Elway and are one win away from the Super Bowl.Aikman closed the door on that scenario during a radio interview on the KTCK/1310 AM this week.Aikman, who has worked for Fox since his retirement in 2000 and has become one of the league’s top game analysts, admitted possibly having interest in moving into a front-office role one day.But he knows it could never happen in Dallas with Jones still in control of socks to jocks.“Right now, I’m happy doing what I’m doing,” Aikman said on the radio. “At some point in time, would I entertain the idea of intentionally getting involved with an organization? Yeah, I think that would excite me to some degree. Where that may take place, who knows? But, the structure in Dallas is pretty much set. I don’t anticipate anything like that would happen within the Cowboy organization.”The Cowboys structure is that the big jobs will always remain within the family, and as great as Aikman was, his last name isn’t and will never be Jones.Even more damning and seemingly more depressing were Aikman’s thoughts on the team’s philosophy and core belief system, or the lack thereof, compared to the consistently good teams that he has observed around the league.“I think the teams that have success, year in and year out, they really do have a strategy and a belief in a philosophy as to how they do that,” Aikman said. “And I do feel that, in Dallas, that has been lacking. There hasn’t been a ‘hey, this is what we’re about, this is what we’ll build on.’ “Even when you look at the head coaches that have been hired over the years. I think that when you look at, let’s just say Pittsburgh for instance, it’s had the same ownership for all these years. They hire young, defensive-minded coaches, and they say, ‘we’re going to hang our hat on being a defensive football team and that’s what we’re built on.’“In Dallas, it kind of moves around. It’s like a moving target. And I do think you’ve got to have some core beliefs on how you win. And other organizations that I’ve seen that consistently do have success. They do have those core beliefs. And I haven’t seen that consistently with the Cowboys for quite some time.”The Cowboys have been lacking in those areas since Aikman’s heyday, when they won three Super Bowl titles in four years. And while we are on the subject of blasts from the past, consider what the Cowboys could learn from the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers — the two teams in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. The foundation of their success is based on a running game and a strong defense, which is interesting, since those were big keys to the Cowboys’ Super Bowl titles in the 1990s.Seattle and San Francisco ranked first and fifth in the league in total defense, respectively. The 49ers have the third-best running game and the Seahawks are fourth.Meanwhile, the Cowboys have set team records in each of the past two seasons for defensive futility, including the league’s worst unit this season. And while the Cowboys improved on a league-worst and franchise-worst rushing attack in 2012, up to 24th this season, their decidedly pass-happy ways continued to cost them wins.Green Bay, anyone?If the Cowboys are not going to copy Denver and get Aikman back in the fold to help turn the franchise around, they can at least copy the Seahawks and 49ers and get back to running the ball and playing defense.Either that or watch the drought continue.
Clarence E. Hill Jr. 817-390-7760 Twitter: @clarencehilljr