IRVING -- Dallas Cowboys players packed their belongings in trash bags, boxes and even suitcases. They removed shoes, T-shirts, game balls and toiletries from their lockers in the quiet of Valley Ranch.
They met with their position coaches and head coach Jason Garrett. Then, they called it a season.
"We're feeling a little bit of it all -- anger, disappointment, sad[ness]," Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant said Monday. "A lot of us are feeling like, 'Why us?' Things happen. Things happen for a reason. All we've got to do is get better and learn from it."
It was an Unhappy New Year for the Cowboys.
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The Cowboys welcomed in 2012 with a 31-14 loss to the New York Giants in a winner-take-all affair. It was a sudden end to a once-promising season as Dallas went 8-8 and came up a game short of a playoff berth.
The Cowboys were 2-4 in the NFC East, getting swept by both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Giants. They beat only one team with a winning record -- the San Francisco 49ers -- and went 1-4 against teams that made the postseason, including two losses to the Giants. And their opponents had a combined record of 99-109, a winning percentage of .476.
Yet, the Cowboys could see the postseason from their front porch.
"We had a great opportunity, if we won that ballgame, to be NFC East champs," Garrett said. "We didn't get that done. There's no excuse for that.... That's our initial goal -- to win our division and hopefully be able to put ourselves in position to host a playoff game, win a playoff game and take the next step. Hopefully, we can build on a lot of the positive steps this year that got us to that point and correct some of the negative things going forward."
Dallas began the season by parting ways with five veteran offensive players -- right tackle Marc Colombo, running back Marion Barber, center Andre Gurode, right guard Leonard Davis and receiver Roy Williams -- and welcoming a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan.
The Cowboys went through the growing pains that come with playing younger players and a new defensive system. They finished 11th in total offense, 14th in total defense, 15th in scoring offense and 16th in scoring defense.
"We said it right from the outset: We made some decisions in our organization where we moved on from some older players that probably would have given us maybe a better chance to win right now, because we wanted to take it in a different direction," Garrett said. "We did that for a lot of different reasons. We understood that. You heard me stand at this podium and say, 'There are going to be some growing pains with Tyron Smith, with some other [young] guys.' That's a part of the league. That's happening in 32 cities around this league. I'm not saying that's specific to us, but you just have to understand that situation. You make those moves, and you move forward."
The Cowboys have moved forward already, starting work on the 2012 season. Garrett wouldn't comment on possible staff changes, but some players walked out of the building for the last time.
The Cowboys have 20 players whose contracts expire, including tight end Martellus Bennett, backup quarterback Jon Kitna, linebacker Anthony Spencer, punter Mat McBriar and safety Abe Elam. Others, such as cornerback Terence Newman, could be cut.
They will draft 14th, with cornerback, offensive line and outside linebacker as positions of need.
The changes this off-season, they hope, will lead to a different time, next year.
"I think we are closer than people think," Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee said. "Do we need to get better? There's no doubt about it. Do we need to execute down the stretch and in two-minute and in a lot of situations? Yes. But when it comes to our confidence, I think we're on the right track."