FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Once upon a time, the Dallas Cowboys were the envy of the NFL.
Not only were they the most popular as America's Team, but they were considered the league's model franchise, one worth emulating by all the rest.
But no more.
Those times are gone.
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When the Cowboys (2-2) take on the New England Patriots (4-1) today, they will be the ones looking across the field with an envious eye.
An ideal scenario would have the game billed as a showdown between the team of the decade of the 1990s and the team of the decade of the 2000s.
Instead, it's more like an old, deposed king trying to get back in the door of the castle by tugging on the robe of the reigning monarch.
"It's a marquee franchise," coach Jason Garrett said. "They've won consistently, and anytime you have a franchise like that in your league you'd be foolish not to look at what they're doing and how they're doing it. I think that's what teams have done and that's what we've certainly tried to do."
A Cowboys franchise with a record-tying 14 playoff wins in the 1970s became a dynasty again in the 1990s with three Super Bowl titles in 1992, 1993 and 1995. They have struggled since then, with just two playoff wins, including only one since the start of the 2000 season while recording a middling overall record of 90-90.
The Patriots have reigned supreme ever since matching the Cowboys with three Super Bowl titles in four years --2001, 2003 and 2004. They have also sustained their success. Their 144 total wins since the 2000 season start, including playoffs, are more than any other team, as are their four Super Bowl appearances, eight division titles and 14 playoff wins.
"They're really good every year and they have really good payers," Garrett said. "The way they do things is the right way and certainly a franchise to be emulated."
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story because of his respect and admiration for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
While Jones admits being a little envious of the Patriots because of their success, he sees some similarities in how the two teams rose to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s.
Jones' examples included new ownership bringing new life to a wavering franchise, strong coaching and excellence at quarterback
"Bob bought the old stadium and created a good foundation to build off of in New England," Jones said. "Before Bob took over, the [league] owners looked at maybe buying the franchise.
"The Cowboys had fallen on hard times before I got here. Then we got the foundation of the team and added some top players.
"Bob has an outstanding coach in Bill Belichick. I had outstanding coaches in Jimmy Johnson and [Barry Switzer].
"You have to have a top quarterback. We were fortunate to have that in [Troy] Aikman. They have that in [Tom] Brady. When you get a top quarterback, you can put a top supporting cast around him and keep it there."
Although Aikman might quibble with the inclusion of Switzer among the top coaching models of Johnson and Belichick, he agrees with Jones about the parallels of how the dynasties were built. He was Jones' first draft pick after Jones bought the team in 1989, starting a Hall of Fame career that saw the Cowboys rise to prominence and then fall into mediocrity even before he left following the 2000 season.
"I think the model they are operating on is similar to the model we were operating on when I first came to Dallas," Aikman said. "They've got a great owner. They've got a head coach who demands a lot. There is no question who is making the decisions there. They draft good players. They make good decisions on their veterans. And they have one of the top quarterbacks in the league. The other points are very consistent to the way we once did things."
The Cowboys have been anything but consistent to that model since they won their last title in the 1995 season. The final four years of the decade included two coaches and a 34-30 record and just one playoff win.
It has been an even bigger revolving door since 2000 when Aikman left. They Cowboys have had four coaches and at least six starting quarterbacks.
"You've got to have consistency and continuity at quarterback," Jones said. "We did not have that for several years and paid the price."
Although the Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season, they have not seen slippage in their status as a Super Bowl contender because of the stability provided at the top by Belichick and Brady.
No coach and quarterback have won more games than those two since 2000.
"They've just done a great job," Garrett said. "And certainly it starts with coach Belichick and the program he's put together and how he's been able to maintain such a consistent program. He's been a guy that all coaches around this league have studied over the last 10 or so years."
Aikman has tremendous respect for Belichick because of his coaching, drafting, decision-making and commitment to the game.
But Aikman doesn't know who benefits more: Belichick having a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Brady, or Brady having a future Hall of Fame coach in Belichick.
Combined they are the key to Patriots' sustained success, Aikman said.
"They haven't won the Super Bowl every year," Aikman said. "But they have been a contender. Every organization would love to have their success."
While he has respect for Belichick, it's the Brady part of the equation that has Jones most "envious."
He remembers vividly the Cowboys' major struggles after Aikman's departure and before the emergence of Tony Romo. It's why Jones won't give up on Romo despite a résumé dotted with heartbreaking mistakes to go along with tantalizing success.
"I feel good about what we have in Romo and being able to compete," Jones said. "I would be a lot more envious of the Patriots if we didn't have Romo."
Jones said he is not comparing Romo's play to that of Brady. He values the importance of continuity at the position, and that's why he believes Romo gives them the best chance to get back to the Patriots' level.
"Romo's talent and the continuity we have in our offense give us a chance to be a contending team," Jones said. "That is the common denominator."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.