This is how far the once-proud Dallas Cowboys have fallen.
Owner Jerry Jones stood in the middle of the locker room Sunday after his team’s 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos beaming with pride over what he called a moral victory.
Never mind that the Cowboys blew leads of 14-0 in the first quarter and 48-41 in the fourth quarter while watching quarterback Peyton Manning carve up the defense with 414 yards passing and four touchdowns. The 16-year veteran also ran for a score as the Broncos moved to 5-0 on the season.
Never mind that quarterback Tony Romo wasted a career-best performance in which he outplayed Manning for much of the day with a team-record 506 yards passing and five touchdowns, only to tarnish it with an interception with 1:57 left to set up the 28-yard, game-winning field goal by Matt Prater with no time left on the clock.
The Cowboys (2-3) dropped under .500 for the first time since last season and are tied with the Philadelphia Eagles atop the hapless NFC East.
All Jones is concerned with is that the Cowboys found something to build on.
“I know what’s going to happen to me when I say this, but that’s a good team,” Jones said. “This is a moral victory. It’s not a loser talking here. We can build off this. I feel as good as you could possibly feel at 2-3. We are going to win enough games to get where we want to be.”
That’s a long way from the three Super Bowl title teams of the 1990s, but it is the reality of an organization that is 18-19 since the start of the 2011 season and 130-131 in 261 games with just one playoff win since the start of the 1997 season.
The Cowboys went all in to put a winner on the field in 2013 during the off-season after a second consecutive 8-8 season in 2012.
Jones said he saw the seeds of it paying off in the shootout with the Broncos, especially when it comes to Romo and the offense.
It was the highest-scoring game that the Cowboys have been a part of and the fourth highest non-overtime game in NFL history. The 51 points were the third most allowed in franchise history, and the defense gave up more than 500 yards for the second consecutive week and is on pace to set team records in yards allowed.
The Cowboys knew they would be challenged to stop Manning, who is off to the best start of any quarterback in NFL history with 20 touchdown passes and just one interception through five games.
Romo went throw for throw and score for score with Manning for much of the day until the interception.
After Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno scored on a 1-yard run to tie the game 48-48, Romo got the ball back with a chance to lead the Cowboys to victory at the 2:39 mark of the fourth quarter.
A sack on first down was followed by Romo’s forcing a pass to rookie tight end Gavin Escobar, only to see Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan make a diving interception.
“The kid made a good play,” Romo said. “I didn’t put it exactly where I needed to to complete the pass. And it’s frustrating and disappointing.”
The play seems to fit the narrative that Romo and the Cowboys are at their worst in big moments
It’s something Romo has had to deal with his entire career. Romo’s teammates believe it was only one flaw on what was his greatest game when he surpassed Don Meredith’s single-game team passing record of 460 set in 1963.
“He made a lot of things happen today that kept us in the game,” tight end Jason Witten said. “It was probably the best game of his career. The way he played and took his shots and bought time. I thought he played really well. Nobody hurts more than him. Nobody wants it more than him.”
Romo completed passes to eight receivers. Witten caughtt seven passes for 121 yards and a touchdown. Dez Bryant caught six passes for 141 yards and two scores. Rookie receiver Terrance Williams had four catches for 151 yards, including an 82-yard score. Cole Beasley had four catches and his first career touchdown.
Romo didn’t beat Manning, but he lived up to Jones’ off-season charge of giving him Manning-like input on Sunday. Jones said it will pay dividends going forward.
“I see the fundamentals of what our plans were when we were in the off-season and Romo was going to take more responsibility,” Jones said. “If he plays like that, we are going to have a heck of a year and will be knocking on the door. We will beat most teams if we play like that.”
That the Cowboys rallied from a 35-20 third-quarter deficit with a 28-6 run to take the lead 48-41 showed this team has the talent and the competitiveness to build on, per coach Jason Garrett.
“It was just one those games where every series is so critical,” Garett said. “It went back and forth. You have to keep pace. I thought Tony was brilliant. Unfortunately, it didn’t end the right way. But I do think we demonstrated the mental toughness that great teams have and we have to build on that.”
Moral victories go against the Cowboys’ proud history. But it might be what they need in the present to get over their .500 malaise of the past decade. Time will tell. Jones certainly believes so.