The day after the divisional playoff round has become all too familiar for the Dallas Cowboys.
They cleaned out their lockers, put their gear in trash bags, and go home to ponder the future.
That was the scene at The Star on Sunday as the Cowboys saw their season come to an end with a 30-22 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday.
Just like in 1996, 2007, 2009, 2014 and 2016, Dallas couldn’t get over the divisional playoff hump.
But was this season a success?
The Cowboys have every right to feel good about what they accomplished in 2018, overcoming the adversity of a 3-5 start and rallying to win the NFC East and a wild-card playoff game.
They did all of that with the youngest team in the playoffs and the second youngest roster in the NFL.
“I’m incredibly proud of our football team,” coach Jason Garrett said. “You talk about mental toughness and physical toughness, they demonstrated that the whole year. A young football team that grew a lot over the course of 16 games and a couple of games in the playoffs. I think we learned from our experiences. I think we grew. I think we became a more hardened football team. I think a lot of young guys grew up and they grew up together and those are really positive things that we can build on. The Rams were a better team than we were. They were.
“I don’t question our effort, our toughness, our fight. Those guys put it all out there and it inspires me. love the group of guys we have. They care about each other, they love each other, they love this game, they go about it the right way, all things that we can build on for the future.”
No one questions the fight in the Cowboys, who not only rallied from a 3-5 start but also from a 23-7 deficit against the Rams to get within a third-down conversion on the final two minutes to getting the ball back to possibly tie the game.
One thing that can be said about a Cowboys team under Garrett is that they don’t quit.
“I’m very proud of this team, we dealt with a lot of adversity this season,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “I think we did a great job handling it starting out 3-5. Nobody really thought that we would be here. Came back and won eight out of nine games. You know, we came up short, but I’m proud of these guys. We fought all season, we fought until that clock hit zero I am just proud of this team.”
Dak Prescott echoed what Elliott said.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s hard to right now at this moment,” he said. “It’s been a great season, obviously. All the ups, all the downs, the team that we had that were 3-5, and being counted out by everyone. But, ‘backs against the wall’ mentality, the way we were able to fight, just to get to where we are right now. It’s inspiring and incredible, all the men on this team. I’m proud of this team. But anytime you lose, especially when you know the team that we have and as close as we felt we were, it’s not a good feeling.”
Questions still remain about whether they have truly built a foundation for the future or will they take a step back like so many times in the past.
This was actually the third time since 2014 under Garrett that the Cowboys lost in the divisional playoffs.
The last two times they didn’t make the playoffs the following season. They finished 4-12 in 2015 and 9-7 in 2017. The case was the same in 2008 and 2010 as well.
It certainly won’t get easier in 2019 as the Cowboys will play a first-place schedule as winners of the NFC East in what appears to be an arduous slate. In addition to their normal division foes, they have road games against the Saints, Patriots and Bears and home games against the Rams, Packers and Vikings.
That’s why making the most of the opportunity in front of them in 2018 was so important and so disappointing.
“It was just as difficult as I remember,” defensive end Tyrone Crawford said. “I’ve been here before. We didn’t get it done. We should’ve played a lot better. We didn’t and it’s unfortunate.”
Prescott vows to improve for next season to get the Cowboys back to this point and hopefully beyond in 2017.
But he knows this was a missed opportunity.
“Yeah, as I just said, we had a good team,” Prescott said. “And when you know you have a good team like this and you feel so confident about the team you have, the defense that we have. Yeah, definitely, as simple as that, we missed an opportunity and you don’t know when you’ll get them back.”