Let’s pretend we live in a world where it’s nobody’s fault.
No potshots posted on social media. No incessant jawing on talk radio. No rants from the media.
You get the idea, the blame game is totally off-limits, the court of public opinion closed.
Let’s imagine a time and a place where absolutely no one is asking the question: “When is Jerry Jones going to fire Jones?” — referring, of course, to that age-old juxtaposition of résumé achievements by the Cowboys owner and Cowboys general manager who happen to be one in the same since 1989.
What if the Joey Galloway trade of 2000 (for two first-round draft choices) never happened? Or the Quincy Carter draft pick of 2001? Or the Roy Williams (wide receiver) trade of 2008?
What if the 2008 Marion Barber contract — seven years, $45 million, $16 million guaranteed — never happened? Or losing to a second-year expansion team from Carolina in the ’96 playoffs? Or being beaten at home in the ’98 playoffs by, of all teams, the Arizona Cardinals?
What if Dez Bryant’s touchdown-catch-turned-non-catch really did count last January in that division-round loss to Green Bay?
It has been a long couple of decades for Cowboys loyalists, who have had to live with heartache and misery for 19 consecutive non-Super Bowl seasons. The void has produced an entire “Lost Generation” of Cowboys fans who have known nothing but coming up short in the playoffs or falling short of the playoffs altogether.
Yes, what if? What if there were no memories of Alonzo Spellman, Carter, Ryan Leaf, Troy Hambrick, Antonio Bryant, Pacman Jones or the interminable drama of Terrell Owens?
What if Randy Moss actually was drafted at No. 8 by Dallas in 1998 (instead of No. 21 by Minnesota) and, by doing so, Jones spared his team of ever having Moss exact his vengeance on those who snubbed him?
What if Tony Romo never went to Los Cabos, Mexico, with Jessica Simpson before the NFC divisional-round game against the New York Giants in January 2008? Or never mishandled a chip-shot field goal snap at the end of a winnable playoff game one year earlier at Seattle?
That last “what if” drove Hall of Famer Bill Parcells into retirement for good.
Lest we forget that the Cowboys have appeared in a record-tying eight Super Bowls, winning five of them, including three in four years during the first half of the ’90s.
But the long-suffering fan base of this storied franchise has been twisting in the wind in terms of Super Bowl appearances since January 1996. That’s the last time America’s Team suited up for America’s biggest sports party day.
Only four NFC teams have failed to reach a Super Bowl since the Cowboys won SB XXX in Tempe, Ariz. The others are Detroit, Minnesota and Washington.
To fully understand how the Cowboys lost their place in line as Super Bowl contenders, you must return to Valley Ranch for back-to-back news conferences on March 29-30, 1994.
First, Jimmy Johnson met with Jones to announce their mutual parting of the ways. The next day, Barry Switzer, winner of three national championships (’74, ’75, ’85) and 13 bowl appearances in 16 years at Oklahoma, was introduced as the next coach of the Cowboys.
Was Switzer the right man to follow Johnson? In the Bizarro World, he was perfect.
“We got a job to do, and we’re going to do it, Bay-BEEEE!” said Switzer, while seated shoulder-to-shoulder with Jones during one of the most bizarre news conferences in league history.
Critics had a field day when the mood around Valley Ranch morphed from coroner’s office to three-ring circus in a matter of 24 hours.
Although the ’95 Cowboys under Switzer won a Super Bowl, players from that Super Bowl decade believe they could have won three, maybe even four, in a row. Troy Aikman and others felt the ’94 team was perhaps the best of the bunch.
Except that there would be no hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the ’94 season. San Francisco would take those honors. Dallas instead was handed a 10-point NFC title game loss at Candlestick Park.
Was Barry Switzer merely a caretaker of Jimmy Johnson’s team? That was the consensus when the ’95 Cowboys played on Super Sunday, Jan. 28, 1996, and defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-17.
Yet, every time it came up, Switzer stood his ground: Barry won a Super Bowl with Jimmy Johnson’s players and Jimmy Johnson’s coaches.
“Well, I could’ve lost with ’em, too,” Switzer quipped.
The ’96 Cowboys media guide featured a handsome cover, although absent of player photos or action shots of The Triplets. Only diamonds, silver and gold.
Five Super Bowl rings were neatly arranged on a dark background to mark the five Cowboys’ Super Bowls won by Landry (two), Johnson (two) and now Switzer. At this stage, Jones owned the team seven years and already had three Super Bowl rings.
Perhaps, many from the Lost Generation have read about this.
And how did the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys keep the ball rolling? They didn’t. The aforementioned divisional-round playoff loss to second-year expansion Carolina in ’96 was followed by a 6-10 season in ’97.
Switzer was sent packing when his ’97 team mailed it in by losing its last five games of the season.
The ’98 Cowboys rebounded under rookie NFL coach Chan Gailey to go 10-6, but suffered a devastating home playoff loss in the first round to Arizona, 20-7. These were the same desert dwellers who lost 16 of 17 previous meetings with Dallas.
The hole in the roof at Texas Stadium had company. Now the sky was falling.
The ’99 Cowboys returned to the playoffs but lost Michael Irvin and Daryl Johnston along the way. Both retired at the end of the season because of spinal issues. Gailey was fired.
Next came a promotional duel between popular Cowboys assistants for the head-coaching vacancy. Dave Campo beat out Joe Avezzano. But Aikman was dealing with chronic back pain and would suffer four concussions in his final two seasons (1999 and 2000) before being waived and then retiring.
Yes, what if? What if there was no trace of those Campo Years (5-11, 5-11, 5-11 from 2000 through 2002) or the break-up of The Triplets? Or the overpriced Galloway trade? In fairness to Campo, he was stuck with some of the weakest talent in franchise history. And he was fired.
The hiring of experienced head coaches — Parcells and Wade Phillips in 2003 and 2007, respectively — began to turn things around. The Cowboys made it into the postseason four of the next seven years. However, those teams of Parcells and Phillips combined for only a 1-4 playoff record.
Draft days have played a significant role in the team’s Super Bowl drought. Once Johnson was gone from Valley Ranch, the war room produced more confusion than conquests, more misses than hits. Few felt this was coincidence.
Beginning with the ’94 draft, the Cowboys’ top choice each of the next eight years — Shante Carver, Sherman Williams, Kavika Pittman, David LaFleur, Greg Ellis, Ebenezer Ekuban, Dwayne Goodrich and Quincy Carter — began and/or ended their careers as questionable picks.
Ellis, easily the most productive of the group, was seen as the “safe pick” at a time when Jones was careful not to draft “bad character” after being burned numerous times. Although Ellis was a locker room leader and a solid defensive end during his 11 seasons with the Cowboys, the team was 0-5 in playoff games from 1998 through 2008.
Jones passed in the ’98 draft on Moss, who made Dallas pay several times, including his rookie season when he caught touchdown passes of 51, 56 and 56 yards en route to a 46-36 Vikings win on Thanksgiving Day. Moss is eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
Neither trading up nor trading down (equally favorite pastimes of Jerry Jones) helped much in the cases of Carver, Pittman, LaFleur, Carter, Julius Jones and Felix Jones. Nothing screamed “regrettable pick” quite like Carter.
As the third quarterback taken in the 2001 draft after Michael Vick and Drew Brees, Carter’s fall from grace was hard to watch.
The Parcells drafts (2003-06) and personnel moves showed marked improvement, i.e., Jason Witten, a third-round pick in ’03; DeMarcus Ware, a first-round pick in ’05, and Tony Romo, an undrafted free agent in ’03, to name just three.
In 2010, the Dez Bryant-Sean Lee draft was celebrated. But it also led to another coaching change at midseason. Phillips was fired. Jason Garrett was promoted. To evaluate recent Cowboys drafts, check out the offensive line.
Emmitt Smith set the NFL’s all-time rushing record in ’02 and was immediately deemed dispensable by Parcells. A dirge of eight consecutive seasons followed before the team could find a worthy replacement — DeMarco Murray. Remember him?
The same theme was occurring at quarterback. Between Aikman and Romo, the team’s QB needs were met with minimal help through the draft, poor judgments in the free-agent market and a lot of pipe dreams gone bad.
None conjured up memories of Meredith, Staubach or Aikman. The list included Anthony Wright (2000-01), Clint Stoerner (2000-02), Tony Banks (preseason ’01), Carter (2001-03), Leaf (2001), Chad Hutchinson (’02-03), Vinny Testaverde (2004), Drew Henson (’04-05) and Drew Bledsoe (’05-06).
Banks, certainly the most abrupt QB casualty of all, was brought in as a 2001 free agent to replace the retired Aikman. But lack of off-season face time at Valley Ranch by the former Rams and Ravens starter chapped Jones. Banks was booted to the curb after two preseason games and one controversial move-in date at his new Westlake home.
Desperation set in. The irascible Leaf appeared in four November games that same season, all losses for the Cowboys, three of them as a starter.
The QB carousel was only part of the problem as the Cowboys began Y2K by missing the playoffs five times in six years. The lone achievers were the ’03 team, prompting Parcells to make his emotional postgame proclamation after the team’s eighth victory of the season over Carolina.
“You can’t call them losers anymore,” Parcells said of his players. The ’03 Cowboys went on to win 10 games but lost to the same Panthers in the first round of the playoffs, 29-10.
Team all-time leading tackler Darren Woodson, the last player standing at Valley Ranch with three Super Bowls from the ’90s, failed to rebound from July 2004 back surgery — and retired. He goes into the Ring of Honor on Nov. 1.
Quarterback instability continued when former top pick Carter was released six days into ’04 training camp, the result of a failed drug test for marijuana. He was replaced by 41-year-old Testaverde. The team ended up 6-10.
With Parcells gone and new-hire Phillips blamed for being too soft, the No-Leaders Era at Valley Ranch began. This was what was wrong with the Cowboys. Still, the ’07 team went 13-3 with a divisional-round loss to the Giants (read: Cabo weekend) and the ’09 team went 11-5, with a wild-card win over the Eagles and a divisional-round loss to the Vikings.
Most of these teams were notorious for struggling mightily in December. The 2010 Cowboys (coming off an 11-5) turned that around by starting out 1-7.
This prompted Jones to fire Phillips and replace him with Garrett, who kept his job through a string of 8-8 seasons. The breakthrough came in 2014. Dallas went 12-4, including a 4-0 December, and a playoff win over Detroit before losing at Green Bay.
Nothing is guaranteed from one season to the next. The Cowboys know that.
Dry hole after dry hole, this franchise has kept drilling for the past 19 years, eight months with a mixed bag of results by a variety of coaches. Count ’em. There now have been six successors to the Jimmy Johnson throne.
Jerry Jones’ passion to bring another winner to Cowboys fans is well-documented. So is his team’s inexplicable postseason record since the ’95 campaign: Eight playoff appearances, three playoff game victories, no returns to the Super Bowl.
The 2015 team is supposed to be different. More focus, more swagger, fewer holes on both sides of the ball than a year ago.
But Cowboys fans are approaching 20 trips around the sun without a whiff of the Super Bowl, unless you count the one that Jerry Jones hosted in February 2011.
Didn’t think so.